A conversation with Manty Ellis. Part Three

My theory is, just put all the bullshit on the side and go forward with what you are doing. Don’t even worry about that, don’t even look that way. Focus. And once you do that, you got it whipped. Because the human mind, man, even dumb motherfucker’s mind is something else, man.

Part One.
Part Two.

MD: 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 Buddy, 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.

MD: When did Hattush come here?

ME: Hattush came here in the 50’s. Hattush came here with a organ player from St. Louis named Jimmy Dean.

JB: You are talking about Hattush Alexander, came in the 50’s… so he had been here a while then.

ME: Yeah, Hat been here quite a while.

MD: Did you work with Hattush back then?

ME: We worked a gig, do you remember where Jimmy Mack’s used to be? It used to be Antonio’s Palace.

JB: The Main Event?


ME: Yeah, the Main Event. Antonio’s Palace, the guy who used to run it… was a mafia joint too. He fired me and Hattush both. Yeah, that was funny because we had all kinds of problems. After the night that we worked, he called the both of us who were on the gig. He called us both in the office, he looks at Hat and he looks at me and he said… paid us, and said everything’s cool now? I don’t owe you anything? We said no. He said, well you fuckers will never work here again! *all laugh You’re fired! He fired me and Hattush right there. Hat looked at me and I looked at Hat, said wow, that’s interesting.

KR: I guess you really don’t argue with him.

ME: Man, Ive seen cats like Jimmy Johnson… (to MD) you know Jimmy Johnson?

MD: I’ve heard of him… what was his deal?

ME: Jimmy was a bass player.

JB: Was he a good player?

ME: ….. he was ….

MD: Was he a character?

ME: …he was ok. But around here, he was real good. We worked a gig up on 3rd St, a couple blocks north of Center… one block north of Center. We finished the gig, went to get paid, it was July 1st, thats when they get the licence changed over… them guys took all the money and split, and left the club. We come out to get paid, ain’t nobody there, man. So, Jimmy Johnson takes the cash register, its locked, you know, ain’t nothing in it. He takes it out, he’s sitting on the curb…

MD: Took the whole thing out?

ME: Yea, ripped the whole cash register out, got him a house brick, and he’s beatin on the cash register. That guy we was talking about, Nelson Symonds? He was there. Yeah, he was there.

MD: Manty, is Billy Wallace around?

ME: Yeah. He’s in Denver.

MD: Oh yeah, that’s right.

ME: I’ll probably have to go get him, eventually. Cause, he’s getting older and…

MD: But he’s playing?

ME: Oh, he can play!

MD: I mean, playing out?

ME: Naw, he won’t play out. Noooo, noo. Man, when he lived in Vegas, the singers … man, he said, I don’t need to do this shit no more. I’ll sing myself, if I want to sing.

JB: So, he taught Herbie?

ME: That’s where I met Herbie, comin… over in Chicago.

MD: When was the first time you met Herbie?

ME: He was nine years old.

*all laugh

MD: How did you happen to meet him?

ME: Going over to see Billy.

MD: Was he studying with Billy then?

ME: Yeah. Every time I went over there, he was there.

MD: Jazz? or more classical?

ME: Man, Billy doesn’t know shit about classical music. Billy Wallace never took a lesson from nobody. He’s self taught. Completely. You know how when you practice learning piano and you play with your fingers like this? (curves fingers) He plays flat fingered. I was talking to him the other…

MD: Tatum played flat fingered.

ME: Yeah, he was playing with his whole fingers, instead of like this.

JB: Who was the other cat? Chris Anderson?

ME: Oh!

JB/MD: Did you ever know that guy?

ME: Yeah! Blind.

MD: Yeah

JB: Herbie references him as one of his teachers.

ME: Billy respected him.

MD: Did you ever hang with him in Chicago?

ME: Yeah, Billy took me to his house.

JB: Was he a real unique player?

ME: Yeah, harmonically.

MD: I heard him out in New York, and he’s unusual…

ME: Chris Anderson?

MD: Yeah, his playing is unusual. You ever get any insight into what he was..

ME: No, I never… Billy would take me up to his apartment and he’d have a piano, and I’d just sit there. And these cats would start playing a tune, and then Chris would play and the Billy would say, yeah that’s nice, I tried it this way. Man, harmonic geniuses, man.

