Many years have passed since this veteran jazz guitarist quit the bottle, the demon brew that often incapacitated him for weeks on end when he was forging new paths with the great Oscar Peterson Trio in the 1950s. But he's never forgotten the lesson those dark years taught him. He's never preachy about his hard-earned truths; he just lives with them in quiet, nearly meditative peace.
I say this because an anecdote comes to mind. Last summer when Ellis was in town for the Houston Jazz Festival, he stopped by Munchies to check out bassist Erin Wright's new group. He was sitting bolt upright in his uncomfortable wooden chair, the kind of posture typically assumed by those with back problems. A glass of water sat in front of him, barely touched. The scene around him was, in a word, chaotic. Musicians and various hangers-on were sucking down drinks and lighting up cigarettes at a manic pace, gossiping and bitching about any subject that popped into their heads. Listening to music appeared to be the last thing anyone was there for. Except for Ellis. He was the calm eye in the middle of this hedonistic hurricane.
He sat there, a 73-year-old Farmersville, Texas, native with the ruddy, cherubic face of a choirboy. He didn't say much all evening. Then, at one point, he leaned over and said with an appreciation that was touching, "That bass player is very good. She's right on top of the beat." With that simple comment, you knew Herb Ellis was right where he wanted to be -- not frittering away an evening with chemicals, but appreciating the vibrations that passed into his ears, one musician absorbing the talents of another. He never judged anyone for what they were doing around him; he just understood his purpose that evening. Not a wasted moment.
Ellis' 50-plus-year career is one punctuated by little defeats and major reservoirs of determination. He once told jazz historian Gene Lees a story about his introduction to jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian. While studying at North Texas State, Ellis told Lees, he first heard Christian and basically dismissed the legend's skills. Ellis, after all, could play faster than Christian. Ellis' friends chided him, and told him to listen again.
"So I listened some more to Charlie Christian," Ellis recalled. "I don't know whether it was the same day or the next day, but it wasn't a long time, and it really hit me, like a spiritual awakening, what he was doing that I didn't do. How much depth he had. How great it sounded, and how scummy and shallow I sounded .... I was very, very distraught, so I put the guitar underneath the bed and said, 'That's it. I've just got too far to go.' It stayed there about one day. Then I got it out."
Ever since that day, Ellis has been on a singular path to find the depth he heard emanating from Charlie Christian's guitar. Anyone who's ever heard Ellis' work knows how that sonic quest turned out. Ellis is one of the most amazing guitarists working in jazz. Each note he plays is articulated with such warmth and grace that it sounds like it's served with its own pillow. But there's also a darker subtext to his guitar lines, a sting that hints at something raw and vulnerable and human under that humble facade.
This is a musical wisdom that has taken years to perfect. It has come not just from the time he spent with Jimmy Dorsey or Oscar Peterson, or from the dozens and dozens of albums he's recorded, or even from the years he spent as a Los Angeles studio musician (which actually may have set him back artistically). It's also come from making hard decisions, such as the one he made years ago to join Alcoholics Anonymous (it's such a well-known fact that it's hardly anonymous anymore) or the one he made last summer to just sit and listen to a young bandleader and her promising bass. No, Herb Ellis doesn't waste time. He definitely won't waste yours.
-- Tim Carman
Herb Ellis plays at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, July 28 and 29, at Cezanne, 4100 Montrose. For info, call 522-9621.
Jerry Lightfoot -- Lightfoot's Burning Desire, after being around for a year or so on cassette, is finally out as a self-produced CD, and he's having a few friends over to celebrate. The Essentials will be shuffling and wailing around Lightfoot's blues guitar and original songs, and, just like on the recording, Grady Gaines and Big Walter "The Thunderbird" Price will be stopping by to say hello and join in on a tune or 20. Old friends, new songs, good times -- ain't nothing but the blues. At the Fabulous Satellite Lounge, 3616 Washington Avenue, Thursday, July 27. 869-COOL. (Jim Sherman)
Rockefeller's 16th Anniversary Party -- Well, give or take a few months for IRS seizures. You've got to hand it to Rockefeller's, though. In a business not known for its permanency, this Washington Avenue nightspot continues to present quality music each week in a setting that, while not always comfortable, is certainly intimate (and definitely much better acoustically since the new sound system was installed). The current operators of this former bank building are celebrating their Sweet 16 birthday with a pair of party boys, Wayne Toups, that restless Cajun with the noisy accordion, and Ivan Neville, the dreadlocked son of Aaron. The younger Neville, you may recall, had a substantial career blip in the late '80s, but quickly disappeared from the radar after that. If you attend this bash, you may want to pose a pointed question to those folks who run Rockefeller's: just why the hell are you hiring a pair of Louisiana swamp runts to celebrate a Texas nightclub's birthday? I hope they allow you to stick around for an answer. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, Saturday, July 29. 869-