Ellis was born in Los Angeles, CA on July 25th, 1934. His father was a Methodist minister and his mother a church organist. He attended West High School in Minneapolis, MN. It was after seeing a Tommy Dorsey Big Band concert that he first became interested in jazz. Other early inspirations were Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. He graduated from Boston University in 1956 with a composition degree.
Ellis' first job was with the Glenn Miller band, directed by Ray McKinley. He stayed with the band until September, 1956 when he joined the Seventh Army Symphony and Soldiers' Show Company. He was sent to Frankfurt, Germany. In the Army band, Ellis met pianist Cedar Walton, and saxophonists Eddie Harris and Don Menza. It was also in this band that Ellis got his first opportunity to write for a big band.
After two years he left the Army band and moved to Greenwich Village in New York City. He was able to get some work, but mainly with dance bands and other local work. He toured briefly with bandleader Charlie Barnet but held no notable positions until he joined the Maynard Ferguson band in spring of 1959. He remained with Ferguson for nine months.
Shortly thereafter, Ellis became involved in the New York City avant-garde jazz scene. He appeared on albums by Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and George Russell, belonging to the latter's sextet for two years. Under his own name, he led several sessions with small groups between 1960 and 1962 which featured, among others, Jaki Byard, Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, Ron Carter, Charlie Persip, and Steve Swallow. The albums are as notable for their explorations of tempo, form, and tonality as they are for their excellent musicianship. The last one, Essence, was recorded in mid-July 1962, after which Ellis would not release another record in America for several years. But he was far from inactive during this period.
In October 1962, Ellis traveled to Poland to take part in the 1962 Jazz Jamboree in Warsaw; his quartet performance was partially documented on a Polish-only 10-inch EP. Ellis chronicled his experience in an article called Warsaw Diary which was printed in the January 3rd, 1963 issue of Down Beat magazine. In December, Ellis participated in the NDR's Jazz Workshop in Hamburg, Germany, and in early 1963 traveled to Stockholm, Sweden. While there, he became somewhat well-known for his experimentation with happenings, similar to those used by members of the Fluxus art movement.
Back in New York, Ellis formed the Improvisational Workshop Orchestra, which gave its debut performance on February 10th, 1963 at the Five Spot (Another tape of the same group is listed in the Don Ellis Collection as being recorded on Feb. 9th, but it may be a rehearsal tape.) The performance had a quality very similar to those Ellis gave in Sweden: performers used cards to determine event orders, musicians used their instruments to interpret a painter's work, etc. In addition, some uncommon musical elements were employed, such as the use of Arabian rhythms and scales, and foot shuffling.
In 1964, Ellis began graduate studies in ethnomusicology at UCLA where he studied with Indian musician Hari Har Rao. Greatly inspired by Rao, Ellis sought to implement odd meters in a Western improvised context. Along with Rao, he co-authored an article in 1965 called An Introduction to Indian Music for the Jazz Musician. He briefly formed the first version of his big band at this time, but this was disbanded when Ellis received a Rockefeller Grant to work at State University of New York (SUNY) in Buffalo for a year.
While in New York, Ellis was involved with several Third Stream projects. A live performance from February 8th, 1964 at the Lincoln Center was filmed for Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts series. He performed with other jazz musicians alongside the New York Philharmonic on Larry Austin's Improvisations for Orchestra and Jazz Soloists (1961) and Gunther Schuller's Journey Into Jazz (1962). A later recording of Austin's piece, featuring Ellis, bassist Barre Phillips, drummer Joe Cocuzzo, and the New York Philharmonic (directed by Bernstein) was released on an album entitled Leonard Bernstein Conducts Music For Our Time (1965).
Returning to the West Coast, Ellis formed The Hindustani Jazz Sextet, which explored the some of the concepts he had learned at UCLA. While saxophonist Joe Harriott was collaborating with Calcutta-born composer John Mayer concurrently in England, the Sextet was the first band of its kind in America. The Sextet centered around Ellis and his mentor Hari Har Rao, who played sitar and tabla. The band also featured vibraphonist Emil Richards, drummer Steve Bohannon, bassists Chuck Dominaco and Ray Neapolitan, and pianist Dave Mackay. Occasionally a seventh member would be added, usually a saxophonist. The band performed mainly original compositions which had titles like "Sweet Nineteen", "Turks Works", and "Bombay Bossa Nova".
