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August 20, 2005

Jazz Guitarist Herb Ellis

Written by
cindy mcleod

When jazz guitarist Herb Ellis came to Calgary in the early nineties, I gladly offered to spend the day with him as his personal chauffeur. How often in life do you have the chance to spend a day with one of the most recognized names in jazz? Mr. Ellis has long been a hero of mine, and I was thrilled to meet this living legend in person after listening to him on recordings for many years. As is the case with so many of the greats, he is a benevolent and gentle soul, it was sheer joy to have him all to myself.

I picked him up at the airport, took him to his hotel to check in, and then drove him to a workshop I’d organized for the students at the local college. I was delighted when he invited me to sit in on his workshop, keen to listen to this great musician speak about his approach to jazz guitar. What stays with me to this day was him telling the students over and over again the importance of singing every note they played as instrumentalists. The voice is the first instrument, immediate and intuitive, but to train one’s fingers to execute what you hear in your mind’s ear is another skill altogether, and according to Mr. Ellis, the best way to learn to improvise and overcome the limitations of physicality is to sing what is in your head, the fingers will follow. He used Keith Jarrett and his vocalizations as an example, stating that although Mr. Jarrett doesn’t necessarily articulate the notes vocally, he does emit them in growls, roars, and moans, and this is what makes him one of the greatest improvisers of all time.

One of the most touching moments was when we were driving back to the hotel after the workshop, we were talking about the importance of balance, music and family life don’t always mix unless one makes an effort to prioritize. It was Valentine�s Day that day, and Mr. Ellis was bemoaning the fact that he wasn’t home with his wife, and was agonizing over how to express his love for her. “Should I send yet another bouquet of flowers?” he asked, and after thinking for a moment, I responded “Why don’t you call her, pick up your guitar and play for her? After all, part of the reason she fell in love with you is because of the beauty of your playing�” He thought for a moment, and said enthusiastically “What a great idea! Maybe I’ll play ‘My Funny Valentine’ for her.” When we arrived at the hotel, he gave me a big hug on the street and thanked me for reminding him of the simple but most personal gift he could give to his sweetheart.

Later that evening at the club where he was performing, he told me he’d called his wife and serenaded her, and naturally, she was delighted. Amazing how even the masters forget in their humble way that their gift touches those they love the most. Mr. Ellis, you are a true gentleman, and I thank you for giving me this precious memory to cherish, a valuable life lesson and a unforgettable music lesson all in one day!

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