PEE WEE ELLIS
To keep a career at the top of the musical tree for nearly six decades, to invent one of the most internationally loved styles of dance music in history, to be constantly hailed by generations of critics, music-lovers and fellow-musicians … all of that takes a special kind of talent, one that Pee Wee Ellis has never lacked.
As a high school student finding his feet in the jazz scene of mid-50s Rochester, New York, sax player Pee Wee knew he was going places. The first place he went was New York City, the hub of modern jazz, where his heroes like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were playing in the clubs and he even managed to persuade the great Sonny Rollins to give him saxophone lessons.
Pursuing a jazz career he went on to Florida, where he led his own bands, but then, in 1965, he got the chance to join James Brown’s band, the Famous Flames, already one of the top acts in the USA. Within a few months he was bandleader of the Flames, co-writing with Mr Brown himself and bringing jazz knowledge to soul music. When ‘Cold Sweat’ burst onto the world in 1967 they called it ‘funk’ and a new sound was born that lives to this day.
After a five year partnership that produced 26 tunes – including the anthemic hit ‘Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)’ Pee Wee left the Flames and took his funky gift to studio work. He was busy arranging and playing for George Benson, Esther Philips and others until, in 1979, Van Morrison sought him out for his ‘Into The Music’ album.
It was a successful pairing that led to Pee Wee leading Van’s band for five years and six albums before his jazz-funk roots began calling. The 80s generation of hip-hop samplers and acid jazz devotees wanted to hear it from the source, so while leading his own jazz outfits Pee Wee got back together with former Flames Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley as the JB Horns, a stunning live jazz funk act that toured the world.
The 90s saw Pee Wee back with Van Morrison for another 5-year string of hits, including the Pee Wee arranged ‘Days Like This’ and ‘That’s Life’ and by the end of the decade it was clear that his fame was truly worldwide as invitations came to work with African and Cuban world music stars including Malian singer Oumou Sangare, Cheik Lo from Senegal, Ali Farke Touré, the legendary desert guitarist from Timbuktu and Buena Vista Social Club stars Cachaito Lopez and Anga Diaz. These collaborations would later inspire him to create ‘Still Black, Still Proud’ a spectacular touring tribute to James Brown featuring Cheik Lo, Vieux Farka Touré and the legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen.
The project is just one of many projects and collaborations that have kept Pee Wee Ellis on the world’s stages throughout the new century. A regular guest alongside stars like Lionel Hampton, Jimmy Cobb, Clare Teal and others he also tours with his own regular bands the Pee Wee Ellis Funk All Stars and Pee Wee Ellis Assembly – the latter a supergroup that can include UK jazz stars Jason Rebello, Tony Remy and Dennis Rollins among others. Since 2011 he has been a founder member of drummer Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion. He’s still busy in the studio, too, contributing the arrangements to a new album from Boy George as well as cutting his own ‘Tenoration’, a double album of his own featuring one disc each of funk and jazz.
Remembering the inspiration of those early lessons with Sonny Rollins, Pee Wee has also always found time to help young players through educational projects in schools, communities and universities around the UK, his adopted home, and contributing to on-line music tuition programmes.. Small wonder that later this year he will receive an Honorary Doctorate from Bath Spa University – a PhD in funk, perhaps?