Don Ellis: Interview 2
Don Ellis: Interview 3

Interview Three: Instrumentation

The American jazz trumpeter, drummer, composer and bandleader talks to John Killoch in 1977. 

Interview: 1977

Source: Jazz Professional 

Don Lanphere Interview 1

Don Ellis: Interview 3

Image Details

Interview date
Source
Reference number

Interview Transcription

What I did when I formed this orchestra was to look back and talk with some of my sidemen and find out what was, from the sideman’s standpoint, the most fun to play.

What type of instrumentation was the most fun. Then from my standpoint and the writers’ standpoint, which band was the most fun to write for. It was unanimous; everybody went for the “Tears Of Joy Band”, so–called because that was the first album to come out with this instrumentation. It was a very carefully thought–out instrumentation, which with 21 musicians gives you all the colours of a full symphony orchestra. So within the limitations of what could be done commercially speaking, and by that I mean to be able to take a band out on tour and work and so forth, we felt that we didn’t want to go much above 21 musicians. I’ve had up to 23 in the band but keeping it within the bounds of realism, 21 seems to be practical, and also the sound of the band seemed to be the most satisfying from both the playing and the writing standpoints. So it’s a conscious decision to develop this and add some new things with the percussion and mallet instruments, which we hadn’t really featured before.

I think today, at least in the United States—I don’t know how it is in England—every young musician coming up is very familiar with all odd time signatures and expects to be doing music that utilises them, In fact, I would say that in ninety–nine per cent of all the college and high–school situations they are playing music that uses odd time signatures. By the time that they get to a professional level of performance they have no problems’ so we can draw from anyone now. It’s just an accepted thing, whereas when we started out ten or twelve years ago people thought we were crazy.

I think this is more a growth and development on a theme. One of the new things—it’s not really new, but it’s being emphasised more —is a composition like “Future Feature”. I just had a call from Ed Shaughnessy this morning who heard the band last night and he wanted to get the subdivision of this particular composition. It’s in 4/ 4, but it isn’t divided like normal 4/ 4. It’s much more complicated than that and it takes 8 bars for it to finally come around. He thought that was a very exciting concept, because you are generating an inner feeling. Though the outward pulse is relatively simple, the thing that is happening inside is very complex—so this is another area of development. I think music had to go through a period where everyone had to learn how to play, say, for example, in 7/ 8 and, okay, now people can play in 7/ 8. Now you can go back to 4/ 4 and put the 7/ 8 inside the 4/ 4 if you want, or any other meter for that matter. So, once you break through the odd time signatures you can do more with them and make it somewhat simpler and sometimes more complex.

Art (Pepper) is a very broadminded person. I first became aware of that when we did a clinic. Art just reminded me of that last night—it was somewhere in Oklahoma, and we became acquainted there. I had admired his work for years, but I hadn’t ever really been able to know him personally. We started talking and he told me how excited he was by the things I was doing. In this clinic we played a composition of mine that was in an odd time signature and Art wanted to do some soloing on it. He did it beautifully; so I said: “Why don’t you play with us some time” and he said: “I’d love to do that”. He actually started playing with me before this band. There was another band Glenn Stuart had going while I was ill, and Art had come in with that and done some work with that band. When I formed the new orchestra, I asked Art if he wanted to be a part of it. He’s one of the great legends of jazz, one of the great soloists, One of the things I like about his soloing particularly is that he can play one note and make you cry. You have a lot of young Turks who will come on and play a million notes and everybody will go ho–hum, you know. Art has that ability to grab hold of one note and really make it mean something.

