Herb Ellis, 1921-2010

Herb Ellis died last night at home in Los Angeles. He was 88 years old and had Alzheimer’s disease. Ellis was most celebrated for his guitar playing with the Oscar Peterson Trio that also included bassist Ray Brown. For more than half a century, heHerb_Ellis.jpg was one of a handful of guitarists recognized as masters of the instrument. Musicians of several generations cherished him as a colleague. A few of them were fellow guitarists Barney Kessel, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd and Laurindo Almeida; trumpeters Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge and Harry “Sweets” Edison; saxophonists Ben Webster, Plas Johnson and Stan Getz; and Ella Fitzgerald.
In the notes for one of Ellis’s last recordings as a leader, I wrote:

In the 24 bars of his unaccompanied introduction to “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” Herb Ellis sketches the elements of his musicality.

• Harmonic sophistication

• Fleet execution

• Expression of abstract ideas in earthy language

• Bred-in-the-bone familiarity with the blues

• Distinctive Southwest twang

• Humor

• Perfect time

When Peterson modeled his trio on Nat Cole’s in 1950, he at first had Brown on bass and Cole’s former guitarist irving Ashby. Then Barney Kessel signed on for a year. Ellis replaced Kessel and spent five years with Peterson. The trio became one of the most celebrated groups in jazz. Their concert recordings contain some of the most exciting music ever captured on record. Peterson, Ellis and Brown agreed that the album from the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival in 1956 caught them at their peak. They may not have again quite reached that apogee during their time together, but they came close in this 1958 performance at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Ellis simulates bongos, solos with all of the facets listed above, and demonstrates his skill as a rhythm guitarist.

As far as Peterson was concerned, Ellis was irreplaceable. When Herb left the trio in 1958, Peterson did not consider hiring another guitatist. He brought in drummer Ed Thigpen. That was a great trio, too, but the electricity and empathy of Peterson, Ellis and Brown was unique.
You will find a trove of Ellis albums here.
Herb Ellis, RIP.

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  1. says

    Two quick thoughts about that fine performance: see how physically close together they are — all within arm’s length of each other; no Pavlovian applause after each solo, treading on the transitions and group effort. Thank you, Dutch jazz fans. (But please put away your cameras).
    I had a chance to speak with, and interview, each of those men several times in my broadcast career, and they all agreed that that Trio was as good as one could hope for.

  2. Dr. Mike Baughan says

    Had the great fortune of a front row seat to see Mr. Ellis play w/ local Richmond, Va musicians in mid-80s @ ‘Allison’s Restaurant'(?). Such masterful ease around the fretboard, & great rapport w/ our small audience. Felt in the presence of a master.
    I’m sure OP’s happy up there to have him!
    To me, the best work Duke Robillard has done is w/ Herb on:
    ‘Conversations in Swing Guitar’ & ‘More Conversations in Swing Guitar’
    Highly recommended
    RIP ‘Herb’

  3. Charlton Price says

    Have all the great ones left now? No. Most, like Herb Ellis, can be almost with us, always — on that list from Amazon to which you linked, and also his recorded work with Bill Berry’s [all -star] LA Big Band. I treasure especially his intimate, funny, affectionate “live” recording, with Red Mitchell, “Doggin’ Around.”

  4. Orrin Keepnews says

    The mere fact that there is a jazz-oriented writer who can use a word like “apogee” without missing a beat (or tripping over his shoelaces) should be enough to enable the rest of us to keep working.

  5. Mel Narunsky says

    Herbie Ellis is one of the few American jazz musicians I have been fortunate enough to have seen when he visited Durban, South Africa around 1974.
    I’d been familiar with his playing mainly through the recordings he made as part of the Oscar Peterson Trio. Much of the excitement on these records was when Herb played his “bongo”-style rhythm behind the ebullient Peterson, especially during “live” performances.
    May he rest in peace.

  6. JON FOLEY says

    I had the great good fortune to see that classic Oscar Peterson Trio with Ray Brown and Herb Ellis at the fabled Music Inn in Lenox, MA, on August 25, 1957. The swing was so intense that I thought that little room was going to levitate (and maybe it did). Herb Ellis was outstanding, serving as guitar soloist, rhythm guitarist and “drummer.”
    And as if that weren’t enough, for the second half of the concert they brought on two guests who, if anything, increased the intensity – Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach – both at the peak of their powers. A concert for the ages, it’s safe to say (and unfortunately, it went unrecorded).

  7. Hal Strack says

    Margaret and I once heard Herb play with Charlie Byrd, along with Keeter Betts on base, at the historic King Of France Inn in Annapolis, where Charlie often played. Of course their techniques and styles were different, but they complemented each other beautifully, with lovely, gentle, memorable music, the likes of which is no longer being created. May these greats RIP!

  8. Ken Wilson says

    Thank you for the clip and the commentary, Doug. Herb Ellis is a name I knew, but I can’t remember having heard him before. When I read his obit in the Times, I knew right where to go online. Thanks, again. Much appreciated.

  9. Rob D says

    Damn, Herbie was a gateway drug for me to the wider world of jazz. That “Hello, Herbie” record he did with OP was the coolest thing I had ever heard at that point in my life. His drive and invention were wonderful.
    For someone my age, Herbie Ellis shouldnt really mean that much to me. But I feel like he was the music of my youth..discovering jazz in your early teens via records will do that for you! I missed out on the punk rock/disco era listening to herbie, Coltrane, Miles, Brubeck&Desmond, Mingus, Keith Jarrettt and many others. I have never regretted that happening to me..the rewards in music have been so very rich…
    Thanks for a lovely obit..and may the Goddess be showering with Herbie as we speak. (as opposed to showering him with praise..an old joke from my friend’s dad who introduced us to jazz via his fab record collection, musical abilities and infinite patience for our short attention span ways)

  10. annette scholfield says

    thank God I was around when real music and wonderful musicians were playing the real thing, it still makes shivers go up and down my spine listening to the greats. Thank you for giving me so much pleasure.

  11. Dan Girard says

    I was saddened by the loss of this great jazz guitarist. We cannot live forever, however, our music can, and so will Herbie Ellis.