The late Johnny Ellis, still a fixture on Village jazz scene
By Lee Metcalf
Many seasoned New York Jazz fans will remember the late drummer/composer Johnny Ellis, a fixture on the ‘80s and ‘90s Village scene, whose inexhaustible spirit and commitment to individual expression typified what it means to be a jazz musician. Though Ellis died prematurely in 1999 at the age of 44, his music continues to live on every Sunday night at Smalls through Planet Jazz, the group that he founded in the 1990s and in the band’s latest release “Planet Jazz in Orbit”, which features his original music and arrangements.
Originally from Trenton, New Jersey, Ellis had come up in the New York jazz scene of the 1970s, joining a group of young musicians to create the Widespread Depression Orchestra, an ensemble that focused on a repertoire of Ellington and music of the 1930s and 40s. As current Planet Jazz leader Spike Wilner states, “this was a harsh time for jazz, particularly those who were swing orientated. It was when the loft scene and free jazz were at their peak and jazz musicians simply didn’t play music like this anymore. Swinging and playing the blues at this time was reactionary and almost an act of rebellion.”
Ellis’s style soon evolved into one of a bebop or hard bop aesthetic, music that saw a resurgence in popularity by the early 1990s, and it was around this time that the first incarnation of Planet Jazz came together as a means by which to play his ever expanding books of tunes. Though couched in the hard bop tradition, Ellis’s writing never lost its close ties to his Ellington roots and his irreverent nature often came out in his effective yet unorthodox melodic themes as well as his tendency to pick obscure and humorous titles for his songs such as “Red Pig Dinette Set” or “The Cow is Now.” Wilner notes that “Duke Ellington was his biggest influence and he knew Duke’s music inside and out. The titles Johnny chose for his tunes reflected his strange sense of humor. In fact, most of his music had some kind of animal theme and maybe this is why he chose to call his own band “Planet Jazz” to represent all the life forms.”
In addition to his varied musical skills, Ellis also showed flair as a producer, evidenced by the players that he chose for his lineup. After some initial roster moves Ellis settled upon Grant Stewart-tenor, Joe Magnarelli-trumpet, Spike Wilner-piano, Peter Bernstein-guitar and Neil Miner-bass. Though unknown at the time, they became some of the more established names on the current New York scene, and Ellis continued to lead this band until his death.
With the leader and visionary gone, the project may well have disbanded forever were it not for Wilner, who in the following year arranged a memorial concert, organizing the music and reuniting the original members while selecting one of Ellis’s favorites (Joe Strasser) to fill the drum chair. Not content to finish there, Wilner approached Smalls’ proprietor Mitch Borden and secured the Sunday night slot which the band has held for several years, combining music from Ellis’ extensive book with their own compositions and arrangements. Speaking about the band’s set list on a given night, bassist Neil Miner explains, “it really depends on how we are feeling. Sometimes we might play two or three of Johnny’s tunes in a set, while another time we might go a whole set without playing one.”
Ultimately, this is why the group is successful. Not only is it born out of Ellis’s talent and vision, but it is also consistent with his concept of allowing the music to evolve organically while allowing each player to express himself individually within the context of the ensemble which is what jazz is all about.
Planet Jazz performs every Sunday 10 PM to 1:30 AM, Smalls, 183 W. 10th Street, ($10 cover). Lee Metcalf is a jazz guitarist, and performs as part of the Vinson Valega/Lee Metcalf Trio Sunday nights at Dekk, 134 Reade Street, at 7 to 10 PM.