Although no recordings have been released at present, the Sextet became somewhat well-known around Los Angeles. Perhaps the greatest exposure the group had was Synthesis, a composition by Ellis in which the Sextet performed alongside Stan Kenton's Neophonic Orchestra. The concert took place in February 1966 at the Los Angeles Music Center.
On July 14th of that year, the Sextet performed at Bill Graham's Fillmore West auditorium, opening for the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. This is the last known activity of the Sextet until 1971, when the group (with Milchio Leviev, Ralph Humphrey and Dennis Parker forming the rhythm section) played several gigs at Donte's in North Hollywood. But Ellis' side project, a workshop Orchestra, had been brewing something different for the last couple years.
In addition to working with the Hindustani Jazz Sextet, Ellis continued writing arrangements for and rehearsing what would grow into the Don Ellis Orchestra. This rehearsal/workshop band played every Monday night for almost a year , first at a venue called Club Havana and later relocating to a club called Bonesville in Hollywood, where they began to gain a significant following. The group started making money by charging a small admission fee to the rehearsals, and began a letter writing campaign to get the band a spot at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival. The campaign eventually succeeded, and the band was scheduled to perform that September
The Don Ellis Orchestra was different from most other big bands in several ways; most obviously in its instrumentation (discussed below), but also in Ellis' incorporation of Indian musical elements into modern big-band writing. Drawing from his compositional and arranging experience as well as from his studies of Indian music, Ellis began to write jazz-based music with the time signatures he had studied with Rao. These included not only 5/4, 7/8, and 9/4, but also more complex rhythmic cycles like 19/4 and 27/16. In the future, Ellis would use many more complex meters, as well as complex subdivisions of more standard meters. Many of these more complex cycles were inspired by Ellis' later interest in Eastern European folk music, such as that of Greece and Bulgaria.
Ellis also had a customized trumpet made for him by the Holton company, which he received in September 1965. This trumpet had an additional valve which enabled his trumpet to produce quarter tones. Some claim that the inspiration for this may have been due to his studies of Indian music, which includes bent pitches which some ethnomusicologists refer to as "microtones". However, it was probably moreso the result of Ellis' previous involvement with avant-garde classical music, in which many composers were experimenting with Western tonality and intervals, especially Harry Partch, with whom Ellis is known to have met and discussed ideas.
All of these unusual elements combined to create a musical experience unlike anything the Monterey audience had ever seen. The Orchestra received thunderous applause and a standing ovation at the conclusion of their first tune, titled "33 222 1 222" in accordance with its subdivision of 19. The band went on to play tunes in 7, 9 and 27, as well as a couple in more standard meters. Portions of the concert were released on Pacific Jazz the following year. The 1998 CD reissue includes several other tunes from the concert.
Following this successful breakthrough performance, the band performed at the Pacific Jazz Festival in October 1966 and at Shelly's Manne Hole in March 1967, releasing segments of each on 1967's Live in 3 2/3 4 Time (Pacific Jazz).
Around this time, Columbia Records producer and A&R man John Hammond sought to recruit the band for the label. The band was signed, and by September 1967, they were in the studio in September to record Electric Bath which was released the following year to wide acclaim. The album was nominated for a Grammy award, won the 1968 Downbeat "Album of the Year" award, and reached #8 on the Billboard jazz charts. The song "Indian Lady" became one of the band's most popular tunes. "Open Beauty" featured Don in an echoplex trumpet solo, an innovative combination of acoustic instruments and electronic technology. Ellis would continue to develop the "electrophonic trumpet" over the next five years. (see below)
In February 1968, the Orchestra was back in the studio to record a second album, which would become Shock Treatment. However, miscommunications arose and the album was released with poor edits and inferior alternate takes that Ellis did not approve. In Ellis' own words:
"Upon completion of the album, I did the mixing and editing here in California and then sent the finished product to New York. It wasn't until the album was already released that I heard a pressing. Much to my horror, I found that without consulting me the whole album had been changed around-rejected masters and unapproved takes were used (not the ones which I had selected and edited), the wrong tunes were on the album, unauthorized splices were made which disturbed the musical flow of some of the compositions (beats were even missing from bars), whole sections were cut out, some of these being the high points of the album. Therefore the liner notes, which were done to the original album, do not agree with what is actually on the album, calling attention to solos and high spots which are not there [...] Also, the wrong personnel is listed on the jacket.
