JJ 07/61: In My Opinion – Herb Ellis

Eddie Lang: innovator. Django Reinhardt: near genius. Wes Montgomery: my favourite. Unknown amateur bluesman: seminal inspiration. First published in Jazz Journal July 1961


This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Mitchell ‘Herb’ Ellis is one of the finest guitarists gracing jazz today. Born in Texas he obtained his first grounding as a professional with the Casa Loma Band and with Jimmy Dorsey’s Orchestra. Joined the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1953 and stayed with the group for six years. Is still with the J.A.T.P. but now works as a sound rhythmic prop for the singing of Miss Ella Fitzgerald. – Sinclair Traill

“After You’ve Gone”. Venuti-Lang All Stars. Brunswick OE 9468
Unfortunately, I never had a chance to hear Eddie Lang in the flesh. He died in 1933 and I wasn’t playing profession­ally in those days – I was only 12 years old. Actually, I haven’t been lucky enough to hear much of Lang – wanted to, but could never get hold of the records. That really sounded a fine group; I was most impressed – looking at the date, much more so than I would have expected. The magnitude of Lang’s talent is shown by the way his work stands out amongst that fine company. His single-string work with that lovely singing tone – he was a real innovator. He had a really good knowledge of his instrument, which shows up best when he’s accompanying a singer. I’ve heard a record or two of Lang backing a singer and his harmonies and little fill-ins are really something.

‘One of the things that really started me off to becoming a jazz player and kinda gave my guitar playing a boost was the playing of an old Negro I used to listen to in my home town. I was just fascinated by his playing’

“Backwater Blues”. Lonnie Johnson. Parlophone GEP 8635
Doesn’t he get a nice sound from his guitar? – those back­ground chords he played were full of music. One thing I kinda wonder about, and this is not necessarily a criticism, is that although he is playing and singing the blues, it doesn’t have any fixed metre to it. It may be eight bars, or ten bars or nine bars – maybe it’s fortunate he does accompany himself, tho’ of course no doubt it is all done purposely. He plays the guitar really well, knows the in­strument, but it’s just that idea of “free time” that makes it difficult to listen to in places.

“I Can’t Be Satisfied”. Muddy Waters. Vogue EPV 1046
That sounds ‘down-home’ to me – that was a good one. He was doing something I liked all the time there, and I really admired his feeling – he got over what he was trying to convey, which is a thing which unfortunately happens all too infrequently on records. That kind of Hawaiian effect he gets in is real cute and it fits well, too, I just love those blues singers.

One of the things that really started me off to becoming a jazz player and kinda gave my guitar playing a boost was the playing of an old Negro I used to listen to in my home town. Never knew his name, sorry about that now, but used to hear him when I rode past his house on my way into town. We were farmers and I used to ride with my dad in the wagon and as we passed this feller’s house he would often be sitting out in the front yard playing his guitar and kinda humming to himself. He had such a wonderful feeling for the blues I was just fascinated – just fascinated by his playing. Awful not to know his name! I don’t suppose in those early days I knew why I liked what he played, but I sure did. And I used to go home and try to emulate what I had heard. So I started to play blues guitar from the very first. Never played in hillbilly bands or anything of that sort – just played alone until I got to college. My mother helped me with my music, but it was mostly blues I liked to play and I used to try and remember the things I had heard that Negro playing. I roomed with Jimmy Giuffre at college – he was the first musician I really played with – but it was that influence back home that really got me going.

“Motherless Child”. Barbecue Bob (“Nothing But The Blues”). Fontana TFL 5123
That was an old one, 1927. I was trying to figure out what rhythm he used there – sounded to me like 12/8. You know there are a lot of modern musicians playing that way to-day – similar to that, founded on that beat, and they think they’re playing something new! A lot of modern groups try to get that beat – elaborated on, you know. What a really wonderful feeling that singer had for the blues. You don’t get that to-day.

