Friday, May 11, 2012

Song of the Unsung

This natty fellow was both a student of Captain Walter Dyett at DuSable High School and an early member of the AACM. He has gigged around Chicago for decades without ever really receiving his due. A mystery. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Ellis

Multi-reed instrumentalist Jimmy Ellis is well known in Chicago for his sinewy post-bop alto playing, but he is largely unheard of everywhere else. Why is that? I don't know, but it could have something to do with the fact that he has never recorded (that I aware of). Why that is, I also don't know. I suppose the same thing could be said of Jodie Christian, though he's made numerous records as a sideman. Not Jimmy, though.

Jimmy Ellis today
I first met Jimmy when I worked with a jazz club producing concerts at Northwestern University in 1979. He'd been recommended as an excellent player and a very together leader, and he proved to be that and more. We arranged to present his quartet and another band in a concert at the university and, in order to promote the show, did an interview with him at his Hyde Park apartment that we later broadcast over the student radio station. Jimmy gave me a tape of his group playing at a local club so that we could mix in some music with the conversation. 

The concert was a big success, and Jimmy Ellis was quite as pleased as we were. He knew that we were into the AACM, so to celebrate he presented us with what he laughingly called an avant garde piece – a tape of himself improvising on soprano to the rhythms that his clothes dryer produced. I still have it somewhere – a hoot!

We didn't record the concert (that I can recall), but I did hold on to the quartet tape Jimmy gave me. I think you'll be interested to hear the unsung reed man from Chicago. His style is sparser than that of most Eastern boppers, more bluesy and vocal but with a kick to it. The tape only contains two tunes, so instead of posting them as a download I'll simply put in the players below. One piece is Dizzy's "Night in Tunisia" and the other I believe is "The Night Has a 1,000 Eyes." The performance could be from a date at the Bee Hive, probably from around 1974 or '75. Jimmy's on alto, and Al Jenkins is the pianist with Shante Hamilton on bass and Bill Yancy playing drums. 

By the way, shortly after the Northwestern concert Jimmy Ellis and his quartet played at my wedding – a very swinging affair!

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