A conversation with Manty Ellis. Part Two

He always played great. Sonny Stitt, man.. Everybody always talked about Charlie Parker, but with Stitt… The history books say, “Had there not been a Charlie Parker there’d never have been a Sonny Stitt. And then there’s another history book that comes out and says, “There was a Charlie Parker and there ALSO was a Sonny Stitt”. He was incredible.

Part One.


JB: Did he (Cecil Taylor) come to Milwaukee much?

ME: No, he came down quite a bit, yeah.

JB: Did you ever work with him at all?

ME: *laughs with JB* Hell no. You had the AACM in Chicago.

JB: Roscoe Mitchell was in Madison, too.

ME: Yeah, he’s still lives there.

JB: You were telling me Berkeley (Fudge) played with the Art Ensemble (of Chicago)?

ME: He went all the way to Europe with ’em…

MD: He went to Amsterdam, I think.

JB: What did he say about it?

ME: ‘Bizarre bullshit’, he said. *laughs* He said, “I could just do it…It’s just a gig, y’know?” They had an 18-piece band and no charts…no rehearsals. It was a “play what you wanna play” or “whatever you think you wanna play” atmosphere.

KR: There’s a band in New York who I’m forgetting…this famous composer. He was from South America but he does something of that nature, where he hires all these ridiculous musicians like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Aaron Parks…just top quality dudes, and they all play in this big band but it’s very…It’s along that vibe of….a shit ton of people onstage, lots of improvisation.

ME: It’s total improvisation.

KR: These guys are good, so I wonder how it sounds.

JB: What was the Madison scene like when those guys were around, like Jimmy Cheatham? Did you play up there or work a lot?

ME: Yeah, we worked there.

JB: Richard Davis has been there for a long time.

ME: Yeah, since 1974…before there was Jimmy Cheatham. We had a place on State Street, the Good Karma was the name of his, down on that side of town.

JB: I wonder if that was City Bar?

ME: Nope. Down in that State Street area, they had something like that. They didn’t sell any alcohol or anything there, they just opened it up with a stage in there, and people came and brought blankets, ate their lunch.

JB: You’d play there with Richard Davis, or…?

ME: No, they had Jimmy Cheatham. They had Tony Callum, not sure if you know him. You didn’t need to meet him, though – he was…out.

JB: Oh, they played out a lot?

ME: No, man…they were “out”, as in the music was crazy. *laughs* I took David Hazeltine down there on his first gig outta town in Madison. And with that mother, hauling up his organ and lifting things… *laughs* Tony Callum, he played drums: he never….he’s one of those drummers that everything was always there but you didn’t always put it together. He’d do some amazing things and you’d lose sense of the time. He never did put his style together, you know?

JB: So that was Hazeltine’s first gig outside of Milwaukee, was in Madison?

ME: Yeah. The hotel was right on the State Street square, around the Capitol was the place to be. We worked down there. I know that was Dave’s first gig outta town.

JB: What about this place called Satin Doll on Fond du Lac avenue…Do you know anything about that place at all?

ME: Sure I do.

JB: Did they hire musicians and that?

ME: No

JB: Really?

ME: You see, Satin Doll was on Fond du Lac. That’s a recent venue, compared to some of the others. Where MYSO is now used to be Max’s Lounge…lots of cats used to work there.

JB: So that preceded Satin Doll now?

ME: Yeah, that’s where she used to dance there…Satin Doll worked at a place called The Flame.

JB: When was that?

ME: 40’s & 50s. Loretta Thomas. She was an organ player. Her husband, Derby Thomas, was a crook. He ran places. He was a real crook.

JB: The Flame? I think I’ve heard of that.

ME: Yeah, that was around during the 40’s, early 50’s. Satin Doll and Bobby Burdette (saxophone player), they were always there. Also, Polka Dot – that was on 14th and Meinecke. Bobby owned it, that was his place. Loretta White was her name then – she played organ there.

MD: Was Bobby known as a great player here?

ME: He was known around here, yeah.

