The American jazz musician Don Ellis was known – and at times criticised – for his love of experimentation. It marked and superseded his performances, as a soloist and a conductor, even before it led to another turn in his musical life in 1964.
That year, Ellis met Harihar Rao, sitarist and disciple of Ravi Shankar, while studying ethnomusicology at the University of California in Los Angeles. Their friendship resulted in the formation of a band – the Hindustani Jazz Sextet. Little known in their time, the band fused eastern rhythms to jazz improvisations and remained radical in every way.
In his collaboration with Rao, Ellis’s experimentation in the use of odd time meters in jazz improvisations, away from the conventional swing (4/4) rhythm, would enter a new phase. It was a way of playing that would have a profound effect on everything else Ellis did – the orchestra and his music – in the following years.
The Hindustani Jazz Sextet first began performing in Manne-Hole, the Hollywood music venue owned by drummer Shelly Manne, and remained primarily active between 1964 and 1970. When he wasn’t performing with the Sextet, Ellis conducted and played with his newly-formed big band, The Don Ellis Orchestra, where he continued experimenting with instrumentation and arrangement, using a range of percussion instruments, and deliberately altering the numbers of bassists and woodwind musicians. He also had them play more than one instrument on occasion.
The Sextet never formally recorded, but their music is archived in the UCLA’s ethnomusicology department. Some of their early performances in Los Angeles’ Lighthouse Café, one of the oldest jazz cafes in the city, have been digitised by the California audiovisual preservation project. Over the last decade, most of their work – some still being discovered – has been archived thanks to Ellis’ fans such as the musician and teacher, Ken Orton, and Sean Fenlon, whose dissertation The Exotic Rhythms of Don Ellis explored Ellis’ experimentations with eastern music. Fenlon also maintains the website, donellismusic.com. A lot of Ellis’ music is also now available on YouTube.
The irascible Leonard Feather, music critic for the Los Angeles Times during the 1960s and ’70s, found the Sextet’s rhythmic experimentation too mathematical, and wrote that the audience needed a computer to figure out things when Ellis explained eastern rhythms and metres to them. Some critics were humorously patronising of the Sextet’s performances. – one headline read Hot Hindustanis Here. Others stressed on the music’s unconventionality, with headlines like Hindustani Jazz Unorthodox and Jazz Workshop Eccentric.
Ellis and innovation
Born in 1934 in California’s San Bernardino, Ellis had long favoured the trumpet over the piano (his mother was an organist). After a degree in music composition from Boston University, he had performed for Glenn Miller’s band and didn’t give up on music during his army stint. By the late 1950s, he was already breaking away from the conventional symmetrical formula (4/4) of writing, a trait he would master in the company of Rao.
Music of the third stream, a term coined by Gunther Schuller in 1957 to describe the fusion of jazz and classical, fascinated Ellis. He termed the music “the new thing” in an article that he wrote for the International Musician in 1965, which was later cited by Ellis in his dissertation.
Ellis was somewhat familiar with odd-numbered meters, even before he met Rao. As Fenlon writes, it was Arif Mardin, the Turkish-American composer, who had once shown Ellis a Turkish folk rhythm in nine beats, broken up in 2, 2, 2, 3. But it was “Rao [who] taught him to superimpose complicated rhythm patterns on top of these different signatures…and a counting system so Ellis could know exactly where he was within it at any given point”.
Sextet and experimentation
The Hindustani Jazz Sextet was a leap in experimentation. Nothing like it had ever been attempted, and its influence was vital for Ellis. He co-authored an article with Rao in 1965 titled An Introduction to Indian Music for the Jazz Musician. In 1968, Ellis composed and played The Tihai, a repetitively rhythmic composition set to Hindustani classical beats of three for the album Shock Treatment, recorded by The Don Ellis Orchestra.
The year 1967 was somewhat of a breakthrough year – now unfortunately forgotten – when the Hindustani Jazz Sextet performed with Stan Kenton’s band, the Neophonic Orchestra. The piece, Synthesis, was based on two classical ragas, and featured Rao on sitar and tabla, Ellis and Gabe Baltazar on woodwinds, and the 25-odd musicians of the Neophonic Orchestra.
As Feather wrote in the Los Angeles Times, Ellis and the Sextet “ran away” with the show, with the music winding its way from “New Orleans to New Delhi, fusing Hindustani ragas and rhythms to European classical concepts, American sounds and African touches”.
The Hindustani Jazz Sextet was unconventional in other ways as well. In 1987, when Feather wrote in his book From Satchmo to Miles of the “racial separatism” that marked the world of jazz, he appeared oblivious to the fact that in the Sextet, Ellis played with a multi-racial cast of musicians. In one of its initial outings, the Sextet played music by Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine-born pianist-composer and Mardin, who worked with musicians across all genres.
Rao taught at the UCLA for several years and played the sitar as an accompanist to other musicians like Chet Atkins. His mastery of the sitar influenced others, chiefly bass players in the Ellis Orchestra.
After being introduced to Rao in Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, jazz bassist Bill Plummer picked up the sitar and the Hindustani classical way of notation. Plummer’s love for jazz and Hindustani classical came together in his 1967 LP in which he performed with his band, the Cosmic Brotherhood. The band featured several musicians who dabbled in eastern instruments such as Hersh Hamel (sitar, tanpura, vocals), Milt Holland (tabla), Ray Neapolitan (sitar, tanpura) and Jan Steward (sarod and tanpura). Neapolitan would also play bass for The Doors later, in Morrison Hotel and Other Voices.
Several other musicians, who were once part of the Sextet, went on to have thriving music careers, and continued their association with eastern music.
Among them was Emil Richards, who played the vibes and percussion, and featured on some of the Sextet’s early sessions. During his world travels with Frank Sinatra and George Harrison, Richards became fascinated with ethnic wind instruments and began his own collection, several of which are now in an Oakland museum. Richards played the percussion for the Salaam Bombay and Mississippi Masala soundtracks.
Pianist and composer Dave Mackay, a mainstay of the Sextet, was the first blind student to graduate from Connecticut’s Trinity College. The bassist Chuck Domanico went on to play in several film soundtracks, such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, California Suite and Fugitive.
The saxophonist Sam Falzone, who died in 2013, was part of Ellis’ big-band orchestra and his somewhat more conventional and lesser-known band, informally called the Organic Band. This was all-acoustic with a vocal quartet. In Falzone’s composition for this band, Jupiter’s Favourite Child, influences of Brazilian music, a country that Ellis had visited a short while ago, are palpable.
Woodwind player Baltazar, born to a Filipino father and a Japanese mother (who lived in Hawaii), was one of two Asian-Americans active in the American jazz scene of the 1960s and 1970s (the other was the pianist Paul Togawa).
Ellis died of heart complications in 1978 at the age of 44. He continued writing about music till the very end. In 1973, he wrote Rhythm, detailing a system of beats drawn from ancient Hindu techniques. His lifelong fascination with the subject continued in Quarter Tones – which appeared two years later – a short history on the subject complete with ‘musical examples, exercises and etudes’.
Electric Heart: The Don Ellis Story, a short documentary made by writer-director John Vizzusi, reveals how integral the Hindustani Jazz Sextet was to everything Ellis did and played in that last momentous decade of his young life.