MD: Herbie’s got that new book and he talks about getting together with Chris and I think Billy. He said they’d all take turns playing a tune.

ME: Right.

MD: That’s sounds like what you are talking about. Probably mind blowing stuff.

JB: Harmonic geniuses. That makes a lot of sense, like why Herbie is Herbie.

TA: Did you get a chance to hear Herbie when he was that young?

ME: No, the first time I got to really hear Herbie was when he went to the piano…

JB: In Milwaukee?

ME: Yeah, was when I really got to hear..

TA: Like 16 years old?

ME: No, he was like 19 or 20. And he was scared to death. He was going to New York. Thats when he went. About 6 months after that he was with Miles. You heard of George Duke, thats another dude who was a monster.

MD: Did you get to know George Duke?

ME: Oh yeah, when I moved to San Francisco.

MD: Did you work with him?

ME: I got to play one night in Richmond, California it was at the… this guy that worked at the, workin for the navy, he was a bass player, his name was Edgar Williams. He drove a forklift at the place where I was working, and he knew I was a musician, and so he came over and invited me out to Richmond for a… he had a gig that night out there. And he just got a drummer that came in from Brooklyn, his name was Mickey… anyways, George Duke was on that gig on piano, the bass player was Edgar Williams, and this drummer Mickey Owens. And I went out there and I played with them that night and the drummer got killed on the freeway, the same night.

MD: That night?

ME: Exact same night.

MD: It seemed like he had kind of a McCoy thing…

ME: Aw, he could do anything.

MD: What took you out to San Francisco?

ME: Well, I went out there on a vacation and I checked out the scene. Wasn’t too much happening musically. I figured… that’s when I took that vacation, I was working 7 nights a week here.

MD: At Alfie’s?

ME: Yeah. And I decided I’d rather be out there for a while.

MD: What’d you dig about it?

ME: The weather. Mostly, the weather.

TA: Were Joe (Henderson) and Bobby Hutcherson out there at that time?

ME: Yeah. Bobby Hutcherson, Harold Land, ah, Ron Carter.

MD: Did you work a lot out there? or was it hard to break into the scene.

ME: Man, when I got there, I had… I got there on a Thursday night, I had two gigs Friday, when I got there. But, I wasn’t what I wanted… the organ was very popular, I don’t like working with organ.

MD: You don’t?

ME: Noooo. Hell naw. I had this one gig at this place called The Scene that was in Pacific Heights. Coming from Oakland, you go up through San Francisco. I had that gig and Oscar Brown Jr. was writing these plays and stuff. Man, the cats out there had his music all fucked up, couldn’t write it out the way he, you know.. I straightened out all his music and everything. I wound up, he got me on that gig, that was a four-night gig, he got me to work with him. That theater thing with him? I never missed a day’s work. I worked all the time. the only reason why I quit that, was because the play was going so good in San Francisco, that they decided to open it in New York. That was a good idea. The day before we leave, they had this cat… Tony, Tony something, he played the lead part, and the guy that played the lead in Bye-Bye Birdie, he played the lead in that the whole time I was there. They got Big Black… you ever heard of that? The conga player? He played a lead part in there. When we got ready to go to New York to open up, they told me that they had gotten rid of Big Black…

MD: As an actor?

ME: Oh yeah, he was an actor. All those cats, they’ll do anything for money. So they got rid of him and said, guess what? We’re getting Muhammad Ali to play the lead part. Now, wait a minute… *laughs I said, let me think about that a minute. I wouldn’t go to New York. Merl went, the organ player… Merl Saunders.

JB: Merl Saunders?

ME: Yeah, that’s who I worked with all the time in California.

MD: He’s been through here recently?

ME: Oh yeah, but he’s dead now. Jerry Garcia? Grateful Dead… All those cats.

JB: You worked with those guys?

ME: I knew all of em. Merl was doin that.

JB: I thought he did like a Grateful Dead thing, in Milwaukee.

ME: Sure, he did. He came here a couple times. Three or four times.

MD: What’s the place… Shank Hall.

(Bill Bonifas joins the conversation)

MD: (to BB) He was just saying how he got to know the dead in San Francisco.

