Don Ellis: Interview 1
Don Ellis: Interview 2

Interview Two: Discusses his Orchestra

The American jazz trumpeter, drummer, composer and bandleader talks to Les Tomkins in 1968.

Interview: 1968

Source: Jazz Professional

Don Ellis: Interview 3

Don Ellis: Interview 2

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The line–up? I’ll start with the trumpets. We have Glenn Stewart, Stu Blomberg, John Rosenberg and Bob Harmon. Trombones are Ernie Carlsen, Glenn Ferriss and Don Switzer. On saxes we have Ira Shulman, Frank Strozier, Sam Falsone, John Klemmer and John McGruder. On piano, clavinet and electric piano it’s Pete Robinson; basses—Ray Neapolitan and Dave Parlatto; drums—Ralph Humphrey, Gene Strimling, and Lee Pistora on conga.

We’ve had several line–ups, actually. Sometimes I’ve used up to four basses and up to four drummers. The book is basically written for four drummers, so it can be played with three or four, and the bass section for two or three basses; it’s written so it’ll sound either way. For recordings we usually use the extra men, They’re all pretty young; occasionally we do have problems with the draft board. One of my star performers, Steve Bohannon, who was the original drummer with the band, recently was up for the draft. So he’s away for three or four years now.

But I’ve been very lucky finding replacements for guys. At first it was very difficult, because the time signatures and the things we were doing were so new. It would take a guy six months to learn how to do the thing.

Now, however, the young guys are coming along, and they’re learning very quickly.

In fact, I started a Youth Band in L. A.; this was made up of college and high school students. When the rehearsals began, I didn’t really expect too much to happen. Actually, it stemmed from Glenn Ferriss, who’s the solo trombone with the band. He was a student of mine about three years ago, when he was in junior high school; he developed right along as a very good soloist, Except that he couldn’t play too well in the section; the guys complained about this when I had him sub in the band a couple of times. So I said: “There must be a lot of guys like this.” Which led to the Youth Band’s formation; Glenn got the guys and he put it together. And the level of musicianship was so high that what I started doing then was using that as a farm team. The best guys in that band would play the same book; then, when I needed a substitute in my regular big band, instead of going into the studios and getting somebody that was very good but didn’t know anything about the book, I’d go into the Youth Band.

Just before we left on this tour, a lot of the older, more established guys didn’t want to leave town for one reason or another. And so I changed the band over almost 75 per cent, and brought up these guys from the Youth Band. Also I sent a11 over the country for different players; we got Sam Falsone from New York and John Klemmer from Chicago. I’m very happy with the way the band is now. I think we have the best band ever.

Sure, it took hard work. We rehearsed and worked in L. A. about a month before the start of the tour, to get things down; because for some of the guys it was brand new, But now musicians are getting used to doing the impossible more and more; so it wasn’t quite that difficult.

It takes more than just doing it constantly, though. It takes a certain mentality. The level of mentality in this band I know is the highest of any band that I’ve ever been on. I think the reason is that an intellectual approach to this is necessary. Most of the guys, no matter how young they are, have studied legitimately, It’s not like a cat who picked his horn up and just learned to blow. That type of musician doesn’t fit into this band too well, however brilliantly he might solo. There are so many intricate parts that you have to be a well–rounded musician.

They’re getting used to me now, too—the spur–of–the–moment way I operate. That created some difficulties at first. Because we change a lot of the arrangements around every time we play them. Some of them, naturally, are the same way every time; others are set up so that I have different hand signals and cues, and we can change the whole order of an arrangement if it suits the moment.

That makes it more interesting for me, anyway. I like to have that freedom to move.

Some big bands make the mistake . . . they just play one chart down, go on to the next one, with the same solos in the same sequence. But here, almost a11 the solos, with few exceptions, are open. The backgrounds are not set; all different things can happen right on the job. We can improvise.

Yes, the band seems to have a kind of youthful communication. It’s a funny thing: all of a sudden we were sort of adopted by the underground of the rock and youth movement on the West Coast, became their heroes and started playing at these psychedelic ballrooms. And we’ve been getting standing ovations there. It’s wild, because whereas you go into a jazz club, you may play for 200 people and that’s great, but when we go into these ballrooms, it’s around 2,000 people—and they’re all going mad about the band.

In fact, a very interesting thing has happened. We’ve played against some of the best and most popular rock groups, Electric Flag, the Peanut Butter Conspiracy, on down the line. And without fail we get a much more enthusiastic reception from the kids than the established rock groups are getting. This is not to say they don’t appreciate them, too, because they do, of course, and they’re wonderful groups. But it’s just that the kids go completely wild over us.

