By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
Jeff Ellwood is the current Director of Instrumental Jazz Studies at Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, California. After much prodding by his contemporaries, he decided to take a solo journey into becoming a recording artist and bandleader. Ellwood carefully picked the crème-de-la-crème of Southern California’s wealth of jazz musicians. He invited the last drummer to play with the great Bill Evans, Joe LaBarbera and his longtime friend, Alan Pasqua on piano, who also was the person who introduced Jeff to the Southern California jazz community.
Jeff and Alan Pasqua met at the prestigious Henry Mancini Institute when Ellwood joined the very few instrumentalists who were carefully selected, from all over the world, to participate in a month-long musical seminar at UCLA. Alan Pasqua was there to teach an improvisational clinic in 2003 and was completely captivated by Ellwood’s rendition of ‘Giant Steps’ on his tenor saxophone. It wasn’t long before the blossoming saxophonist became part of Pasqua’s band and performed with them for the next seven years. Pasqua is also co-producer of Jeff Ellwood’s new album entitled, “The Sounds Around the House.” Ellwood explained:
“So, I was accepted to the Henry Mancini Institute in 2002 and they asked me to come back in 2003. I was back home, in Southern California, after attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. Alan came into the Mancini Institute to teach a master class. He lectured and then he’d have people play. After I played, he said to me, where are you from? I said, I’m living at my mom’s house in Riverside and he was like, you live here? I’m going to call you. And of course, I was thinking to myself, oh sure, you’re going to call me. At that point, I just didn’t think he would really call,” Jeff Ellwood was full of disbelief that someone he greatly admired, a master pianist like Alan Pasqua, would actually call him.
“He did end up calling and I went to his house for an audition. And then, after it was over, he said: Oh, by the way, we have our first gig in two weeks,” Jeff chuckled remembering his surprise and good fortune.
For the next seven years Ellwood was an integral part of the Alan Pasqual band. But it was a long journey to that moment in time. At ten-years-old, young Jeff was diagnosed with severe asthma. The family doctor suggested he take up a woodwind instrument to strengthen his lungs. So, the boy began toying with the saxophone. He taught himself to play and by age fifteen he had joined a rock band and they were playing at Hollywood’s famous Whisky a Go Go. Jeff Ellwood found himself intoxicated with music and he also discovered that girls were hypnotically attracted to musicians. At that point, he had absolutely no knowledge of music theory, but he knew he wanted to be a musician. He explained it in an interview on The Best Saxophone Website Ever with Zach Sollitto.
“In some ways, I have regrets that I never had lessons in high school, but in some ways, I don’t have regrets because it forced me to figure things out and explore playing differently. You have to understand that when I came out of high school, I was awful. I did not know my major scales or how to read music. My first week at community college they made me play lead alto because I had a good sound, but I could not read. I remember the first tune we had to play was a Mark Taylor arrangement of ‘All the Things You Are’ and we had to play that in the 2nd week of school. … I had no idea what the symbols meant on the page. It was a long process for me to learn scales, chords, how to read, etc. and I played a lot of wrong notes during that time. But I knew after high school that I wanted to pursue music.”
Who could have guessed that his love of that famous jazz standard, “All the Things You Are” would inspire him to compose the opening tune for his new CD, titled “U-R.” It becomes a tasty and up-tempo way to open his debut CD release.
Getting back to his story, after graduating high school, the young musician knew he needed to learn more about music academically. Consequently, he attended Riverside Community College and majored in music. That nurturing environment prepared him for his dream of attending Berklee College of Music. Berklee prepared Jeff Ellwood for that Mancini audition where he met Alan Pasqua.
“I was living in Riverside and just trying to carve out a path. To me, the fact that Alan was the first person to recognize that I had a different voice and to appreciate that, it just gave me a little more confidence in believing in what I did. It was coming from somebody I respected and those seven years were a great learning lesson for me. It was like, you know what? We are who we are and not everybody’s going to get it.”
Jeff also called Darek Oles for his recording project. He’s one of Southern California’s first-call bass players and as a special guest, he asked saxophonist Bob Sheppard to join him on track six, a tune written by Dick Oatts (“King Henry”). It originally featured Oatts and Jerry Bergonzi on their “South Paw” album for the Steeplechase label.