When I discovered what had happened I was, naturally, disturbed and asked Columbia to redo the album. They graciously consented and I was able to change the album back to its original form except that I left Mercy Maybe Mercy, which my producer particularly liked, in place of Zim, which I hope will appear in a future album.
Throughout late 1968, the Orchestra returned to the studio several times to record songs for what would become Autumn. The album contained the 20-minute opus "Variations for Trumpet" which showcased Ellis' virtuosic trumpet playing. Also on the record was "Pussy Wiggle Stomp", the song which would succeed "Indian Lady" as the Orchestra's signature tune. Side two of the record contained two lengthy tunes from a concert at Palo Alto's Stanford University from August 1968. The tracks are notable for their revelations of the Ellis band's contemporary live sound, which was far more raucous than either of their previous live recordings.
In early 1969, the Orchestra was back in Columbia Studios to record The Don Ellis Band Goes Underground, a collection of several pop songs (arranged by Ellis) and some Ellis originals. The album inexplicably features a vocalist named Patti Allen on songs by Laura Nyro, The Isley Brothers, and Sly Stone. The album also features "Bulgarian Bulge", a composition based on a Bulgarian folk tune in the 33/16 meter.
The band's energetic live performances (like the one at Stanford) caused its popularity among college crowds to increase. In June 1970, the Orchestra performed for three nights at Bill Graham's Fillmore West auditorium, opening for the Quicksilver Messenger Service and Leon Russell. The resulting recording was made into a double-LP and released by Columbia in late 1970. Live at Fillmore was a happy return to original material, and even included one Beatles cover, a nightmarish rendition of "Hey Jude".
Around this time, Ellis' popularity among educators was also climbing; copies of his band's charts were becoming available and were played by many high school and college big bands. Accordingly, Ellis taught many clinics and played with many school bands.
In May 1971, Ellis added a string quartet to the Orchestra. He also hired Bulgarian piano virtuoso Milcho Leviev who, since his country's folk music was so familiar to him, was able to improvise fluently in time signatures which would intimidate most American improvisers. He was an important asset to Ellis' band, and stayed with Ellis for five years. The Orchestra was taken on tour and recorded in late May at the Basin Street West in San Francisco. The resulting album, Tears of Joy, was another live double-LP and was released in late 1971.
The album featured what many consider to be one of Ellis' masterpieces, a composition called "Strawberry Soup". The composition's metric intricacy, its simple theme and complex variations, and the sheer timbral spectrum that it covers, have been the subject of several Doctoral dissertations.
Around this time, Ellis was approached by film director William Friedkin to compose the music to his film The French Connection. Ellis accepted the project and wrote the music to be performed by his own Orchestra. Ellis later won a Grammy for this project ("Best Instrumental Arrangement"), and was asked to write the music to the film's sequel, French Connection II in 1975.
Ellis' final album for Columbia, Connection was recorded in August 1972. The album featured "The Theme from 'The French Connection'", an abbreviated version of Ellis' movie score, and "Chain Reaction", a tour de force by longtime contributor Hank Levy. Alongside these highlights are arrangements of several pop songs by artists like Carole King, Yes, Andrew Lloyd Webber and The Carpenters. The arrangements were generally very tongue-in-cheek; often Ellis arranged them in different meters than the original, or arranged for the melody to be played in a humorous way. There is no singer on this album.
Regardless of what inspired Ellis' liberal interpretations of the popular material, Connection was the Orchestra's last album for Columbia.
