*an edited version of this essay will appear as the introduction the forthcoming book “Images of America, Milwaukee Jazz” by Joey Grihalva on Arcadia Publishing Co. (preorder the book here: mkejazzbook.com)
Many have proclaimed the “death of jazz” since the musical art form began over a century ago. In response to such proclamations, Milwaukee Jazz guitarist Manty Ellis says, “You can’t kill a cultural art form. 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.” It is a disgraceful if unsurprising fact that the music born out of the oppression and suffering of Black Americans has not been fully embraced in the country in which it was created.
Several years ago I began documenting the history of the under-appreciated, if not completely unrecognized jazz scene in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The impetus for the project was that I had found very little online or print evidence of Milwaukee’s rich and storied jazz history, and little mention of particular notable individuals. Important Milwaukee musicians such as Berkeley Fudge, Hattush Alexander, Manty Ellis, Penny Goodwin, Tony King, Will Green, Jessie Hauck, Bob Hobbs, and Dick Smith, to name just a few, influenced and inspired generations of Milwaukee jazz artists. Speaking of guitarist Manty Ellis, alto saxophone legend Frank Morgan said, “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.” Continue reading “No history, no future.”→
Unlike the Classical player, the jazz artist must achieve a technique that uncovers the self, that answers the question that Ellison says is the question of American art: Who am I?
-Robert G O’Meally, from the introduction ‘Jazz Shapes’ to Ralph Ellison’s “Living with Music”
(header photo by Bryan Mir)
I am musically restless. Sometimes I feel unsettled, unprepared, uneasy – maybe a sense of searching is a more appropriate (positive?) way of putting it. There are times when I think this is a good thing, other times – maybe not. I get bored with myself.
Many of my favorite musicians possess this quality of searching and evolution in their music. I am fascinated by musicians who started out playing a certain way, but evolved their style, sound, vocabulary, and musical identities. Keep pushing, keep moving, keep creating.
Maybe this is the way? Maybe this is a way. Maybe this is my way? I am finding my way.
I am excited about this most recent project, KASE. KASE is myself on trumpet/electronics, John Christensen on bass, and Knowsthetime (Ian Carroll) on turntables and electronics. We will be inventing textural soundscapes – incorporating live beats, turntablism, electronic elements, and extended improvisations into the music we create. References for this project run the gamut from the contemporary mainstream to the avant guard to the classic … mixing jazz & hiphop is like mixing jazz and jazz – different branches of the same tree. That said, we hope to create something new and unexpected with this band and invite you to join us on that journey.
My own feelings about the direction in which jazz should go are that there should be much less stress on technical exhibitionism and much more on emotional content, on what might be termed humanity in music and the freedom to say all that you want.
— Booker Little
I think we have all have had experiences of pure inspiration in music. These moments leave us with much to think about regarding our own directions and ideas about music and life. One such experience… I feel so blessed and humbled to have had the opportunity to play with pianist/composer Arturo O’ Farrill and alto saxophonist David Bixler. I must admit, I had been more aware of Mr. O’ Farrill’s work as an arranger and bandleader, not as much as a pianist. After hearing the first notes he pulled out of that well-worn piano at the Jazz Estate, however, I and everyone else in the room was well aware of the magnitude of this incredible musician. We played a mix of charts I brought in, and some of Mr. O’ Farrill’s originals. After getting a chance to talk with Arturo for a bit on the break(s) and after the gig, I came to a few realizations/re-affirmations:
1) I had never really heard anyone sound like this on the piano. What I was hearing was a unique voice, void of recycled cliches, licks, patterns, etc. Yet at the same time, I could hear the entire history of the piano from Art Tatum through Brad Mehldau. It is ok to be yourself, after understanding your place/role in the tradition. Vis a vis the great Coltrane quote: “I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.” It is important to possess a vast library of vocabulary that can be delivered eloquently, intelligently, originally, and authentically.
2) Humility is an essential element in maintaining growth as a musician. Here is a musician playing as much music on the piano as I have ever heard in person…. and he is as gracious, courteous, and open minded as can be. There is NO room for ego, pretentiousness, attitude in this music (and in life). The only way to improve as a musician (and as a person), is to acknowledge your shortcomings and to address your weaknesses.
3) It’s about what you say AND how you say it. I am reminded of a particular performance with a good friend. As we were about to begin the set, he leans over to me and says “Alright now, no licks!”. Much easier said than done for certain… Actually, this was really difficult and I certainly played plenty of them that night. However it caused me to think very deliberately, “I am going to really try and say something and say it with some force and some depth and some meaning and some direction.”
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.