JB: The Grateful Dead.

BB: Somehow, I didn’t translate, that’s really cool.

ME: The Grateful Dead *laughs

TA: I heard that all those guys in that band were into jazz.

ME: I don’t know about that… they were dopers. That’s what they were. Big time dopers, that’s all.

BB: Somehow I went to a Grateful Dead concert when I was a kid. And I got to meet Jerry Garcia. I think I said one thing, I asked him is that a custom made guitar? All he said was, “ Ugh”. *laughs That was my whole conversation with him.

ME: That was the extent of his vocabulary too.

MD: Manty, how come you left San Francisco and came back here?

ME: The music was sad out there.

MD: You decided to come back.

ME: Yeah. Then Buddy (Montgomery) called me out there, wanted me to come back and do the, that recording with him.

JB: The Impulse thing…

ME: Yeah.

JB: ‘69

ME: That was screwed up too.

JB: What, the recording?

ME: No, the whole situation. Now, he’s in Milwaukee, these guys going to take care of business… and I’m in San Francisco and I’m supposed to come to Milwaukee, moving back… and he’s going down to Chicago to finish this contract obligation. And he gives me the wrong date. So, I’m driving back from San Francisco, you know, and I drive past Chicago and I’m looking over at the city, yeah there’s the studio over there and I have to come home. When I get home, they are burning up the telephone, “man, you are supposed to be at the studio!”. I said no that’s tomorrow! He said, No, it’s today! Aw, man.

JB: So you gotta drive back, you just drove from San Francisco to Milwaukee.

ME: Yeah, so I said, well I’ll be there tomorrow. He said, we’ll do part of it today, and the other part of it tomorrow. That’s why I wasn’t on the whole album.

JB: That’s right. I have it. I found it at Bullseye records, they had it and I just recently bought a copy of it.

ME: This Rather Than That.

JB: Yup.

BB: Is that the title?

JB: Yeah. It’s on Impulse. And he’s holding an apple…

ME: A lime and…

JB: and a lemon.

ME: A lemon and a lime.

JB: Oh, I thought it was an apple and a lemon. So, a lemon and a lime.

BB: Like a brunette and a red head or something.

ME: This Rather Than That. He’s got a real nice blues tune on there, “Willy Nilly Blues”.

MD: Yeah. With that bass line, octave kind of bassline.

ME: Yeah, it’s only two notes in the bassline. On the chords, it’s just like a blues.

BB: I always liked that Oliver Nelson, what is it “Blues and the Abstract Truth”…

JB: That’s a great record. Freddie is on that, Roy Haynes on drums…

BB: That was highly produced. They used a lot of reverb on those horns, you know they didn’t used to do very much.

ME: Well, the studio does that. They go in the studio and change everything… Wes (Montgomery) told me, he did a trio thing… he said, man, I went back, they played it back for me, it was a big band on there. *all laugh. He, said what the hell is this?

BB: I bet they did that with Wes, he did that thing with strings…

ME: Oh, sure.

BB: “A Day in the Life”, yeah, that was like, Herbie is on piano… as much as that was like a commercial record, that’s what got me interested in jazz because my dad had that record, but man, that’s some good guitar playing on that…

ME: Yeah.

BB: …and that was an entry point, because I didn’t hear the real straight-ahead stuff.

TA: People knock it, but that later Wes stuff…

BB: His playing is great!

TA: Caravan? With the big band? Shit’s crazy.

BB: Yeah.

ME: That’s commercial Wes.

TA: It’s still good.

BB: The playing is still great.

ME: Yeah. What you really shoulda done, is sit there and listen to him and then have him hand you his guitar, “you can play now”. Man, I said, holy christ, what is this? And he handed me his guitar, it felt like a thousand pounds, man. *laughs Aw, man. I tell you one thing it did for me… I don’t mind, whoever is playing, it doesn’t bother me. After that. That’s the way…

JB: Yeah, right… that sets the bar pretty high. To get handed Wes’ guitar…

ME: By Wes.

JB: By Wes.

ME: And then before that, they were playing some tune, and he was playing and his cord was tangled up, man, he was playing something. I said, how can he probably play that, and I look around and he’s kicking his cord playing… he wasn’t even… I said aw, man… unbelievable.