In 1973, the Orchestra recorded Soaring, a collection of originals. Milcho Leviev contributed "Sladka Pitka", based on a Bulgarian folk song. The record was released by MPS/BASF, which would also release Ellis' next album.
Haiku is a significant departure from any of Ellis' previous work. The record, featuring Milcho Leviev, bassist Ray Brown, drummer John Guerin, and a large string orchestra, is made up of ten songs, each based on a Japanese haiku poem. The album is very relaxed and introspective. Haiku was presumably recorded in late 1973 and released in 1974.
In 1974, Ellis became very interested in the music of Brazil, even studying Portuguese so as to better communicate with indigenous musicians. He led a live band around this time called the "Organic Band" which was a stripped-down version of the Orchestra that had no electronic instrumentation or modification (save for amplification). The band also featured a vocal quartet.
These pursuits were postponed when Ellis started having health problems, feeling "out of breath after [walking] up a single flight of stairs". He checked himself into a hospital in New York City where a doctor diagnosed him with Mitral stenosis, a condition which (ironically) caused his heart beat in very odd rhythms. He was prescribed medication and went home to Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, he started feeling strange again, and went to a local hospital where he was re-diagnosed with an atrial-septal defect. More tests were run and finally a third diagnosis was made: cardio-myopathy. Ellis was prescribed more drugs, but his condition worsened and he went into ventricular fibrillation early one morning in May 1975. Ellis later described being on the verge of death, as doctors struggled to save his life: "It sounds weird, I know, but it was a remarkably beautiful experience, maybe the ultimate high."
By 1976, Ellis was back in action, although these activities are little documented. On December 3rd, 1976, the Don Ellis Orchestra performed on a Shirley MacLaine television special entitled "Where Do We Go From Here?" The Orchestra played Ellis' arrangement of "Sweet Georgia Brown" retitled "Sweet Shirley MacLaine". The arrangement featured a solo by Art Pepper, a chorus of tap dancers, and the return of the electrophonic trumpet.
In 1977, Ellis was signed to Atlantic Records, which promised to fund the Orchestra's upcoming trip to the band's upcoming performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux, Switzerland in exchange for a live recording of said performance. However, the record company asked Don first to record arrangements of two songs from Star Wars. The songs, "Star Wars (Main Title Theme)" and "Princess Leia's Theme", were to be released as a 45 rpm single. In June, the record company scrambled and asked Don to record an entire album of material, for the purpose of having an album to sell in case the single became a hit. Don had to do this before his band left to perform in Montreux in about a week. In addition, the songs that were to be on this album could not be duplicates of what would later appear on the live album.
Ellis got some help from fellow composers/arrangers Tommy Vig and Curt Berg but largely wrote everything on his own. The album was thrown together and released as Music from Other Galaxies and Planets; all the songs were retitled with novelty space-related names like "Orion's Sword" and "Crypton".
The band's performance at Montreux was very well-received and the subsequent album reached #48 on Billboard's jazz charts. This was to be Ellis' last album as a leader, although he would appear on albums by Nick Gilder (You Know Who You Are) and Tommy Vig (1978).
Ellis' last known public performance took place on April 21st, 1978 at the Westside Room in Century City. After this, his doctor ordered him to refrain from touring and playing trumpet because it was too stressful on his heart. On December 17th, 1978, after seeing a Jon Hendricks concert, Ellis suffered a fatal heart attack at the home of his mother and father. His heart condition is believed to have been cardiac arrhythmia.
While Ellis' explorations with elements of form and content in jazz were undeniably innovative, his delivery of these innovations has caused many to dismiss him as pretentious or gimmicky. He used to explain to his audience how certain time signatures were divided, often with humorous twists (like joking that "33 222 1 222" is "just the area code"); his sense of humor often caused critics to think he didn't take his own music "seriously".
However, evidence shows that Ellis was a serious and dedicated musician who not only had high performance standards, he also placed great importance on teaching music. He formed a youth band in Los Angeles, led by Glenn Ferris. Sidemen such as Stu Blumberg further credit Ellis for preparing them for the idiosyncrasies of unconventional music in film soundtracks. Tenor player Jim Snodgrass remarked, "I think in many ways Don was a teacher. One thing his music taught me was that I could play anything I absolutely had to."
