Dizzy Gillespie
Don Ellis: Interview 1

Talking in Berlin

The American jazz trumpeter, drummer, composer and bandleader talks to Ron Simmons and Les Tomkins in two interviews from 1968.

Interview: 1968

Source: Jazz Professional 

Don Ellis: Interview 2

Don Ellis: Interview 1

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Just after I left college in the United States I went with what wasn’t exactly a jazz band, although we used to play a little bit there—the Glenn Miller/Ray McKinley orchestra.

And then I was drafted, and fortunately was shipped over to Germany to the 7th Army Band in Frankfurt, where I got my first real opportunity to play jazz full–time.

We had great musicians there, among them Leo Wright, Don Menza and Eddie Harris. It was a jazz band, well and truly, and what I did—I played first trumpet and all the jazz. I got to do everything, even wrote for the band, too, so it was the first chance I had to really get myself together; because before that I’d just played at school, and jam sessions and such like.

I hadn’t done all that much as far as anything public was concerned—just studied mostly.

I always studied classically’ had some very good teachers, too : for instance, in Boston I studied with John Coffey.

John’s probably got more students in name bands than any other teacher in the world. Practically every major symphony orchestra, or major jazz band has at least one guy who has studied with him.

I learned a lot of the practical aspects of music, however, by just studying privately. When I was in Boston—I was going to the Boston University—I would sneak over to the Berklee School and study with Herb Pomeroy there. Jaki Byard, the famous pianist, was in Boston at that time and had his own little school, too, and so I went over there and we’ worked together as well. I learned a lot from him as far as the practical aspects of playing jazz and writing went.

After leaving the army I played around with various bands for a while and finally wound up with Maynard Ferguson. I was on what I think was his best band. That was when Slide Hampton was with it. I got Wayne Shorter on the band. He had just given up music. He’d left the army and was very depressed and everything. He only stayed a short time, because Art Blakey heard him and grabbed him ! But we had Slide and Wayne and Joe Zawinul on piano, Frankie Dunlop on drums—it was a tremendous experience.

It was a real jazz band, because we just blew all night long and at least once a night I’d get a chance to stretch out. We had a thing called “Three More Foxes”, where three of the trumpet players used to swop choruses with Maynard. We were all playing pretty good jazz at the time, but Maynard himself was just playing fantastically.

It didn’t really make any difference how good our jazz was, because then he would go on and play something like his arrangement of “Tenderly”, which no other trumpet player in the world could do.

You should hear that one. He made a recording—one of his early recordings, He used to do it every night, and he goes up and plays around a double C and he holds it very loud, and takes a breath through his nose while he’s he’s still holding this double C—and then he comes down and finishes the phrase.

The funny thing is, he says that that’s the only note he can do this breathing trick on! So he used to do this and, as I said, he was never worried about us! But I wanted to do more as a soloist. Playing in a section in a big band, there’s only so far you can go—and I thought I’d gone as far as I could. So I decided to break off as a soloist. First I formed my own combos and we made several recordings for an independent company which unfortunately went broke, so the records were never released. We finally did make a couple of albums, one for Candid Records and one for Prestige, and then I decided to go back to school again and study some more.

I went out to Los Angeles and the University of California there and started working on a Master’s degree—and there a very important thing happened to me. I met an Indian musician called Hari Har Rao, a student of Ravi Shankar. I’d always been interested in different rhythms and had been experimenting around with them, but it wasn’t until I met him that I realised just how far one could go, and how complex these things could be. He was just a complete revelation.

We formed a group called the Hindustani–Jazz Sextet, which was the first time that Indian and jazz musicians had worked together on an extended basis—and tried to learn each other’s music. The group played a lot of concerts around Los Angeles and was very popular, but we never made any recordings. Funny thing about my big band is—I can get a lot more work now for twenty musicians than I ever could for those five ! I started out with the big band by calling up all the musicians I knew in Hollywood at that time (which wasn’t too many, because I hadn’t really been on the scene there) and we started rehearsing. And little by little the band started getting weeded out. There was no money in it and nobody thought it would ever be anything more than just a rehearsal band. They just came, and it was kicks to be doing something that was different from the other bands. As it turned out, we had a high percentage of schoolteachers, some students—some of the guys were still in high school when they first joined me. They were the most adaptable and flexible. Right now, the band I have has been together for over two years, with a few minor exceptions. As well as the students we have one lawyer, some guys who just work regular day jobs—a barber, for instance—some professional studio musicians and the schoolteachers. We’ve just taken our first vacation so that I could make the trip to Europe. Other than that we rehearse and play every Monday night and then do concerts and other things besides.

