Manty Ellis, Midwest Jazz Master

Manty Ellis is certainly what you call a treasure. His perspective on life and music is what we all hope to attain as musicians. He has recently formed a new project – The Milwaukee Jazz Foundation – as a means to invigorate the Milwaukee Jazz scene. Manty is a master musician, and a master story teller.

By Aaron Cohen 1997 Midwest Jazz Masters Journal volume 4, number 3 – Fall 1997, page 29

“Personally, I just like the city,” Ellis said recently. “And I have a little more of an attachment. Most people in any city were born in hospitals. I never made it. I was born in a house right here in Milwaukee on North 5th Street. And I can go back there every day of my life and I can sit in front of that front window where I was born. That house has all kinds of memories when I go back over there.” These memories include the first musician Ellis heard: his father, Grover Edwin Ellis, a pianist with a strong interest in Louis Armstrong. “I started going to the piano as soon as I could to emulate what he was doing.” Ellis said. “He saw this and started directing me a little bit. Pretty soon he started teaching. I knew more about music than the ABC’s for some time because that’s how I was taught. Just basic theories of how scales are constructed, I learned that before I started school.” Under his father’s tutelage, Ellis became accomplished enough – at age 9, no less – to be a sideman in bands around Milwaukee.

He was 13 when he heard the influential guitarist Oscar Moore on the Nat King Cole Trio record “Prelude in C-Sharp Minor.” Ellis immediately began scraping enough money together to purchase a guitar. “Once I got the guitar, I spent all my time trying to learn it,” he recalled. “I’d take the guitar and amp to gigs when I was playing the piano and would practice before gigs and during the intermission. I was working with a saxophone player, drummer and bass player. One night, I was practicing and when he went back on stage, I plugged my guitar in and the saxophonist didn’t pay any attention. He just counted off the tune and I played the guitar. From that day forward, I never had to play any more piano.” Even though Ellis focused on his new instrument, he remained interested in piano players and piano concepts. According to Ellis, pianist in Milwaukee were more interested than guitarist in the possibilities of their instrument. Ellis, however, grew interested in the guitar in regard to rhythm, harmony and as a lead instrument in a band. “When I went to the guitarist, I never thought of it as strings. I thought of it as a keyboard,” Ellis says. “When I started listening to Charlie Christian and Django Reinhart, I had already formed an opinion about music, so I wasn’t as interested in their music as in their ability to play. I didn’t really get interested in any jazz guitarist until Wes Montgomery came along, and he was the total package. Ellis’ meeting with Montgomery proved a revelation. “I called his room in the Sutherland Hotel (in Chicago) when he was playing there and told him, ‘Hey, Wes, you don’t know me and I don’t know you, but we have mutual friends. My name is Manty Ellis, and I’m calling you from Milwaukee.’ And he talked to me about coming to Chicago, he was just that type of cat. And so a friend of mine and I drove over to Chicago, and that’s where I found out about the jazz guitar. At the Sutherland Hotel in Chicago in 1961! I came over and we talked and when they played that night he talked me into playing. “Now, I’m telling you, this was as amateurish as you could be, and here’s Wes Montgomery handing you his guitar. Man, that guitar weighed about 1,000 pounds. They talk about plans. A fighter talks about fight plans until he gets hit. Then the plan goes out the window. Oh man, that was the lesson of my life.” That lesson had significant consequences. Many of the qualities attributed to Montgomery can also attach to Ellis, such as use of parallel octaves to serve the melody, the outstanding melodicism.

His ability to create mellifluous, fresh chord progression makes him an ideal accompanist to a dynamic pianist. ELLIS HAS BECOME SIDEMAN OF CHOICE FOR many jazz greats passing through Milwaukee. He enthusiastically recalls working with saxophonists Eddie Harris and Stanley Turrentine. And after Sonny Stitt recuperated from surgery in Milwaukee in 1974, Ellis joined him for a 49-night stint at a club the saxophonist aunt owned. That was “the experience of my life because I never heard anything like that until I played with him, and I haven’t heard anything like that since,” Ellis said. Ellis is part of a mutual admiration society. Frank Morgan came to Milwaukee two years ago primarily to try to convince Ellis to go on the road with him. Morgan said “his concept is beautiful and his art is impeccable. One time, Manty and I went up to Madison to do a master class and we performed a duo that was just heavenly. I can’t say enough. There are some bright stars on the horizon who owe their life to him. He’s a legend in his own time. I love him and there should be a monument erected to him in Milwaukee.” The plaque on such a statue should mention how Ellis has worked on building appreciation for jazz in his hometown. For three years in the late ’60s and early ’70s he was musical director for The Black Scene, a local NBC affiliate public affairs television show. “Every week I had to come up with something different,” Ellis recalled. “One time I got some avant garde players, some local cats from around Milwaukee. We just went on and played. And you know what? People were really into it. But that kind of hurt me, because I prefer playing that’s more controlled and more bounded by progression to what sounds like just making noises.”

As an educator, Ellis has preserved despite political setbacks. The 12 years he taught at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music proved an ultimately bittersweet experience. He directed a government-funded Model Cities program that provided Conservatory scholarships for 50 talented students from poor areas of the city. “A lot of the students are still playing music, and a lot of them are playing professionally,” he said. “Too bad that program fizzled out when the Republicans took over.” Ellis’ own experiences at the Conservatory are also filled with pride and disappointment. From 1972 to 1984, he taught at the institution when it still offered a four-year jazz program; the degree program was abandoned in 1985. “We came up with a strong program that produced some pretty good players,” he said. “If they had any concepts at all we would get them out of them.” He cites bassist Jeff Chambers, drummer Carl Allen and trumpeter Brian Lynch as among his best students. The Conservatory bands won also received numerous college competitions awards. Despite what he considers short-sightedness on the part of the Conservatory, Ellis has not quit teaching. Since 1977, he has taught master classes and held clinics in college campuses around the region, in collaboration with bassist Richard Davis. “I would like to teach jazz improvisation and rhythm section development at college music departments,” he said. “From playing for years, I understand how to explain things and can relate the flow of lines of music to chord progressions. You can’t tell people you want them to do this, but if you hear something you like, you can analyze it and explain why you liked it.” In addition to his academic involvment, since last September, Ellis has been leading sessions at the Milwaukee jazz club, Christopher’s. He performed with organist Jack McDuff at the club last spring and continues to freelance. Ellis also leads his own group, with drummer Bob Hobbs and bassist George Washington. He clearly remains optimistic about jazz. “I’m not in love with Wynton Marsalis,” Ellis said, “but when a guy like that comes along, it just shows you can’t stop it. If he’s sprouting up, he’s going to cause someone else to sprout up somewhere else. They try to kill the music, but when they stomp it out here, it grows up over there. They kill it over there, it comes up over here. Jazz will always be there, because people will come along who can think. And jazz musicians think, believe it or not. They might not think about anything else but music, but they’re thinking.”

Manty Ellis is the cornerstone of Milwaukee jazz. Manty co-founded the jazz program at the Wisconsin Conservatory along with Tony King. He is also a recipient of the 1997 Arts Midwest Jazz Masters award. Some of the musicians Manty has worked with include Sonny Stitt, Eddie Harris, Stanley Turrentine, Richard Davis, Buddy Montgomery, Brian Lynch, Willie Pickens, David Hazeltine, and Melvin Rhyne. In 1999 Manty cut his CD, In His Own Sweet Way. Manty Ellis is Milwaukee jazz.