In spite of this, the popularity of Ellis' music waned considerably after his death. Besides Tom Scott, John Klemmer, Glenn Ferris and Milcho Leviev, few of his former sidemen have achieved a significant level of fame, and Ellis' compositions are not played often. Columbia Records, responsible for originally releasing seven of Ellis' albums, only reissued Electric Bath (Ellis' biggest seller) in 1997 and stubbornly refused to reissue any others. The bulk of his recordings were unavailable until 2000 when labels like Koch Jazz, Wounded Bird and Mighty Quinn Productions started reissuing Ellis' big label releases. Today, almost all of his albums have been reissued on CD and are readily available.
Ellis also wrote numerous articles and several books during his lifetime. Many of the articles were published in magazines like Jazz and Down Beat. Two of the books were published. the new rhythm book was published in 1972 and deals with practice and performance in unusual meters. It featured a companion play-along LP/cassette entitled New Rhythms. The second book, Quarter Tones, published in 1975, is a theoretical guide to using quarter tones. Both books are very thorough, providing a great deal of historical and cultural background to their subjects. Quarter Tones also provides readers with etudes and exercises. Both books are very hard to find, as they have presumably not been printed since their first editions.
The Don Ellis Library and Collection resides in the Ethnomusicolgy Archives at UCLA. Prior to that, (from 1981-2000) it was housed at Eastfield College, part of Dallas County Community College District, DCCCD in Mesquite, Texas. Along with writings, instruments and other items, is his Grammy for best score for the movie The French Connection in 1971.
Ellis' interest in expanding the possibilities within big band instrumentation is obvious on even his first Orchestra release, 1966's Live at Monterey. Inspired by his experiences with Latin bands, Ellis expanded his rhythm section to two drum sets, three double-basses, at least two auxiliary percussionists, piano, and organ. On the song "In a Turkish Bath" from Electric Bath (1967), bassist Ray Neapolitan doubles on sitar. His horn sections were often fairly typical, although he later added a tuba and French horn to augment the brass section, and sometimes had the saxophonists double on instruments like flute, oboe, clarinet and saxello.
In 1967, Ellis began experimentation with electronics. His pianist started using the Fender-Rhodes electric piano, clavinet, and electric harpsichord. Ellis himself started using what he called the "electrophonic trumpet"; that is, a trumpet whose sound was amplified and often routed through various effects processors. The first appearance of this innovation is on "Open Beauty" from 1967's Electric Bath, in which Ellis takes an extended solo with his trumpet being processed through an echoplex. Ellis also used the ring modulator on several occasions.
In 1968, Ellis replaced the double-bassists and with a single electric bassist, at first Joe Julian, then Dennis Parker and finally Dave McDaniels. He also hired guitarist Jay Graydon who remained with the band for several years.
In 1971 for the Tears of Joy tour, Ellis added a string quartet to his band. The instruments were amplified using newly-developed pick-ups made by Barcus-Berry so that they could be heard over the brass and saxophones. These new timbre offered Ellis a wellspring of creative possibilities. As he explained, "People spend whole evenings listening to a brass quintet, a woodwind or string quartet, so I reasoned that having ALL of these in the context of a big band should give us a fantastic variety of colors from which to draw.
Sometime in 1973 or 1974, Haiku was released, which was recorded using a jazz quartet with full string orchestra backing. Due to the size of the group, this was probably never intended to be a replacement for the Don Ellis Orchestra as a touring group.
Ellis' "Organic Band", which toured throughout spring and summer 1974, reduced the band's numbers from 21 or 22 to 15. The horn section was more than halved, the string quartet was removed, a vocal quartet was added, and no electronics (save for amplification) were used to alter the band's sound.
After his heart attack, Ellis returned briefly to the electrophonic trumpet, and continued using synthesizers and electronic keyboards. The string quartet, a mainstay since 1971, remained alongside the brass. He also began playing two new instruments, the superbone and the firebird, which were a combination valve-slide trombone and trumpet, respectively. Both were also played by Maynard Ferguson.