JB: What style would you say he was, exactly – like, if you could compare him to another artist?

MD: Was a more commercial artist, would you say?

ME: Yeah, definitely. Well see, everybody was “commercial” back then.

JB: Like Louis Jordan or something?

ME: No, he wasn’t that commercial. He wasn’t /that/ hip. Louie Jordan was a bad dude. *laughs*

JB: But as far as what era you’d place it in, what would you say it was stylistically?

ME: What I remember most about Bobby was he played tenor saxophone, and he never needed a mic, no matter what. He could drown anything out, play with the organ and kit. That guy was solid, and he was very lazy as far as playing. He’d have a gig and anybody’d come in, and he’d want to give them a saxophone and be like, “You wanna play?”, even if they’d never played a saxophone before. *laughs*

MD: Was he coming out of more of a swing era?

ME: Yeah, yeah. That drummer Dick Smith I was telling you about? He played with Bobby. They were into it all the time.

JB (to KR): He was telling me about this drummer named Dick Smith; neither of us had ever heard of him before. He was telling us he was ahead of his time, said he was sounding like Elvin Jones in the 40’s… Apparently Max Roach and Art Blakey knew about this guy. He was always just… in Milwaukee, always under the radar.

ME: Ike Day (Chicago)…a lot of cats from Chicago got their experience coming up here to Milwaukee – for instance, Ramsey Lewis. His first gig was up here, with this trio. They wore top hats and tuxedos when they played.

MD: Do you think those guys recorded much, like Bobby Burdette or the others?

ME: No, recording was something fairly new then…then the computer came up and killed that right away. There wasn’t too much recording going on back in those days. If you had a recording date, you knew things were getting serious, y’know? Real serious.

JB: Right, recording is so easy to do nowadays. Anybody with a laptop can do it.

ME: All of the guys that are recording now? They don’t have any sponsorship, there’s nobody behind them telling them what to do.

JB: Right, there’s no labels, or… I wanted to ask you about the Impulse record that you’re on with Buddy Montgomery, 1969. That was recorded in Chicago, right? Capitol Studios, or…what was it?

ME: Yeah. That’s where I did mine. Impulse was one of the better labels, for jazz, you know.

MD: Was Buddy living here at that time?

ME: Oh, yeah. You see when Buddy moved here I moved to San Francisco.

MD: Did you know Buddy before he moved here?

ME: Yeah.

MD: Just from him coming through, or what?

ME: Just through Wes [Montgomery], ’cause Wes had come through. It was his brother.

MD: But did the Montgomery brothers come to town a lot?

ME: Yeah, that’s how they got on up. Buddy and Monk were after the same broads, and Buddy won out I guess. *laughs* Rosie Curro – remember that club I told you about? That’s her family, who owns that club.

JB: That was the place.

ME: Yeah. Their family owned the club, man.

JB: Buddy and Monk were both after the same woman?

ME: Yeah. Buddy and Monk came here to work for Frank Balistieri over at the place he had on 2nd Street. Frank was…he was mafia. He had everything.

MD: Was he the one who got busted?

ME: He died, yeah. And his sons are lawyers. They couldn’t indict him for anything else – murder or nothing like that – so they got him for income tax evasion.

JB: That’s how they got Al Capone, too. They couldn’t get him convicted of…murder or anything…. income taxes.

ME: Buddy came here with Wes, that’s the first time I met Buddy. When Wes came, he had been using Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. Miles (Davis) had used them. Buddy would sometimes say, “Man, these cats cost too much.” *laughs* I’ll just use my brothers. Every time he’d come, he’d come by and hang out, when he brought his album from the tapes he’d made of new albums and such. I had all that shit at home, he’d come by and take my tape recorder and…most cats didn’t know about Wes. He didn’t drink alcohol, didn’t mess with no dope, but he’d eat a whole fried chicken, a whole cake, and a gallon of ice cream.

MD: Was Buddy like that too?

ME: Yeah.

MD: Where would Wes play when he came to town?