We’ve got two albums out and have just completed a third for Columbia , together with. a single which has just been released. We made our first record at the Monterey Jazz Festival the Summer before last. That was the first time the band had ever been heard by a large audience and it just caused a sensation. This led to our recordings and many other things.

Two things that seem to interest most people I meet—more than anything else—are my quarter–tone trumpet and the fact that I sometimes use an amplifier on the horn, This is how they came about: I’d long thought that the equal–tempered scale of twelve notes to the octave created a boundary in the field of musical expression.

So I became interested in quarter–tone music, and not necessarily just quarter–tones, but music with pitches other than those we’re used to hearing, say, on the piano. I figured that if I could get a quarter–tone trumpet built, then not only could I play twenty–four equal notes to the octave, but I could also, with a slight adjustment of my lip, get almost any interval that I would want.

I had the good fortune to be able to discuss this with Harry Partch, who is well known for his theories on music and the relationships of tones—that is, the different tunings. I think he has a 43–toned octave where he tunes everything in specific mathematical ratios and gets pure intervals that way. The first time I heard a pure scale—that is, an un–tempered scale—it was quite an experience, because it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before.

So I finally persuaded the Holton company to build me a quarter–tone trumpet. I told them what I wanted in it and they went ahead and designed it and built what I think is a beautiful horn. It has four valves, and the fourth valve enables me to lower any combination of the other three by exactly a quarter–tone.

I have two tuning slides for this trumpet, one of which has a small microphone attached and that enables me to amplify the trumpet. I do this for two reasons: number one, sometimes in certain halls where we play I amplify it for just the ability to be able to get heard over the three or four drummers I use. There’s a limit to how loud a man can play. In this case, then, I use the amplifier for sheer power. But I often use it just for echo effects. I set up a tape delay and then I’m able to play duets and quartets and things—with myself. On my new album, which should be released quite soon, we do a number called “Open Beauty”, which features quite a long cadenza using this technique.

As regards the future, if any, for my new ideas in music, all I can say is this: Just before I came over here we played a concert at a college and it was packed. The faculty told me that most of the students had never heard a big band in person before, and they gave us a standing ovation, whistling, screaming and everything.

It seems as if we’ve appeared on the scene at exactly the right moment because jazz, at least in the United Slates, is at its lowest ebb, I think—lower than it’s ever been. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where you can’t even call something jazz any more. My new album for Columbia isn’t going to be sold or marketed as jazz at all, just as regular music. Because now the kids look upon jazz as, I guess, when we were coming up we looked upon Dixieland or Ragtime. As something your parents did a few years ago, but which didn’t say anything to you . It didn’t matter how good the music was played or anything. Now the kids say the same thing: “Jazz? Well, it’s old–fashioned.” And they’re not interested in it.

As a matter of fact—I’m not that interested myself in the regular, old–time jazz or bebop that’s been around for twenty–five years now. I enjoy listening to early records. When I listen to any jazz at all it’s usually the earlier things from Ellington, and some of the best Teagarden, and people like that. Rather than to later things, because I don’t find most of the later things too interesting.

Anyway, I hope that the new rhythms will become a general part of the scene. To me, this is one of the most exciting things: I love to hear something swing—to have a good beat, but I think it’s got to be more than what’s been happening up to now—mostly four–four and a little bit of three–four. I would love to see the new metres come in, and new exciting complexities and things like that, put on top of the new metres. Playing and swinging in 9/ 8, 11/ 8.

17/ 8, 19/ 8 (or even in 85/ 8, which my band does ! ) is not difficult when you know how to count and feel these metres. It’s only a question of getting used to it. The band in Berlin, for example, after only two days rehearsing, played an hour–and–a–half TV show with me—perfectly, and all in 7/ 4! When I originally started this thing, I sort of had a crusade to see if I couldn’t start something that would filter down through the whole music scene in general. I’m delighted that it’s already happening. There’s a group in the States, called the Inner Sound Of The ID and they have an album out now, under the same title. I’d say more than half of this album is in 17/ 8. And this is a rock and roll group! With things like that happening, who can tell what the future might bring?    

Copyright © 1968, Ron Simmonds. All Rights Reserved.