Don Ellis

Trumpeter, composer, bandleader Don Ellis
Trumpeter, composer, bandleader Don Ellis

I can’t begin to talk about Don Ellis in enough detail here. If you don’t know who he was, or why he was important to jazz, please go to DonEllisMusic.com, which is Sean Fenlon’s excellent site about Don and his music.

Don died in 1978 at the age of 44. During the late 1960s and early 1970s he was the heir apparent to the experimental big band scene that had, for many years, been led more by Stan Kenton than anyone else.

I’ve always thought it bizarre that once Don passed, no one else really did anything that was nearly as inventive or ground-breaking in composition for large jazz ensemble. Don’s music sounds just as fresh today as it did back then. When I heard Tears of Joy when I was in high school I felt as if I had come home. But no one has really carried on this legacy. In my opinion, Charles Mingus was sort of extending the legacy of Duke Ellington in his way. Thad Jones was, in many ways, extending the Count Basie tradition. However, most big bands today, no matter how well they play and how well-crafted their arrangements, are really still very similar in style and structure as the bands of Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman.

We can debate that, of course, for a long time. Still, no one’s band today sounds like Don’s. Don and his major contributor, Hank Levy, created a new rhythmic excitement that has found its way into all sorts of music – jazz, soundtracks for films and TV, the orchestral repertoire. No one has picked up the torch.

The reason I’m bringing this up now is that there is a recent documentary about Don and his music that you may be interested in. It’s called “Electric Heart,” and it includes some never-before-seen film and images from Don’s life.


It’s done with great respect and love. Even if you never heard of Don before – or especially if that’s the case – you should see this documentary. Go to www.donellisfilm.com to order.

Many of Don’s albums are now available on CD. For example, Tears of Joy, which I consider to be his best album, is available on Amazon.com.

Where can you find Don’s music if you want to play it? First, all of Don’s music is now located at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive, but it’s stored offsite and it’s hard to find out what you really want from the published catalog. However, for educational purposes the UCLA folks will copy the material for you, for a fee. Russell Scarborough has created the Don Ellis Critical Editions, in which he has re-engraved some of Don’s pieces from the originals to make them more readable. Those, and some of Don’s original pieces in the original form, are available from the University of Northern Colorado Jazz Press. Jim Martin’s pdfjazzmusic.com also has a few of Don’s charts.

The other reason for bringing this up is that I’ve done a couple of arrangements of Don’s tunes. These are arrangements, not transcriptions like the Critical Editions. They are written for traditional 5 4 4 4 instrumentation big band, not for Don’s instrumentation at the time, which included 4 strings, woodwind doubles and multiple drummers. I wanted to make them accessible to kids in high school and the original versions were not generally set up for that.

I did a chart on the Theme from “The French Connection.” Don did the music for this 1971 film starring Gene Hackman. He won the Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement for this tune. I also did the title cut from the Tears of Joy album. It doesn’t require any of the 1970s audio effects devices Don was famous for. If you are interested in either of these, email me for more information.

If you are not familiar with Don’s work, I strongly suggest you should check it out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s