BB: I like to go on youtube and just, put Wes Montgomery and there will be some outtakes of some European recording session and stuff, that someone was filming or a television show… and it’s always solid. I mean, it’s never not solid.

ME: Oh, that’s him. He’s a player, man.

TA: I have a question about Wes, because I hear everyone, there seems to be like two different… people say that he was like this sort of savant guy who didn’t know anything about like changes, and I hear some other people say, who knew him, that say he was like really up on, like he knew about how to play changes. Like he wasn’t just getting it out of the air…

ME: Wes… none of those brothers were heavy, head-wise. They just played.

TA: Yeah.

MD: I mean, would Buddy talk about, I don’t know, would he refer to different extensions, or a flat nine…

ME: Aw, hell naw…

MD: It wasn’t about that, right?

ME: Let me tell you about Buddy… I was by the house one time, and we were talkin’ about music, and I was tellin’ him… Man, you outta get with Tony King. ‘Cause you know, he’s a harmonic genius. He knows all the… he doesn’t play anything, but he knows it.

JB: He knows the theory.

ME: Buddy says, yeah I talked to Tony, he wants to talk about building chords and stuff. I said, yeah! He says, yeah, well he told me about this C7 chord, its C, E, G, and Bb… and he went to the piano and played it and said, “I don’t like that.” *all laugh

MD: He didn’t want to talk about it…

ME: He couldn’t! He didn’t know nothin’ about that! The next step from that is voicing, you know…

MD: He didn’t think about it that way.

ME: See, Tony would teach you all about everything, why it works like that.

BB: I studied with him…

ME: Tony King. He was a monster wasn’t he?

BB: Yeah, he was. I don’t know if I have the quote right, and you might correct me if you remember it but, he would say like… he’d pick like F# lydian or something and make a kid go, ok, “F#”, you know, and he’d go through it and when you’d stumble he’d laugh. And he’d say, not how about you? And he’d go up to you, because he wanted everyone to know everything. But the line he kept coming back to was, “The human mind tolerates what gives it pleasure, and what gives it pleasure is what it can do with…

ME/BB (in unison): out thinking.

ME: Right!

BB: Now, when I was younger, I thought it just meant, ah, you are a bunch of stupid kids and you don’t want to think. But, then I thought, that’s true… But, then also, the human mind tolerates what gives it pleasure, is when you know the shit so well,  then you aren’t thinking. So it’s true at both the learning stage where you’ve gotta, yeah yeah yeah…

ME: You know, I’ve been trying to remember that for years.

BB: Well, you and I were meant to meet tonight.

ME: Right.

BB: The human mind tolerates what gives it pleasure, and what gives it pleasure is what it can do…

ME/BB: without thinking.

ME: Well, that was it.

JB: Sonny Rollins says that, Bird…

BB: If you know it so well, then you are not thinking again. But, I never got the second level. Yeah, he’s calling me a lazy dumb fuck, because I don’t want to memorize the shit. And later its like, no, what he’s really talking about is you know it so well, that you got it down. That just hit me like this here, and I’m almost 60.

ME: I’m glad you brought that up , man, because that, I’ve been trying to think of that… every student that he had, he told that.

BB: Yeah?

ME: I studied with Tony for 20 years. Not just a 45 minute class, 6 and 8 hours a day. And on the weekends, we put the Conservatory together. You know?

MD: How did you get to know Tony, like originally?

ME: Well, Tony, he lived in the hood. You know. And we used to, the kids, we used to be rough, you know, throwing rocks, breaking windows and all this, just like normal kids in the hood did. And Tony was on the road, and he’d be out, and he owned this house right next to my buddy on Reservoir, right around the corner from where I live… and we’d play in the alley right where he would sleep and we’d piss him off all the time. You know, ‘cause he’d be out all up in Green Bay driving around. He’d never stay in a hotel, he’d stay in his car and he’d come home and want to sleep, and he’d come out and run us off… and we used to fuck with him all the time. You know? *laughs. He’s always runnin’ us off. And finally at the Conservatory, when they decided, ah… they wanted to put a jazz program, that was his idea in the first place.

MD: How did he approach them? How was he able to… He had been teaching there probably a little bit?

ME: Yeah, see the Conservatory…

BB: All classical then, right?