“Girl Of My Dreams”. Dizzy Gillespie Quintet. HMV 7EG 8646
Dizzy is one of my very good friends. I have known him for a long time, and I know him very well. He’s not the harum-scarum character he pretends to be – I know his serious side and really he is a very intelligent man. You’ve got to be intelligent to play as good as he does. The feeling is one thing, but the notes and phrases he uses take careful thinking about beforehand. Dizzy is one of my all time favourites. I doubt if many people really know what he’s doing yet and a funny thing – so many of those critics started digging Miles and those other modern guys and yet they haven’t dug what Dizzy has been doing for years. I think some of them passed him up in sheer ignorance – musical ignorance, I mean. Also, you know, Dizzy and his wife are such a big-hearted couple. They do so much for un­fortunate people – good deeds that never get any publicity – they don’t seek publicity that way.

I also liked Les Spann on that. He is one of the few who play two instruments really well. He’s a very melodic player, but sometimes plays a little more notewise than he is capable of handling. I do too! I try and not let it happen, for that is one of the things that makes Wes Mont­gomery so good. He builds up his playing and when he plays a phrase it’s a double-time phrase, he rarely plays it in the first chorus, and then when he does play it, it really comes off. He knows where he’s going. In other words never go in over your head.

‘I didn’t pay Django too much attention when I first heard him – he used the European kind of phras­ing, not the jazz phrasing that Christian used. But when I grew up a little and started to really listen I knew that what he did bordered on genius’

“Lover Man”. Django Reinhardt. Vogue LAE 12251
Well, Django was amongst the five greatest guitarists of jazz. There’s Charlie Christian, of course, and I think, be­cause he was an innovator, you must include Eddie Lang – he hadn’t much to work with in those days; then Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and the wonderful George Van Eps. The first guitarist I heard when I got started was my all time favourite, Charlie Christian, and then next I heard Django. He played his solo with two fingers only, and the third and fourth fingers for chording, but they were kinda fixed. I must admit I didn’t pay Django too much attention when I first heard him – he used the European kind of phras­ing, not the jazz phrasing that Christian used. I didn’t even give Django a chance, but when I grew up a little and started to really listen I knew that what he did bordered on genius.

“Five Of Us”. Jazz Five. Tempo TAP 32
Well, if I hadn’t seen this sleeve I wouldn’t have known where that group hailed from – which is a compliment, I guess. A very good bass player there, musical and knows the chords. I’d like Ray [Brown] to comment on him – incidentally, do you know of any other musician than Ray who is universally acclaimed as the best man on his instrument – by everyone I mean? After Jimmy Blanton, who started bass playing as we know it to-day, Ray must surely be the greatest influence in jazz. He idolized Blanton and when he died at such a tragically early age, Ray carried on after him, adding something new of his own. Of course, Ray is directly responsible for all the guys playing those long-sounds, those interesting progressions. I think so anyway. The standard of bass playing these days is exceedingly high and the man responsible was Blanton, who started this new school of playing, and after him came Ray. Milt Hinton is another great man – he’s been around for years playing very good. People take him for granted, like Wes Mont­gomery. People think Wes is something new, but he’s in his forties.

This is an interesting story: When I was with Oscar, (it was over three years ago, in Indianapolis) Ray said to me one day – man, you’ve just got to hear this guy Wes Montgomery. Wes was not playing full time. He was working in a steel factory, so Ray said he’d have to try and find out if and where he was playing – but he wasn’t playing at all, so I never got to hear him then. Ray had played with him, you know, in one of his first band jobs, and always said he was fabulous. Fortunately, during the past two years, he has been discovered. He is now a new star, though Ray says he has been playing exactly the same for the past 15 or 20 years! I make no secret of the fact that right now he’s my favourite guitarist. Of course, he’s out of the same bag as Charlie Christian, just an extension. But people say, “listen to all this new stuff!” And this fellow has been playing that way for years, and so was Christian before him.

