Don Ellis was born on July 25, 1934 in Los Angeles, California and started playing th trumpet in his youth. After a move to Minneapolis, Minnesota attended West High School. Upon hearing the Tommy Dorsey Big Band he became interested in jazz as well as being inspired by Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. He went on to receive a music composition degree from Boston University.
Ellis’ first job was with the Glenn Miller Band until his enlistment in the U.S. Army Symphony Orchestra and the Soldier’s Show Company. Transferred to Germany he met Cedar Walton, Eddie Harris and Don Menza and got his first opportunity to compose and arrange for a big band. Two years later he was in New York City playing in dance hall bands, toured with Charlie Barnet and by ’59 was in Maynard Ferguson’s band.
Becoming involved in the avant-garde jazz scene he appeared on albums by Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and George Russell, staying with the latter for two years. Ellis led several sessions with small groups between 1960 and 1962 that featured Jaki Byard, Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, Ron Carter, Charlie Persip and Steve Swallow among others. He would go on to tour Poland, Germany and Sweden, return to New York, form the Improvisational Workshop Orchestra, studied ethnomusicology, Indian music, be involved with several Third Stream Projects and teach at SUNY Buffalo for a year. He delved into electronic music in the late Sixties on Columbia Records with Electric Bath and garnered a Grammy nomination and a Down Beat Album of the Year Award.
Don’s popularity among educators was also climbing and copies of his band’s charts were being published and played by many high school and college big bands. Accordingly, he taught many clinics and played with many school bands. He composed the music for the film The French Connection, winning Grammy for Best Instrumental Arrangement and later composed music for the film The Seven-Ups.
He became interested in Brazilian music and created the Organic Band utilizing a vocal quartet and indigenous musicians. He would continue performing and touring well into the Seventies and his last known public performance took place on April 21, 1978, at the Westside Room in Century City. After this date, his doctor ordered him to refrain from touring and playing trumpet because it was too stressful on his heart. On December 17, 1978, after seeing a Jon Hendricks concert, trumpeter, composer, arranger, bandleader and educator Don Ellis suffered a fatal heart attack at his North Hollywood home where his parents were staying with him. He was 44.
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