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Jazzman John Ellis On Writing in L.A.

John Ellis | Photo: Emra Islek.
John Ellis | Photo: Emra Islek.


By Daniel Seeff

On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon, I sat at a restaurant in Santa Monica with saxophonist and composer John Ellis. Ordinarily at this time of year, Ellis would be enduring freezing temperatures and ankle-deep snow as he traveled to and from various gigs and rehearsals with a variety of cutting edge jazz artists with whom he regularly performs. Instead, thanks to the 18th Street Arts Center Make Jazz Fellowship, he is in Los Angeles for a three-month residency that has given him the opportunity to focus on making music without any of the outside pressures of life wearing him down. This is a situation with which I am very familiar. As the West Coast Director of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, one of my responsibilities is to organize a Masters program at UCLA with a similar goal. Every two years, a group of talented musicians are selected by a panel comprised of jazz greats Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Heath and James Newton. Once accepted, the students study with members of the panel along with a long list of jazz luminaries. The students receive housing and a stipend so they do not have to worry about working and can focus all their energies on learning and creating. The difference is that the Monk Institute students have not yet begun their professional careers where John has spent twenty years performing, writing, and building his artistic world resulting in tremendous credibility within the jazz community and beyond. Now, after tours with guitar innovator Charlie Hunter, hundreds of recording sessions with acclaimed artists like Robert Glasper and Darcy James Argue, and several recordings of his own, Ellis is getting a break from the hamster wheel of the working musician. How has he spent this time? Composing 30 new pieces, of course.

Ellis and I first met in 1995 when he was a semifinalist at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition. We seemed to start right in on conversations that are still continuing nineteen years later about music, how and why it is made, who listens to it and why, and how it relates to business. Right away we were able to agree upon some things and disagree on others without trying to cram our points of view down each other’s throats. Over the years, our lives and experiences have provided us with more fodder for these conversations and we’ve continued to interact in new ways. Ellis participated as a student at a Monk Institute summer jazz program, performed with my African pop group in New York, and recently taught at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music in a master class that covered some topics he and I normally discuss. Ellis has grown into one of the most respected saxophone players and jazz artists in New York as I have continued and expanded my work at the Monk Institute and also have written and performed on a variety of hip-hop and pop albums. As our lives go on, so continues the conversation. Now Ellis is being granted a moment to step away from his life. I was curious to see how he would use his time, and the effect it would have on him.

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