Herb Ellis, 88

Herb Ellis dies, considered one of best jazz guitar soloists

Herb Ellis, left, with bassist Johnny Frigo and pianist Lou Carter, who performed together as the Soft Winds. The three musicians formerly played with the Jimmy Dorsey big band.
Herb Ellis, left, with bassist Johnny Frigo and pianist Lou Carter, who performed together as the Soft Winds. The three musicians formerly played with the Jimmy Dorsey big band. (Family Photo)
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By Terence McArdle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Herb Ellis, 88, a jazz guitar virtuoso who swung hard behind such jazz luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Stan Getz and was a member of the celebrated Oscar Peterson Trio in the 1950s, died March 28 at his home in Los Angeles. He had Alzheimer's disease. His last performance was in 2000.

In a career than spanned six decades, the Texas-born Ellis was regarded as one of the finest jazz guitar soloists. Innovative guitarist Les Paul paid him the compliment: "If you're not swinging, he's gonna make you swing."

After an early stint with the Jimmy Dorsey big band, Ellis formed the Soft Winds trio in 1947 with two Dorsey colleagues, pianist Lou Carter and bassist Johnny Frigo.

The trio was not a major commercial success during its five-year existence, but the group recorded many songs and developed a fine reputation in later years among aficionados. The members co-wrote "Detour Ahead" and "I Told Ya I Love Ya, Now Get Out," both of which have been widely performed by other artists.

Peterson, who often sat in with the Soft Winds, recruited Mr. Ellis as a replacement for guitarist Barney Kessel in 1953. Mr. Ellis was an ideal accompanist for Peterson, supplementing the often flamboyant playing of the pianist with precise, uncluttered chord work and economical but swinging solos. They were joined by bassist Ray Brown.

"It was probably the highlight of my career to work with those guys," Mr. Ellis once said. "Oscar's a mental giant. He'd give me stuff to play and I'd say, 'I can't play this Oscar.' He'd say, 'Yes, you can. I know how much you can play.' "

The Peterson trio also served as the house band for Norman Granz's Verve record label and on Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, accompanying Fitzgerald and such instrumentalists as Dizzy Gillespie, Ben Webster and Roy Eldridge. Mr. Ellis also recorded on the side and made some astonishingly good records, among them "Nothing but the Blues" (1957), featuring Brown, saxophonist Stan Getz and trumpeter Eldridge.

Mr. Ellis left the Peterson trio to tour with Fitzgerald and later embarked on a solo career that often found him generously sharing the spotlight with other jazz guitar virtuosos such as Kessel and Joe Pass.

Mitchell Herbert Ellis was born Aug. 4, 1921, in Farmersville, north of Dallas, and raised on a cotton farm. "I don't know if I heard blues when I was young, but if you could see where I lived, it would give you the blues," he once said.

He took up banjo at 8 but quickly gravitated to his older brother's guitar. Mostly, he said, he wanted to show up his sibling, who had tuned the guitar incorrectly.

His early influences came from the radio, on which he heard everything from Western swing to the European jazz records of guitarist Django Reinhardt. Mr. Ellis enrolled at the University of North Texas in Denton, where his roommate was reed player Jimmy Guiffre. Jazz records blared through the dorms, and Mr. Ellis became particularly fascinated by electric guitarist Charlie Christian, whose music "sounded like what a tenor saxophonist would play on guitar."

When the money to continue his studies ran out, Mr. Ellis moved to Kansas City, Mo., then a thriving jazz center. He had a heart murmur that kept him from military duty during World War II, his family said.

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