“I always loved Dick Oatts. Dick and Jerry Bergonzi are good friends. I happily included that ‘King Henry’ Oatts tune on my album,” Ellwood said.
I asked Jeff about other musical influences and he was quick to again mention Jerry Bergonzi and also Rick Margitza, who played with Miles Davis in 1989 on the Human Nature tour at the Umbria Jazz Festival.
“When I was eighteen or nineteen years old in community college, trying to figure this stuff out, people were telling me to listen to Coltrane and Listen to Michael Brecker. When I listened to them, I just could not process what they were doing. It was something I had to come to later in life. But I remember, I went to a trumpet player friend-of-mines house. He was playing an album by Maynard Ferguson with a lot of Los Angeles cats playing on it; Matt Harris was the arranger. And he featured two young saxophone players, Rick Margitza and another young player, Tim Ries. Maynard was playing a funky version of Body and Soul and I heard this tenor saxophone player come in. Immediately, I said, who is that? That is how I want to play music. The light bulb just goes on. The sound and the phrasing; the approach and everything; I just immediately fell in love with everything about Rick Margitza and I started buying every record I could find. That’s way before you could go on Amazon. I had to go to record stores. I was tracking his stuff down and trying to figure out where he was coming from. I finally found someone who had his phone number and I said, please, can I have it? At that time, Rick was still living in New York. He lives in Paris now. Young, fearless and determined, I cold–called him. I said, I’m in Los Angeles and you’re in New York, but I need to study with you. We agreed, I would mail him a check and a cassette tape of me playing. He would flip to the other (blank) side of the cassette tape and make his comments and send it back to me. He has made a huge impact in my life,” Jeff Ellwood asserted in a firm voice.
“One time somebody asked Michael Brecker what it’s like to be the greatest saxophone player in the world and Michael Brecker said, I don’t know. Ask Jerry Bergonzi,” Ellwood chuckles as he relates that story to me.
“I also spent a lot of time listening to Jerry Bergonzi. I loved his playing and compositions. One day, I just sent Jerry Bergonzi an e-mail and asked him if he would share his lead sheets with me. He was like, sure. He started scanning and sending them. Everything was all handwritten. I said, Jerry, would you like somebody to change these sheets into a music notation software? Clean them up? I wasn’t asking for money to do it. I felt, through his records, he has given me so much. It was the only way I could think about repaying him. I didn’t realize it would turn into 250 some sheets,” Jeff shared.
Currently, he has all of Jerry Bergonzi’s songs on his website and when Jerry has an overseas gig, he refers the overseas bandmembers to that website to pull Ellwood’s neatly penned charts.
While talking to Jeff Ellwood, I recognize his funny, tongue-in-cheek humor. He’s quick to make me laugh. He’s also a humble man with a somewhat precocious personality. Once he sets his mind to something, Jeff Ellwood goes after it, full speed ahead. He and I both understand that choosing music as an occupation is a hard and challenging decision; especially for a jazz musician. He spoke warmly of his family and their loving support of his musical career choice.
“Nobody in my family plays music. Nobody can understand where my talent came from. When I was a fifteen-year-old kid, I was playing in a rock band. We were pretty popular and playing at the Whiskey a Go Go on a Wednesday night. We needed a place to rehearse and my mom was like, oh, go ahead use our garage. So once or twice a week, she’s sitting in the living room just listening to this pounding music and never said anything. Never stopped it. On the other hand, my father said, I’m just letting you know, you WILL go to college. You don’t have a choice in that. He said, you can be anything you want to be. You can choose any college you want to and I’ll pay for it. So, they gave me kind of carte blanche to just do what I really wanted to do. I told them I was going to go to music school and they never said a single thing. They really supported me. I was in my early thirties when I got my first full time job teaching. I remember calling my dad and telling him, you don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
Jeff Ellwood has found himself walking along a pathway of masters and to his credit has played with historic and iconic names like Tony Bennett, Bill Cunliffe, Jimmy Haslip, Dave Carpenter, Darek Oles, Randy Brecker, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Arturo Sandoval and many more. He shared a story with me about meeting the great James Moody.