I actually never met Hank Levy at first. He was a friend of Glenn Stuart, my lead trumpet player. When I was forming the band Glenn had a book of compositions and he had some of Hank’s arrangements in it; so he brought some into rehearsal. So then Glenn put me in touch with him. Hank writes very graciously for the instruments, and his things are a lot of fun to play. He found out what we were doing with the time signatures and about the modern concept we were getting involved with, and he became very excited about this. Hank came out and heard the band, and started writing arrangements that were basically built around the band. He got really excited about the time signature thing and sort of made that his trademark. I don’t think he’s written anything in 4/ 4—yes, he did do one piece recently, I think, in 4/ 4. But other than that, for the last ten years everything he has written has been in different time signatures. At first he was just writing for us. He was then in his family’s meat packing business. Then one thing led to another. He conducted a band at Towson State College which started winning honours. Then Stan Kenton asked him to do some writing (he had played baritone sax with Stan years ago). Stan, incidentally, was one of the first boosters for my work and that of type orchestra, and had heard some of Hank’s things with us. I don’t know how it happened but Hank started writing for Stan and doing time signature things.

Gradually Stan got more and more into Hank Levy’s arranging and, of course, Hank made some marvellous contributions to Stan’s library.

I think I was always sort of an iconoclast in my trumpet style, because when I came up I was doing a lot of things that weren’t hip, because I enjoyed Rex Stewart, Louis Armstrong, and incorporated elements of their playing in my playing. In the bop days there was just a very narrow path that everyone was supposed to tread. I didn’t sound like that, I think, because of some of the older elements in my style which weren’t popular at the time, but now everybody does them. Also, harmonically I was interested in some of the newer things that were going on, especially with my association with Taki Byard.

We started a movement in New York that became known as the `New Thing’. That was Jaki’s expression for it.

Some of the jazz critics picked it up. Eric Dolphy and George Russell and Charlie Mingus were doing the `New Thing’ before it was called the `New Thing’! It was basically very eclectic original music that drew from a lot of traditional sources, but at the same time had modern elements. People like that didn’t sound like anybody else.

They were all originals. I somehow fit into the category—I guess that’s how I ended up playing with Mingus and Jaki Byard, George Russell and Eric Dolphy—because we were the people at that time, in New York, who were doing different things. It was very inspiring to be around people who were also trying to achieve something; trying to move on to something new and different, It was a real thrill to be asked to lead the Kenton band. I went out for a week some years ago and fronted his band. I’d always wanted to play with Stan actually, I’d played a one–nighter with him once and made a couple of rehearsals with him, but never actually been out on the road with the band. So it was a thrill.

A tradition that goes way back is when Lionel Hampton used to have his bands march up and down the aisles of the concert whipping everyone into a frenzy. So that’s a tradition that goes way back in jazz. Years ago all the bands sat down in chairs and were sort of formal. It was considered bad taste and beneath the dignity of a musician to do anything other than sit in his chair up on the stage. I decided to change that; so I had my band stand, Now a lot of bands are getting to that. I think there’s more energy—it’s looser. A lot of trumpet sections in bands have stood. but usually not saxophones and trombones, and so forth. So I have the band stand. Then I started doing concerts where (I don’t know what possessed me—I think one night it was just an inspiration) I said to the band: “When you play the last thing, go out into the audience and play it.” It was tremendous. People loved it because it made them feel part of the music, hearing a trumpet player blasting in their ears. So we started doing that.

Then I even wrote a piece—I think we did it at the Fillmore, but it’s not on the album—where half the piece was constructed for the band to be in the audience. It was like some antiphonal play and stuff like that that went on between the band and the rhythm section. I stopped doing that for a while, because pretty soon all the bands started picking up on that. I won’t mention any names but a lot of the United States bands were ending their concerts by going out into the audience and playing, Like anything else, if everyone else is doing it, it sort of loses its impact; so we didn’t do it for a while. But then I wrote this composition—“ Niner–Two”—and I felt that I wanted to get that feeling. But I didn’t want it to be just at the end of a number that they go out; so this happens in the middle of the number. They accompany a drum solo and then get involved in a melody and a sort of sing–along type thing, eventually working their way back to the stage. So I figured I’d keep that element, which is basically good, but do it in a different way than everybody else is doing it.

The immediate plans are to get the band on wax and get it recorded, and if all goes well in a couple of months there should be an album out. The next thing we’re planning is a tour of Europe this July; so maybe I’ll even be able to see you in England if a promoter there can get some concerts together for us. We are going to play the major jazz festivals—Montreux, Antibes and things like that.

Copyright © 1977, John Killoch. All Rights Reserved.