ME: He didn’t come here much until Buddy moved here. If he came and played, he played on my gig.

JB: So did you got to know Wes a little bit? After Buddy moved here, Wes would come here more frequently, you mean?

ME: I met Wes before I met Buddy. That’s where I got initiated, man – over in Chicago, where Buddy was…with Wes, Monk, Pookie Johnson (tenor player). They were workin’ in Chicago, at Sutherland Hotel. The guy that was teaching me was also teaching Herbie Hancock, named Billy Wallace. Billy had moved away because he was having some problems living here, and it was kind of silly. So he moved to Chicago and he became the number one piano player down there, by far.

MD: Did you ever live in Chicago?

ME: I lived in San Francisco, I lived in New York. And I went through Chicago to get the both of ’em. *laughs* I didn’t like Chicago.

JB: How long did you live in New York?

ME: Probably a year, but I wasn’t playing man. That was with the federal government, working for the Air Force. I’m a certified air frame technician, from back then. They’ve changed all the shit now, but when Wes came here it was for the gig I was tellin’ you about with Frank. That’s the only gig he played here; otherwise he’d come here to see Buddy, you know? And that gig I told you I worked seven nights a week and had to take a vacation? That’s where they’d come up here to gig. Finally that place (Alfie’s) closed up for some reason, not sure why…I think the mafia got into it with the government. They tried to give me that club, Balistieri did.

JB: He tried to give you the club?

ME: That’s the Mafia. You don’t wanna do that shit, man. There was three cats running it – John Volpe, who was married to Sardino’s daughter; this is a big family, you know?

JB: Sardino’s was a jazz club on Farwell.

ME: Yeah, and John Fazio. You guys are pretty young to remember, but there used to be a streetcar up there, they took it off the tracks and made a restaurant out of it, up on Green Bay avenue there. He ran that when he was in the Mafia. The other cat was Don Contardi, who was a lawyer for the mafia. Jon Volpi’s son ran Sardino’s. As Joe’s son, he was clean, see? So he could get a liquor license. Volpi was a crook, from the bottom of his heart. He didn’t care. He fucked with the Mafia like it was nothin’, man. They opened up this club and came over there to the Jazz Oasis one night and Volpi was runnin’ it for the mafia. He says, “Hey man, we’re gonna get this club up over here, we’re tired of doin’ this shit with you guys and we wanna get you a band. This was the first band I’d ever had, at the Oasis. It was called Sardino’s then.

MD: Which location? Was it called Brother’s Lounge, or?

ME: At Holton and Meinecke, that’s the one. That’s the same place.

JB: Brothers Lounge.

ME: He asked me, “Don’t you wanna get your own thing goin’, and quit fuckin’ around with me? I said, “Sure.” So he says, “we’re gonna open this club”. It closed for about three years. But they went in there and did a real good job on it. They’d gotten it ready to open up for about a month and they had a plane, skywriting, “What’s it all about, Alfie’s?”, ‘cause Alfie’s.

MD: You are talking for the club Alfie’s?

ME: Yeah, this is where we’re getting started.

ME: This Dr. here, Lefco, Seymour. You don’t know about him?

JB: No, I don’t think so.

ME: Dentist. He was a dentist. He went to school with Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson.

JB: Is that who… you gave me that Dizzy Gillespie chart? Mark gave me a photocopy of it, I have a copy of a handwritten chart by Dizzy. I did hear about him then.

ME: Night in Tunisia?

JB: No, “Con Alma”.

MD: What about Seymour?

ME: Right, yeah. Seymour had this thing about singers… He was also a songwriter, he wrote some nice tunes, you know? So we went in there, man that was place was packed seven nights a week.

MD: What was Seymour’s involvement?

ME: He had the singer, and she sang his tunes.

MD: Did he kinda back it a little bit?

MD: Who else did he help out?

ME: Mostly Penny (Goodwin). We went over to Chicago and had them pal us around with him, canned strings and all that. They charged them for violin players. They ripped him off.

