I got a chance to play this music again Saturday night in Los Angeles with eight other alumni, part of a festival of big band reunions hosted by the LA Jazz Institute. It was amazing to look around at the band, and see the time that has passed. Most of these musicians I hadn’t seen in 35 years: drummer Dave Crigger, violist Jimbo Ross, trumpet player Jack Coan, trombonist Rich Bullock, and french horn player Sidney Muldrow. A few I have run into over the years, like trombonist Alan Kaplan, reed player Ann Patterson, and cellist Paula Hochhalter.
I think we all shared a strong nostalgic remembrance of Don and his music - the intense rehearsals, figuring out how to subdivide in the odd time signatures - is it “two-two-three” or “two-three-two?”; singing “ta-ka-ta-ka-ta-ka-ta” for hours in the large rehearsal room at the Musicians Union until it became second nature; the electrifying concerts, with Don in a white cape, feeling more like a rock concert in many ways.
I remember the day I joined the band. Don Ellis had been studying the trombone with my father. A few years before Don had suffered a massive heart attack and was told by his doctor never to play the trumpet again. So Don spent his creative energy composing. After a few years he decided to take up the trombone, I guess thinking the larger embouchure would be less stressful on his heart.
One day my Dad invited him down to the then popular jazz club Donte’s to hear my group. He came down with the lead alto player in his band, Ann Patterson. A few weeks later Don called me to fill in at the last minute for Art Pepper for the band’s last performance before taking off for Europe to do the summer festivals. (Art had been playing with Don’s big band, but was having health challenges.) At the sound check, we ran through “Go-No-Go,” a funky piece that featured Don and me. I got through it fine, but Don told me to find more “dirt” in my solo. I guess I was playing to many notes, too be-boppy.
At the end of the gig, Don reminded the band to make sure their passports were up-to-date, and wanted to meet with each member individually to talk about the. As the musicians were packing up and leaving the stage, I approached Don and asked, brazenly, “Is there any reason I should get a passport?” Don smiled that big smile of his, and said “Yeah...I think you need to get a passport.” That’s how I joined the band.
The reunion band sounded amazing. Let by Ann Patterson, with conducting assistance by Nick di Scala (who is clearly an authority on Don’s music), we played almost the entire repertoire from the Live at Montreux record. I know one thing - if drummer Dave Crigger hadn’t been there, this concert would have been impossible. We did had many people playing this music for the first time, but they all jumped up on the music. In particular was trumpet player John Daversa, “subbing” for Don Ellis. I had never heard him play before, but I have become an instant fan.
The second composition on the concert was “Go-No-No,” the piece after which Don told me to find more dirt. When I played it last weekend, I felt Don’s presence next to me, and put some extra dirt in there for him.
I also participated in the reunion of the Louie Bellson big band, with Jeff Hamilton playing drums. He sounded great playing this music. He perfectly blended Louie’s style with his own, and it felt both historic and fresh at the same time.
At one point during the only rehearsal, alto player Andy McIntosh (whose sound I fell in love with when I first heard it when I was fifteen) asked Jeff if he could play a little softer on a particular woodwind passage, and Jeff said “Well, let’s see - on those bars Louie played a backbeat, and on the bell of the symbol, like this,” and then demonstrated. I couldn’t believe how diligently he had listened to the recordings and knew what Louie was doing at every spot in the music. That’s a true professional!
Both Don Ellis and Louie Bellson helped and inspired me at a very young age, and I owe much to their generosity of spirit and great musicianship. I miss them.
Here's a fun clip of the band playing "Go-No-Go" at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1977: