Pee Wee Ellis obituary

American jazz saxophonist, arranger and bandleader who played with James Brown and Van Morrison

In the summer of 1968, with black America aflame following the assassination of Martin Luther King, the singer James Brown summoned his musical director, the saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis. Together they came up with a song called Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).

As usual, the burden of the task of musical composition had fallen on Ellis’s shoulders. When they came to record the song in a Los Angeles studio that August, he recruited 30 pupils from a school in Watts to shout the chorus. Within weeks, Brown’s audiences around the US had found a new anthem.

“Say it loud!” he screamed. “I’m black and I’m proud!” they responded.

Ellis, who has died aged 80, knew how to take the scraps of inspiration handed out by Brown and turn them into finished works that would change the way popular music was created, heard and used. A year earlier, after a show at the Apollo theatre in Harlem, Brown had called Ellis into his dressing room, grunted a rhythmic bassline and told him to make a song out of it. That night, travelling on the band’s bus to their next gig, Ellis played around with Brown’s idea and blended it with his memories of Miles Davis’s So What, a modal jazz classic from 1959.

Soon he had a song called Cold Sweat, which they worked on that afternoon in the studio of a Cincinnati radio station, with Brown adding a lyric and rhythmic refinements to Ellis’s simplified harmonic scheme.

Released a month later as a six-minute single divided over the two sides of a 45rpm disc, and immediately notable for the singer’s shouted exhortations to the drummer, Clyde Stubblefield, and the tenor saxophonist, Maceo Parker, it represented nothing less than the birth of the idiom that became known as funk, which in turn begat disco, go-go music and many subsequent variations.

Ellis left Brown in 1969, after four years in which he tired of the bandleader’s peremptory behaviour, including an insistence on fining the musicians for such minor on-stage infractions as a missed cue or unpolished shoes. He returned to jazz, his first love, becoming a respected arranger and conductor.

In 1979 he began a long association with Van Morrison. Playing first on an album titled Into the Music and then on a dozen more over the next two decades, he toured frequently with the Belfast-born singer.

In London he met an English woman, Charlotte Crofton-Sleigh, with whom he made a permanent move to Frome, Somerset, in 1992. He became an admired member of the community, finding space in his touring schedule for many performances at local events, often supporting charities. He and Charlotte were married in 1994.

Alfred Ellis was born in Bradenton, Florida, to Elizabeth Bryant, a college student. His father, Garfield Rogers Jr, was a fellow student and the son of a local minister. Elizabeth dropped out of college, brought up her son alone and took in laundry to make ends meet, until, when the child was eight, she met and married Ezell Ellis, a former soldier turned music promoter. He moved the family to Lubbock, Texas, where the boy – nicknamed Pee Wee because of his small stature – began clarinet and saxophone lessons in junior high school.

He grew close to his adoptive father, “a happy man with a big heart”, but in 1955 Ezell was stabbed at one of his clubs by a white man who took exception to him attempting to help a drunken white woman to leave the dancefloor. Refused attention at a whites-only hospital, he died while lying on a trolley. The killer was never identified.

His mother moved her son and his two younger sisters out of the segregated south-west and up to Rochester, New York.

Ellis began playing in local clubs, where he encountered students from the Eastman School of Music, including the trumpeter Waymon Reed. By now he was growing into an imposing adult. “I was a skinny little kid,” he once said. “To look at me now you wouldn’t think I was ever small.”

He took a job playing tenor saxophone in a travelling circus, but his focus was on jazz. While in Chicago, he pawned a ring in order to buy a ticket to see John Coltrane play at a local club. In a New York instrument store he approached Sonny Rollins, who agreed to give him lessons.

One day in 1965, Reed, who had joined Brown’s band, called Ellis from Washington to tell him that a saxophone chair was vacant. “My idea was to play with James Brown to earn enough money to play jazz,” Ellis told an interviewer. During the next four years he helped Brown revolutionise popular music before handing over the musical director’s role to the trombonist Fred Wesley.

In New York he became the house arranger for the Kudu label, working with the singer Esther Phillips and the saxophonist Hank Crawford, before moving to San Francisco and forming a band with another saxophonist, Dave Liebman.

Following a call from the trumpeter Mark Isham, he left his mark on Van Morrison’s world through memorable solos in such songs as Haunts of Ancient Peace (from the album Common One) and a version of Tupelo Honey filmed at the 1980 Montreux jazz festival.

Ellis, who played soprano, alto and baritone saxophones as well as tenor, went on to lead his own band, the Pee Wee Ellis Assembly, appeared alongside former colleagues Wesley and Parker in the JB Horns and the JB All Stars, taught a workshop titled Funk 101 at the Bristol jazz festival, and performed with musicians from Africa, including Ali Farka Touré and Oumou Sangaré, and the UK, from Ginger Baker to Clare Teal.

When an interviewer pointed out that, in Brown, Morrison and Baker, he appeared to have acquired a habit of working for notoriously volatile employers, he replied: “And don’t forget Esther Phillips.” He was, he observed, “a good mediator”.

In 2018 he returned to the Apollo for a concert in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud). Two years later, as the Black Lives Matter movement grew in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, the song became an anthem for a new generation.

He is survived by Charlotte, who also acted as his manager following his move to Britain. His first wife was Barbara Tringali, whom he married in the 1960s; they later divorced. A son from that marriage, Alfred Jr, died in 2019.

• Alfred James “Pee Wee” Ellis, jazz saxophonist, arranger and bandleader, born 21 April 1941; died 23 September 2021


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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