MD: Did he produce that record, or something?

ME: Yeah, he produced it. I think Penny has them all in her basement. He’d spent his money away. But anyway, Volpe was running Alfie’s and after seven months of that place being open, Volpe had a brand-new Thunderbird… got married… and bought a house. He was stealing that much money off the guys, man.

JB: Off the club?

ME: Yeah, he was fuckin’ with Frankie, man. You don’t do that, you know?

ME: That’s the real shit. There’s no way of knowing everything they owned, they had it all locked up. I told you it’s deep as hell. But you gotta get in with ’em and you don’t have to worry.

JB: Yeah, all those old warehouses in the 3rd Ward and that.

ME: They bought up a lot of real estate. Well, what happened was the feds came to close Alfie’s when they used to come around and mess the joints up…y’know, mess ’em up, but not necessarily close ’em up.

JB: Just to poke around, and…?

ME: Yeah, you know, “Not enough light in here, we gotta shut ya down for not enough light” type stuff. *laughs* What happened was they got into it about something, ’cause Volpe was stealin’ the money, so Volpe gets pissed off and calls the Feds, tells ’em the license is in his name, and that he doesn’t want the license anymore and he quits. And he walks out. So John Fazio, man…you don’t fuck with him, he’s really crazy. He’s all-star football player at Lincoln High School, into all that. John got up outta bed and came down to Alfie’s in his house coat with his gun, he was gonna kill him and Volpe ran. They never found him, he was hidin’ out. So after they closed the place up, they had a meeting up there. That’s when they tried to give it to me. During the meeting they’re talking and the cat says, “Well, You know, we need somebody who’s gonna be able to have a nice record, and not have the police bother and run the club for us, and be part of this and be part of that,” and he’s talking to me. I said, “Yeah, that’s what you need. Not me though!”. *all laugh*

MD: Didn’t want to mess with that.

ME: You take it, you can’t quit!

JB: Once you are in…

ME: No! Once you are in, you can’t quit, y’know? Anything can happen – people disappear, man. I told you about Pogrob.

JB: Right. Mequon. You said they found someone’s body in Mequon?

ME: Izzy Pogrob, with eight shots in his head.

MD: He was the guy at the Brass Rail.

ME: Izzy. He was about 6’ 8”, ‘bout 500 pounds.

JB: Big cat.

ME: He bullied everybody. Did I tell you what happened with Chico Hamilton? Chico Hamilton was down there. Chico called and said, “This is my last night, why don’t you come out to the gig?” I said, “OK”, and I’m down there hanging with Chico. After the gig, he says come on and go with me I gotta get the money for the gig. I said, “Ok.” I go there, and get into the back room and Pogrob is back there… And he’s got two guys standing with him, he is sitting at his desk with his head down. He looks up and he says, “Chico?”, and I’m standing there with Chico… He says, “I ain’t payin’ you shit.” For a whole week.

JB: For a week?

ME: Yeah! For a week!

JB: He said he wasn’t gonna pay him?

ME: No, and then he looks at Chico and says, “What’s the payroll for your band?” Chico told him, he’s paying the guys for this and that. He had a cello player, you remember he had that group with cello, and Jim Hall and whoever. He told him, he says, “Alright, I’ll tell you what, I’ll pay the band but I ain’t payin’ you shit.” *all laugh* That’s the kind of guy he was.

JB: Fuckin’ Jim Hall.

MD: He wouldn’t do anything?

ME: Nah, that’s what he did. Of course everybody was dogs then. Philly Joe was playin’ drums down there one time and the guy (Jimmy Stewart) let him use his drums on the last night of the gig. That night we went down to say goodbye to the cats and Philly had his drums in the truck. Ready to go. *laughs*

JB: He took his drums?! *laughs*

ME: He had ‘em. *laughs* That was common. You know, you hear all these guys names and they were dogs, man! Sonny Stitt?

JB: Yeah! Talk about Sonny Stitt. You were in his band for a while.