ME: Yeah, but wait a minute…

MD: Right, how did he break into that?

ME: The Conservatory wasn’t what it is now. It was the Wisconsin College Conservatory… and then it became the Wisconsin College of Music and the Conservatory was over on Farwell.

MD: Ok

ME: Near Teddy’s…

MD: Ok

ME: …in the basement. And I went over there once, and they were down there, it had rained, stormed, and Tony is down there teaching in his boots in the basement over there.

BB: Smoking cigarettes right?

ME: 5 packs a day.

BB: He’d always get chalk everywhere.

ME: Soot down his chest.

BB: Yeah.

ME: Cigarette burns all over his hands. Fingers burned off.

BB: But a smile on his face.

ME: Right.

BB: But he seemed to be a happy guy…

ME: Always.

BB: … when he was teaching. He was always happy.

ME: Right.

BB: Always on.

ME: Yeah.

BB: Yeah, that was very inspiring.

MD: How did Tony get his knowledge?

ME: How did he get his knowledge? He had a master’s degree. He got it from, what is that little college down in Tennessee State, is in the same city… country western…

JB: Nashville, or…?

ME: Yeah.

MD: Formal study…

ME: Oh yeah. He took it farther than that, man. Man, I mean he couldn’t play shit, but he could tell you anything you wanna know.

MD: Would you say he’s sort of a theorist?

ME: Definitely. Yeah. And when he taught, he taught thorough. I wasn’t just a scale, he taught you why the scale, and why each note in that scale became a part of a family and the whole world was harmonious. Each tone in every scale is harmonious with itself. That’s why, you know… I thought about that. You go back and little simple shit that he taught, if you know that, man, it’s easier at the top.

MD: Yeah.

ME: Guys used to come around and ask trick questions. They’d ask Tony a trick question and he’d have something for him. I said, what’s that? He said, ask that motherfucker “What is music?”.

*all laugh

ME: Think about that.

JB: So, someone is just trying to be a wise guy and trip him up, or something.

ME: Yeah. But, not too many people can tell you what it is. You know what the exact definition is?

JB: What did he say?

ME: Sounds that are pleasant to YOUR ear. So music to you could be noise to me, and vice versa.

MD: Sounds pretty accurate.

JB: I like that.

MD: Hard to argue with that.

ME: Right! What is sound? Well, sounds are vibrations that are controlled. If he asked anything about it, he’d ask what does 440 mean? 440 vibrations per second. Anything that vibrates is going to produce that sound. And what he meant by harmonious, you got even numbers and uneven numbers of vibrations. The even numbers won’t conflict. Uneven numbers and even numbers (hits fists together). Common sense. So, you studied with Tony, man you learned everything.

JB: Overtones….

ME: Yeah, the overtone series and all of that shit. Aw, man, he taught me all of that shit. But the overtone series, man, I lost that, because that got away from playing.

JB: Right, right… Physics.

MD: How old was Tony compared to you?

ME: Seventeen years older than I am.

MD: So, early on was he a mentor to you? I mean, I know you guys built that program together.

ME: Well, you see, Tony was the brains, and I know how to get things done. My theory is, just put all the bullshit on the side and go forward with what you are doing. Don’t even worry about that, don’t even look that way. Focus. And once you do that, you got it whipped. Because the human mind, man, even dumb motherfucker’s mind is something else, man. You could be a dumb motherfucker, but that mind is still cool. Dumber than what?

*all laugh

ME: Sure, they take and put you in the medical field and… surgeries and shit like that… you a dumb motherfucker. You don’t know nothin’ about that!

JB: Right, relatively speaking.

ME: Right! You don’t know shit about that unless you studied it. See music is a little different… it won’t hurt you, in the medical field you’ll kill somebody. That’s why we get all off track, it’s not devastating to your life.

 

One thought on “A conversation with Manty Ellis. Part Three

  1. Hi. This is actually a comment for your Kaye Berigan article. It mentions Billy Howell and his wife Babs. I believe you can hear them both on her only album entitled “Soul – The voice of Barbara Long”. I particularly like their version of “The Trolley Song”. Here’s a link to it: http://youtu.be/D1zB99hqoxw
    I wish there were more recordings of them both.

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