I like things that are new, and we should be all looking for them, but so many things in jazz that people think are new, just aren’t – they haven’t listened, that’s all. Another thing I like about Wes is that he doesn’t play guitar as one is supposed to play it these days. Too many guitarists get in the one groove and they all sound the same. It’s the thing to play that way these days, but Wes is different. I am sure the only way to play jazz is to play it as it comes natural to you – that is the only way, the way you feel with your emotions, that’s what’s going to come out. Don’t try and play something that’s not you. To tell you the truth I couldn’t care less how the other guitar players are playing, I play like me – it’s the only way.

‘I like good Dixieland, but I could hardly class that as good. The rhythm section was real bad. Stodgy. The banjo doesn’t know his chords and the bass notes were just atrocious. Can that be popular here in Britain? Surely not?’

“Billy Boy”. Dick Charlesworth’s City Gents. Top Rank 35-104
Well, that did exactly nothing to me! Not because it’s Dixieland – I like good Dixieland, but I could hardly class that as good. The rhythm section was real bad. Stodgy. The banjo doesn’t know his chords and the bass notes were just atrocious. Can that be popular here in Britain? Surely not? When Dixieland is good it can move me. I don’t want to listen to it all the time. I used to play at times with Bobby Hackett. He doesn’t have an out-and-out Dixieland band, but he plays a lot of Dixie tunes. I loved to jam with him, for he is one of my favourite trumpet players. He and Diz and Roy are my three favourites. Roy did one of these record things with you didn’t he? [Yes, in June 1960 – ed.] He’s a great player; has most wonderful time. Perhaps plays the best time of them all, and that’s so important. Time and then harmony and sound, but if you haven’t got time then you just aren’t playing jazz. Time, harmony and sound – if you’ve got them all, then you’re a good jazzman.

“Heavy Duty”. Trombones Four In Hand. Felsted SJA 2009
I don’t know why I never heard of this record, it’s most unusual. The sound of those four trombones was lovely and Everett Barksdale played great. This is a surprise to me – Everett there plays bass guitar and it sounds to me as if that is his instrument. He sounds free and plays better than on the usual instrument. He also works well in that rhythm section, which is very strong – solid you know, a real backing. But that trombone sound is real lovely.

“Daily Jump”. Count Basie. Columbia SCX 3356
It took me a bar and a half to recognise Freddie Green – he’s so distinctive. He’s surely the world’s best rhythm player. We could all learn a lot from him, rhythmically that is. The sound he gets, that drive – everything he does is just it. It’s unfortunate that Freddie hasn’t or won’t write a book about how to play rhythm guitar. I have a feeling he thinks no one really cares, but Freddie is wrong – there are a lot of guys who really do care and want to know how he does it. Freddie’s unique.

I believe he was quite hurt about people taking no notice of him, but it became unfashionable to play rhythm guitar. For a few years Freddie and I were the only two who played that way. Thank goodness it’s becoming a little fashionable again. It’s like everything else, if you do it right, it’s good, if you do it bad it’s bad. Freddie does it great all the time!

You know the reason why for so long there was a tendency for guitarists not to play rhythm, and why so many musicians didn’t like to work with it? It was a big thing. With the coming of the electric guitar, a lot of the bad or mediocre players overdid it and played so loud and so wrong, that the musicians with them got sick of the whole thing. So rhythm guitar went out; it wasn’t done. I’m sure it hurt Freddie, and I know it hurt me. He feels that guitar players don’t care about playing rhythm, which is too bad, for he should give away how he does that. A book would make money for him and let other guitarists know how it’s done.

I believe this way – if anybody wants anything that I do, I don’t mind showing them at all because I reckon if somebody really wants something bad enough they’ll get it, however hard you try to hide it. You can’t keep music a secret and anyway, if I can’t find something fresh for myself I’m through. If I have gone as far as I’m going, then I might just as well give the whole thing up; so anyone can have anything I know.