Don Ellis: At Fillmore

Eclectic! Electric! Eccentric! These are some of the many adjectives used to describe the Don Ellis orchestra. Noted jazz critic Leonard Feather called him “the most innovative jazz musician of all time” and Downbeat magazine said he was “one of the greatest musicians of the 20th Century“.

Trumpet virtuoso Don Ellis was born in Los Angeles in 1934. After graduating from Boston University with a degree in composition and a stint in the Army (where he played alongside Eddie Harris, Don Menza, and pianist Cedar Walton), Ellis played in a number of big bands, including the Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, and Stan Kenton orchestras. He also recorded in small groups with George Russell, Jaki Byard, Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, and Ron Carter. He became involved in Third Stream music with composer Gunther Schuller and later began graduate studies in the Ethnomusicology department at UCLA, where he studied with Harihar Rao, a disciple of sitar master Ravi Shankar. He also appeared as a soloist with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, both on record and in one of Bernstein’s televised “Young People’s Concerts”.

Don Ellis created a true musical fusion of jazz, classical, rock, and world music (especially Indian and Bulgarian) elements to create one of the most original and outlandish big bands ever. The band dressed like 60’s hippies (tie-dyed shirts, bell bottoms, etc.), performed psychedelic shows featuring electrified instruments, used several bass players and drummers, and played in the most unusual time signatures to ever be found in jazz, such as 7/8, 9/4, 19/4, and even 33/16. He pioneered the use of octave pedals, ring modulators and echo devices on his trumpet and even had a custom-made 1/4 tone trumpet to play microtonal music on. After a series of increasingly successful albums, the Don Ellis Orchestra played 3 shows at the Fillmore West auditorium, opening for Quicksilver Messenger Service and Leon Russell, where is double album was recorded.  The opening cut, Final Analysis, featured Ellis’ electrophonic trumpet, Jay Graydon’s pioneering use of a talkbox, (later popularized by Peter Frampton) and had a number of Beethoven-styled false endings. One of the most sensational cuts was the band’s cover version of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” which began with a ring-modulated solo from Ellis with interjections from Graydon, featured a piccolo and tuba duet on the bridge, and then an echo-saturated trumpet spot, before finishing with the whole band. Other standout cuts include Hank Levy’s “Rock Odyssey,” alto saxophonist Fred Selden’s “The Magic Bus Ate My Doughnut,” the John Klemmer tenor sax feature “Excursion II” and the perennial crowd favorite from the band’s book, “Pussy Wiggle Stomp”. Don Ellis himself spent time learning the drum set so he could play in drum battles with the rest of the band’s percussionists.

“Jazz had to invent a new term when it came to Don Ellis.” – Maynard Ferguson

Don Ellis continued to explore new ways of playing jazz, including the use of the valve/slide Superbone and Firebird trumpet, designed by his former employer, Maynard Ferguson. He was nominated for several Grammy Awards (including for this album) and won for his music written for the film The French Connection, starring Gene Hackman. His later orchestras included a string section and vocal quartet, as well as unusual instruments for jazz, such as the oboe and French horn. After suffering a serious heart attack, he was ironically diagnosed with a condition where his heart beat in odd patterns. After this, he released two more albums, before suffering a fatal heart attack at the age of 44 in 1978. Today, his musical library and memorabilia are archived at UCLA. Although Ellis released many live albums throughout his career, he is best remembered for the incredible recording made at the Fillmore. (Buy it here.)

Suggested Viewing:

Electric Heart – The Don Ellis Story (Buy it here or watch the trailer.)

The Don Ellis Website: