Jazz guitar legend Herb Ellis has passed away. Perhaps best known for his many years with the Oscar Peterson Trio, Ellis was, for decades, a highly respected and influential voice in jazz.
Herb Ellis (1921) has said he heard the electric guitar for the first time played by George Barnes on a radio program. He was a teenager at the time living just outside Dallas, Texas. The experience of hearing George Barnes encouraged him to get his first guitar. By the time he reached North Texas State University a few years later he was an accomplished guitarist. At North Texas State Ellis majored in music, but because they did not have a guitar program he studied the string bass. While at North Texas State, Ellis met Jimmy Giuffre and he heard Charlie Christian for the first time -- two events that started him playing jazz.
Ellis was forced to drop out of college due to a lack of funds and he went on the road as the guitar player with a college band. He then joined Glen Gray's Casa Loma Band in 1943 and it was with Gray's band that he got his first recognition in the jazz magazines. After Gray's band, Ellis joined the Jimmy Dorsey band where he played some of his first recorded solos. Ellis appears on Perdido, J.D.'s Jump, JD's Boogie Woogie, Super Chief and Sunset Strip to name a few. Herb Ellis stayed with Jimmy Dorsey through 1946 and 1947 and he then formed The Soft Winds with Lou Carter and John Frigo two other Dorsey alumni. The Soft Winds, fashioned after the Nat King Cole Trio, stayed together until 1952. It was then that Herb Ellis joined the Oscar Peterson Trio (replacing Barney Kessel) forming one of the most memorable of all the piano, guitar, and bass trios.
Herb Ellis made many recordings with Peterson during the years they were together and he also began recording under his own name. A series of Herb Ellis LP's appeared during these years: Ellis In Wonderland, Ellis Meets Giuffre, Nothing But The Blues and Thank You, Charlie Christian. These recordings and the work he did with Peterson established Ellis as a major jazz guitar artist.
Ellis has recorded for a number of labels over the years including Dot, Epic, and in recent years, Justice. But the recordings that stand out are those from Verve in the 1950's and 1960's and Concord Jazz in the 1970's and 1980's. The Concord label recordings would be significant just for their number, but it is the quality of the playing that makes these and the Verve recordings some of the best examples of Ellis' guitar. His Concord recordings with Joe Pass and with the great guitars (Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd) have become modern classics. And, of course, Ellis continued to record at the end of the century. His Burnin CD was released on the Justice label late in 1998. That recording came almost sixty years after his first recordings with Glen Gray.
Like almost every guitarist who came up after 1940, Herb Ellis was influenced by Charlie Christian. But few can claim such a direct linage as Herb Ellis. It was after hearing Christian for the first time that Ellis says he got serious about jazz. In the liner notes for Softly ... But With That Feeling, Ellis tells Leonard Feather, "... the first time I heard Charlie Christian I thought he really wasn't so much, because I felt I could play faster than that. Then after a few more times it really hit me, and I realized that speed wasn't everything. I got quite emotional -- put my guitar away and said I'd never play again. But the next day I got it out and started to tried to play like Charlie."
And he did.
Herb Ellis certainly established his own voice and style of jazz guitar, but he has never strayed far from the voice of Charlie Christian. His tribute album, Thank you, Charlie Christian demonstrated how well Ellis learned his lessons from Christian. And, without exception whether playing straight ahead jazz or the blues, Ellis finds a way to sound very Christian like while displaying the unmistakable Ellis sound.