R.I.P. Herb Ellis

TheNew York Times and other sources are reporting, the death at age 88 of jazz guitarist Herb Ellis.  While never a superstar in the jazz world, Ellis’ smooth tones helped lend a distinctive sound to a number of well-known combos in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Born Mitchell Herbert Ellis in a suburb of Dallas, the guitarist studied music in college and had an early fascination with the electric guitar.  A protégé of the legendary Charlie Christian, he first tasted success playing with Jimmy Dorsey’s traveling swing band before forming his own group, the Soft Winds; they blended the pop ambitions of Nat King Cole’s trio with the mellow tone of the then-new  West Coast cool jazz movement.  His most famous stint was as a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio, with influential jazz pianist Peterson and bassist Ray Brown; he was the only white member of a band that was still dealing with the realities of segregation on a daily basis.  The group combined with Buddy Rich to act as the house band for Verve Records.

Later in his life, Ellis toured with Ella Fitzgerald, created a soundtrack for animator John Hubley, and was a stalwart of the popular Jazz At The Philharmonic series.  He also teamed up with Barney Kessel and Joe Pass—both also veterans of the Oscar Peterson Trio—to create the “Great Guitars”, along with Charlie Byrd. 

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