Herb Ellis was one of the most technically accomplished jazz guitarists of his or any generation. His playing was blues influenced and he could also swing wonderfully well creating a harmonic and melodic style. Universally admired by just about every guitarist he was one of jazz guitar’s founding fathers.
“Herb came in with his quiet backup rhythm you could just sort of sail along with – an intuitive sense of time that very few people have.” – Oscar Peterson
Born in Farmersville, Texas in 1921 Ellis was inspired to take up the electric guitar after hearing George Barnes on the radio, possibly playing on record with Big Bill Broonzy or Jazz Gillum in 1938. By the time he went to North Texas State College to study music he was already proficient. His education was short lived and he joined Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra with whom Ellis first recorded and that led to a job with Jimmy Dorsey’s band. He left Dorsey to join a trio named the Softwinds and stayed with them until he joined Oscar Peterson’s trio.
Ellis’s first recording with Peterson was a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall in September 1953, a couple of months later he was performing with JATP in Tokyo. He remained with Peterson until 1958. This was not without controversy as Herb was white and Peterson and bass player, Ray Brown were both black. During this period Ellis was one of the house guitarists at Verve working on records by Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Harry Edison and Buddy Rich, as well as the duet albums by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong.
He also made a number of albums under his own name after he left Peterson including one with clarinetist and saxophonist Jimmy Giuffre who he had first met at North Texas State. His love of the jazz guitar pioneer Charlie Christian’s music led to Ellis recording an album entitled Thank You, Charlie Christian in 1960.
He continued recording and working and made a number of interesting albums including one with Joe Pass in 1974 and another featuring Willie Nelson that paid homage to Western Swing music. Alzheimer’s eventually brought about Herb’s retirement and he passed away in 2010.