ME: Yeah, I was in his band for 49 straight nights.

MD: Where were you guys playing?

ME: On Burleigh.

MD: It was all here?

MD: What club was over there?

ME: It was “The Most”. His aunt owned the club. Jeanette, she was married to his uncle, they had a big barbeque goin’ on.

MD: Did he have any other ties to Milwaukee? Where did Stitt grow up?

ME: Detroit. I think it was Detroit. He came here and we worked, he was convalescent to go in the hospital.

MD: When was this Manty?

ME: This was in the 70s. ’72, ’73, something like that.

MD: He must have been playing great, then.

ME: He always played great. Sonny Stitt, man.. Everybody always talked about Charlie Parker, but with Stitt… The history books say, “Had there not been a Charlie Parker there’d never have been a Sonny Stitt. And then there’s another history book that comes out and says, “There was a Charlie Parker and there ALSO was a Sonny Stitt”. He was incredible.

JB: How did you get into his band?

ME: Huh?

JB: How did you get with him?

ME: He came here to go into the hospital. Something’s always wrong with Sonny, man – he was dissipating so much, man. He had a briefcase he carried around, everybody thought he was a doctor or something. He had dope in there. *laughs* A whole briefcase of that.

MD: Who else was playing with you guys on that, then?

ME: At first, Melvin (Rhyne) was on the gig. That was really a trip.

JB: Organ?

ME: He was playing electric piano, that’s when the Wurlitzer was popular.

JB: That would have been cool.

ME: I’ll never forget this, man. People were packed in there one night and we were playing and somebody asked Sonny to play, “The Very Thought of You”. So, he asked Mel and asked if I knew the tune. I said yeah, so we start it. We get halfway through the tune and I’m sitting there listening, and I know it. All of a sudden shit starts goin’ off into outer space with wrong changes and everything. Sonny Stitt turns around and says, “Hey man, just play the regular changes…”. He thought he was was trying to substitute, you know. *laughs* They were just the wrong changes. *laughs*

JB: Right, right. *laughs * So he was just fucking up.

ME: Yeah, yeah. He just kept on playing and Sonny kept on going and the shit went out again. And so Sonny just said, “Hey man, just play the regular changes”, y’know? And Melvin looks at me, then looks at him, and says, “Fuck it, man, maybe I should just go home” in the middle of the tune. He picks up his piano, starts taking the legs off, puts it under his arm and walks off the stage. *all laughs* Sonny looked at me and said, “I know that motherfucker from someplace else”. He said, “That ain’t the first time he did that, I should have known or watched him, and known it when his nostrils swell up and his hair stood straight up on his head and said, “Fuck it”. He thought Melvin was the devil. *laughs*

MD: Manty, was it coincidental that Melvin and Buddy were here, and Hattush or…?

ME: Melvin was first.

MD: ‘Cause he went to Madison…

ME: Right. He was here from Madison.

MD: Did that inspire anyone else to come here?

ME: No, Buddy was already here when Melvin came.

MD: What did Buddy come here for, exactly?

ME: It had to be about ’67. I moved to San Francisco then. Then I came back.

9 thoughts on “A conversation with Manty Ellis. Part Two

  1. Thank you. Great interview. It was like sitting in the back of the club with these cats and listening to their stories. Never knew about the scene up in Wisconsin. Entertained and enlightened.

  2. Fascinating stuff – thanks Manty, Jamie, and Mark. Like Scott, I remember both Jimmy (J. D.) Duncan and Dick Smith from the late 70’s – J. D. with his “opera lean” and his silent 4’s – Dick who told us about a kind of wine he preferred because it “had no chemicals” –
    Thanks again – Barry

  3. Jamie, Rose Marie Curro was also my cousin. I love reading your stories. Buddy had a song called Rose Marie after her. She was much older than I but remember her and Buddy very well. He was a great guy.

    1. Rosaria,

      Thanks for the message! Are there any photos or artifacts left from Curro’s? I would love to include them in the project. What an important place in Milwaukee’s history!

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