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The aging Texan is a major link between the parallel developments of jazz and blues, as well as one of the very first guitarists to go electric. Forty years of recordings include stints with saxophonists Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Ben Webster, as well as jazz diva Ella Fitzgerald. Most notably, though, was a five-year workout in the company of bassist Ray Brown and pianist Oscar Peterson--a group generally considered to be the hardest-swinging piano trio in the history of jazz. Oddly, Ellis readily attributes both his sound and success to the dreadful surroundings in which he was raised--memories that to this day he admits he can't shake.
"Farmersville, Texas, was a pretty bleak town with a population of about 2,000," Ellis recalls in a conversation from his home in Arkansas. "And it was even bleaker out where I grew up, four miles south. Very few houses, mostly a mile or half a mile apart. It was so lonesome that it affected the sound of my playing. Everything I play sounds like I'm doing the blues, no matter what it is."
A bored young Ellis picked up a harmonica when he was 3 years old and the banjo shortly afterward, finally settling down with a guitar someone left at the house. There was nothing else to do with his time but practice.
"Very early on, maybe when I was 8 years old, I knew I was going to be a guitarist, I knew I was going to be good, and that somehow I would become famous," recalls Ellis. "I've been truly blessed with the fact that it all happened.
"Growing up on the farm, we had very few records to learn from, and I can only remember one record that had a guitarist on it. Mostly, I listened to the radio and heard all different kinds of music."
He also mailed away for what he called "a few sad books with a few chords in them." The ambitious Ellis, way back in the Thirties, made the same mistake today's adolescent guitar thrashers make.
"I was playing millions of notes. And playing too much is the problem of most youth. When you're young, you think the more you play, the better the music is. "But when I went to North Texas State Teachers College, some of the other guys had records by Benny Goodman that featured Charlie Christian. He was playing less than me, and playing much better."
Christian, an Oklahoman, not only amplified his guitar to be heard in the loud jazz bands of his day, but also helped develop a seemingly effortless, bluesy swing style that allowed the guitar to solo like a saxophone rather than merely plunk away rhythmically in the background. Lead guitarists everywhere owe a debt to this most influential of all American jazz guitarists.
Ellis swears he went from hillbilly guitarist to jazz guitarist overnight, thanks to Christian. Christian died of tuberculosis in a sanitarium in 1942, about the same time Ellis joined Glen Gray's Casa Loma Orchestra. A few years with Jimmy Dorsey's famous big band followed.
"Barney Kessel and I were the earliest electric guitar players in the Charlie Christian mode," Ellis says proudly of his contribution to the Forties jazz scene.
Ellis later took Kessel's place in monster pianist Oscar Peterson's trio. Peterson's frequent tempo changes and key modulations made slobbering fools of lesser players--an ironic gig for a guitarist specializing in three-chord blues. Stints with Ella Fitzgerald and the rest followed, leading to some less-than-fond memories of some well-paying studio gigs.
"I'm telling you, I'm glad those days of studio work are over," says Ellis, speaking not only of his recording sessions but also of his time in the TV bands of Steve Allen, Joey Bishop and Merv Griffin. In 1984, Ellis told Guitar Player Magazine that "frequently you have people in charge that don't know half of what the guys in the band do. . . . All that is not worth one 12-bar chorus of the blues to me."
No one should mistakenly assume from the down-home mannerisms of Ellis that his style of blues is laid-back, front-porch hokum stuff; the guitarist has built on the simple form and turned it into a blazing display of dexterity and wit. Anyone listening to Ellis tear through Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From the Apple" might not immediately realize that the 90 mph composition is a blues tune. Ellis, like his mentor Charlie Christian, shows that regardless of the complexity of jazz, it continues to return to the lonesome, simple language of the blues.
Ellis himself has recently made a return of sorts to his own roots: After more than 30 albums with the conservative jazz label Concord Records, he has signed up with the much smaller Justice Records, straight out of Houston, Texas (and home also to Willie Nelson). The fiery "Scrapple From the Apple" is the opening cut of his last disc, Texas Swings. Ellis is not content here in merely playing jazz and blues, but chooses to emphasize Texas swing, a style of country music rooted in both jazz and blues. Cuts like "It Had to Be You" and "Rosetta" are permeated with the same Texas twang a young Ellis picked up from the radio. Fiddles and pedal steel everywhere sandwich his jazz playing, and sound much more natural than jazz fans might first expect. Even "America the Beautiful," with the assistance of Willie Nelson's guitar, becomes a bluesy tune that far transcends the cornball interpretation expected.
When asked to name a new jazz guitarist worth watching, Ellis offers a choice that maybe should not be so surprising.
"There are a lot of good young players," says Ellis, "and one of them is Clint Straw. He's with Merle Haggard. He plays great. Even though it's country, he plays jazz."
Haggard was greatly influenced by the Texas swing giant Bob Wills, and knows, like Ellis, how well the blues and jazz work in country music.
Ellis, who tours the country alone on most of his guitar gigs, has never been closer to his roots. And, no coincidence, his playing has never been better.
"You can drive out there to this day," Ellis told W. Royal Stokes in The Jazz Scene, "and look at that part of the country and you feel lonesome because it's just lonesome and desolate. I had bluesy, lonesome feelings all my life when I was a kid. At night I'd just sit out on the front porch and hear the harmonica playing in the distance and it would bring tears to my eyes. That feeling, some way, gets into my music. It must, because I feel certain emotions when I play blues.