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Jazzman John Ellis On Writing in L.A.

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John Ellis. | Photo: Emra Islek.

In partnership with 18th Street Arts Center 18th Street Arts Center is an artists' residency program that provokes public dialogue through contemporary art-making.

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.

John Ellis | Photo courtesy of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz
John Ellis. | Photo: Courtesy of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.   

How has your time in the Make Jazz Fellowship Been different than your day-to-day life in New York?

John Ellis: It's been different in every way. Most importantly, I've had lots of uninterrupted, unstructured creative time. Right after I finished school I took a job for one year teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans and when I came back to New York I met Charlie Hunter outside of a grocery store, ended up working with him and I've been working ever since.

When you knew that you had received the grant from Make Jazz Fellowship, what were your goals for the time you would be spending here?

JE: I came out here with a bunch of index cards filled with goals and ideas that I wanted to work on. I also came with a bunch of notebooks with music that I wanted to finish. Some of those ideas were so old that finishing them almost felt like finishing an idea that someone else had started.

I actually planned to write ninety new compositions, which would be roughly one per day for each day I was here. Realistically I think I will end up with thirty by the time I leave.

My idea was to divide my time into writing for my band Double-Wide and writing for other small group situations. Over the last few years when I have spent time writing it's been for these big ambitious projects involving a lot of instruments and I love doing that but it's hard to record and it's hard to play gigs with that material.

John Ellis | Photo: Matías Muńoz-Rodríguez
John Ellis. | Photo: Matías Muńoz-Rodríguez.

What do you think has been the impact of doing this residency in Los Angeles? You've said to me before that you place a high value on American cities like New York and New Orleans because they have their own unique culture.

JE: Yes. Los Angeles has that too and in three months I haven't had been able to fully experience that as much as I'd like. I've been so focused on writing. As part of this fellowship I am living in a comfortable space and exercising everyday in 70 degree weather and generally feeling good and that's really helpful for working and making music. Also, I've missed one of the most brutal winters in New York and just in general the weather there can beat you up so badly that it's hard to be productive. You end up just getting through your life and waiting for the sun to come out again.

So this is an amazing thing to have. I am so grateful to Herb Alpert. I wasn't really aware of him as a philanthropist before this. The reach of his influence is much bigger than a lot of people are aware. What he is doing is so important.

What impact do you think Los Angeles will have on you as an artist?

JE: That's not easy to say. I'm not always comfortable using that word about myself or being so self-conscious of being an "artist." I think I probably have a blue-collar mindset about playing music which is something that I was raised to have. You go out and you work. My personality will be a part of what I'm playing or writing whether I try to put it in there or not.

Since beginning his residency, Ellis has performed in Los Angeles several times, presenting new music with local jazz musicians and his band Double-Wide. Ellis will complete his residency with performance of music written during his time in Los Angeles. The performance will feature a large ensemble of varied instrumentation and will be held at Roth Hall at Crossroads School on March 27th at 7:30 pm. While Ellis is typically dodgy about discussing how this experience impacts his art, maybe the real impact will be felt after he returns to his home of the New York City Jazz Scene and can reflect on his time in Los Angeles.

About the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz
The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a nonprofit education organization, was founded in 1986. The mission of the Institute is to offer the world's most promising young musicians college level training by internationally acclaimed jazz masters and to present public school-based jazz education programs for young people around the world.

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