“When I was working on my Master’s Degree at Cal State Fullerton, the Director of Jazz Studies said James Moody was going to come into town as a guest artist and they were going to go out to lunch. I said please, please, please, let me be at that lunch. He relented and I was just fortunate to attend lunch with Moody and his wife Linda and the Director of Jazz Studies. I kept telling James Moody I wanted to take a lesson with him and later, we’re sitting in a room hanging out. He was 77 years old at that time. He was showing me something and I said, I do a little something like that. I played it and he says, write that down for me. I kind of looked at him and repeated, write that down? And he looked at me and he was like, young man, I’m 77 years old, but I still get up every day and practice and still have the desire to learn and get better and hear something new. I’m sitting there stunned, because he wants me to write down my ‘lick.’ That was a really a profound moment for me. And then, after the lesson I asked, how much do I owe you? Moody says, you don’t owe me anything. The only thing that you owe me is to keep passing this music on.
“I ended up running into him (Moody) at a convention a year or two later. I was like, oh, there’s James Moody. He’s not going to remember me. He meets so many people. But he did remember me. He says, Jeff, it’s so good to see you. Linda, do you remember Jeff? I was like OMG; this amazing man remembers who I am? In my office, behind my desk is a giant picture of James Moody. Also, in my home, my dad found an art print of James Moody and that hangs in my home office. Students who come to take a lesson ask, who is that guy? I say well, sit down. Then, I tell them an amazing story about who James Moody is. It’s a nice way to pass on his legacy.”
On April 13, 2004, a special Henry Mancini Tribute was given at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Among the performers were: Michael Feinstein, James and Jeanne Galway, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Take 6, and Monica Mancini. The Alumni Orchestra of the Henry Mancini Institute was under the direction of Patrick Williams and Jeff Ellwood was part of that Orchestra. I asked him about that experience.
“A lot of the famous people I’ve worked with were at events that I participated in representing the Mancini Institute. I think Julie Andrews was a part of that tribute to Henry Mancini and John Williams. Stevie (Wonder) came out and sang “Moonriver.” Quincy Jones was there too. It was also a Mancini Institute gig when I worked with Tony Bennett. He was doing a thing at the Kodak Theater and they needed to assemble an orchestra to back him up. The nice thing about being affiliated with the Mancini Institute, they’d get calls to do a lot of other things when the Institute wasn’t working. For example, they flew me to New York to play at Lincoln Center a couple of times,” Jeff Ellwood praised the Institute named for famed composer Henry Mancini.
Ellwood’s debut album is a smooth testament to his musical journey, his tenacity in the business, his unique style and creativity and showcases both his saxophone and composer skills. But, in addition to recording and performing, Jeff Ellwood has found a genuine love for teaching. In 2018, Ellwood’s Jazz Studies Program at Mt. San Antonio College won the Downbeat’s Community College Award for Best Jazz Ensemble and in 2019 they came in second place right behind Riverside City College, where Jeff Ellwood once taught for five years.
“When I moved back home, from Boston to California, Riverside City College gave me my first teaching position, teaching an improvisation class. My former saxophone teacher is the Director of Jazz Studies at Riverside College and he gave me the job. I only had a Batchelor’s Degree, so I could only teach the performance-based classes. He pulled me aside one time and said, I think you’re kind of good at this. I think it’s time to go back and get a Master’s Degree. So, I got my Master’s Degree. I remained at Riverside Community College for five or six years and now I’ve been full-time at Mt. San Antonio College for fifteen years.
“I find there are a lot of young musicians who fortunately have a good mind set and are making recordings and videos and getting those things distributed on social media. But what I tell my jazz history class, I don’t want to make the class so difficult for them. However, if you happen to fall down some stairs sometime and you end up in a jazz club, you will at least understand the amount of work, education, blood sweat and tears that has gone into playing this music. You need to understand that a jazz musician is like a classical musician. We have to have all the technical skills of a classical musician. We have to learn to play in all twelve keys and to improvise. We’re not just going up there winging it. It’s like hours and hours of practice time figuring out what to do. So, whether you go out and buy a jazz record, at least you have some kind of appreciation of what goes into it. That’s what I want to do, is to get that fundamental understanding of how deep these musicians are. Like James Moody told me, just pass it on!”
Jeff Ellwood is “passing it on” as an educator but also as an artist. Pick up his newly released CD “The Sounds Around the House” to enjoy the warm, unique sound of Ellwood’s tenor saxophone jazz. It will make a great holiday stocking stuffer!