It’s not the loudness. The band sounds loud in here, and it is, but compared to some of the rock groups . . .

there was one group we played opposite; they came in, and they must have had 20 amplifiers. They were the loudest thing that I ever heard in, my life. As far as decibels go, they were really much louder than the band. But our thing isn’t so much volume, although we have that, too, as intensity , of having 20 guys hitting all at once. No matter how loud you are, you can’t get the same thing with three or four pieces.

The amplified instruments? That’s been, I guess, a couple of years now. As far as I know, we were the first people out on the West Coast to really get with this idea.

Tom Scott, who was a soloist with me a while back, came into the job once with an amplifier on the sax. Nobody’d ever seen one before. I was very impressed, and next thing I went: out and contacted various companies to see what could happen. Finally, we became amplified.

Now there’s another West Coast band, Bill Yage, a guy who used to play with Lawrence Welk, and in a completely different way—very commercial—he’s totally amplified. Actually, we don’t yet have the brass amplified, although they probably will be in the future.

The reason I was interested in it was not because of volume. Of course, with brass and reed instruments and things, you don’t need the volume. The only place where you really need it maybe is for a flute or something like that. What interested me was the sound aspect; it just gives you a whole spectrum of sounds. Then also it’s good for a soloist, because he can get up over the band with an amplifier, especially a reed player, and still be heard when the band is playing at full tilt. So it works well for him, too.

I have two interesting things that I use out front with my own trumpet. First of all, the unit with which, so they tell me, I can get up to 185 separate and distinct sounds. I never counted them, but it can get a lot of different sounds, and I make use of them; that gives me my octaves, and so forth. Then I have the echo device, giving me various effects. I can use a pre–recorded tape delayed by some means, allowing; me to play little canons and fugues with myself, building up a trumpet–section sound.

For the saxes we use a unit which give us the octaves, and hook ‘em into our amps.

Recently I outfitted my whole trumpet section with four–valve trumpets. And tomorrow night I think we’ll do a composition which is the first that I’ve had a chance to write utilising all quarter tones. Harmonies, melody—everything’s in quarter tones.

As for maintaining the electronic equipment, the band isn’t made up of skilled electricians. We have a couple of guys who can handle it. My bandboy now is getting more and more used to it, and he’s being a big help. But I find that I very often end up doing soldering and electrical work myself. Because you never know—especially travelling through Europe. We’re having trouble here, for instance, adjusting to the different current. Although we can play on any current with our amps; but there’s always something, the plug doesn’t fit or whatever.

Most of the writing is mine, but I also encourage other guys to write, too. There are several good writers on the band, and we have had in the past. But these sounds must be written for specially. Like, you can’t take a chart that wasn’t intended to be played with amps, and then add amps to it; it sounds terrible. You have to consider exactly what you’re doing. Usually, what I write is motivated by wanting to use all sorts of colours and. sounds. It’s fantastic, really; you keep getting new ideas all the time from these things. I don’t ever want to let it get stale, or stay where it is.

No one night’s performance is enough. We have so many things we want to play for the audience, but you just can’t do it all at once. You do part of it, and let them hear that part. The English people have just been marvellous. Very warm; none of that so–called English reserve, All. the guys love London, and we’d really .. like to do a full tour in this country.

Actually, this is our first extended lour. We did a week’s tour of the Cast Coast last year, and we’ve worked a week or two at a time in L. A. or San Francisco. But this is the first time that the band has toured non–stop for a month. We played at Antibes, then we did a concert in Holland, then Britain. We’ll be in Boston for a couple of days; after that we go to the big Summer Festival at Sanford University. Then we go back to the Kaleidoscope, where we’ll be recording live our third album for Columbia.

Influences? I’ve admired a lot of musicians, rather than leaders. Of course, I like Stan Kenton. I was, as we all were, very influenced by him. But also Duke and Basie, especially the early Basie with Lester Young. And Dizzy is, naturally a very big influence, I guess there is now some pop influence on the band’s music. Well, the pop groups have come up with a lot of real good ideas, and when I hear something good, I want to use it. So I do; it doesn’t bother me where it comes from. I’m only concerned with creating the best possible, music we can.

That we’ve got over to the public has been the amazing thing from the beginning. Because when we first started it was just a rehearsal band, you know, and we were trying things that people literally said weren’t possible to do. We put it into a club, and the immediate audience reaction was very strong. Even though, at firs(, there were sometimes more people in the band than there were in the audience. But the people that came kept coming back and coming back, and really liking it. In this way, we developed a hard core of followers, and that’s just kept growing and growing.

Surprisingly enough, it’s the most complex thing that anybody’s doing now, rhythmically and very often harmonically and melodically, It gets across, I think, maybe because it has the swing, the drive and the spirit behind it. That’s what people can appreciate, whether or not they know what else is happening.

Copyright © 1968, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.