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Herb Ellis dies at 88; jazz guitarist

OBITUARY

He was perhaps best known for his work with the Oscar Peterson Trio but also played with Jimmy Dorsey and Ella Fitzgerald during his long and varied career.

March 31, 2010|By Keith Thursby
  • "There have been changes in jazz and new styles come along," guitarist Herb Ellis told an Ohio newspaper in 1996. "I play straight ahead, what you might call mainstream, jazz."
"There have been changes in jazz and new styles come along,"… (Justice Records )

Herb Ellis, a jazz guitarist perhaps best known for his work with the influential Oscar Peterson Trio, has died. He was 88.

Ellis, who had Alzheimer's disease, died Sunday morning at his home in Los Angeles, said his son, Mitch.

During his long and varied career, Ellis played with Jimmy Dorsey and Ella Fitzgerald. He also worked as a studio musician and played in the bands of several television shows, including Steve Allen's and Merv Griffin's.

"There have been changes in jazz and new styles come along. I play straight ahead, what you might call mainstream, jazz," Ellis told the Columbus Dispatch of Ohio in 1996. "That's what I played when I started and that's what I still play. I wish everyone else good luck and God bless, but I've found mine and I'm going to stick with it."

He was playing with two other former members of Dorsey's band, pianist Lou Carter and bassist John Frigo, in the drummer-less trio Soft Winds in 1952 when Peterson saw the group in concert in Buffalo, N.Y.

"He liked it. So he and I went out later that night and jammed at some place in Buffalo," Ellis told The Times in 1993. "I didn't see him again until 1953 when [guitarist] Barney Kessel left his group. That's when he called me for the job."

The combination of pianist Peterson, bassist Ray Brown and Ellis created "one of the most celebrated trios in jazz history," according to "The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz" (1999) by Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler.

Mitchell Herbert Ellis was born Aug. 4, 1921, in Farmersville, Texas. He attended North Texas State for two years, but had to drop out for financial reasons, his son said.

He joined the Casa Loma Orchestra in 1944, then toured with Dorsey from 1945 to 1948 before forming Soft Winds with Carter and Frigo.

"We didn't hear things in terms of having a drummer," Ellis explained in a 1993 Times article, "but it worked well."

He played with Peterson and Brown from 1953 to 1958 and reunited years later.

"That time was very special to all of them," Mitch Ellis said. "He and Ray roomed together; they were really best friends."

But the work was demanding with "hours and hours of practicing," Mitch Ellis said. "When they got back together in the '80s it was a lot more fun, a lot more relaxed."

In addition to his relationship with the Peterson trio, Mitch Ellis said his father was especially proud of his work beginning in the 1970s with guitarist Joe Pass. "It meant a great deal to him . . . they formed this real connection," he said.

Ellis also toured with the Great Guitars, which included Kessel and Charlie Byrd.

In addition to his son, Ellis is survived by his wife of 53 years, Patti; a daughter, Kari Ellis Yedor; and three grandchildren.

A memorial will be held April 30 at a location to be determined, Mitch Ellis said.

keith.thursby@latimes.com

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