Morris Ellis entertains friends, family in his Beverly back yard
By DONNA VICKROY firstname.lastname@example.org September 2, 2012 8:40PM
Pam Bland and Tony Smith dance to the Morris Ellis Orchestra during a dinner concert in Ellis' back yard at his home in Chicago's Beverly community Wednesday, August 29, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 4, 2012 6:05AM
Seems Morris Ellis did everything he could to avoid becoming a world class musician.
Fate wouldn’t have it -- and lucky for us, too.
“I didn’t know how good I was,” Ellis said.
But Ramsey Lewis, Peabo Bryson, Stan Getz and Curtis Mayfield did.
Ellis has played his trombone with all of them, as well as with Sammy Davis, Jr., Woodie Herman, Natalie Cole and the Chi Lites. In addition to recording and performing with jazz greats, Ellis has directed his namesake orchestra on the Chicago club circuit for years.
Among his biggest fans, however, are the local people he plays for three times each summer. For the past nine years, Ellis and his wife, Linda, have hosted evening concerts in their Beverly backyard on the last Wednesday of June, July and August.
Touch of Ravinia
The Morris Ellis Orchestra typically practices indoors, in the basement of a building Ellis owns on 95th Street. One day someone said they should rehearse at a bigger venue, so people could come and listen.
“Linda’s antennae went up,” he said.
Family, friends, even the famous drummer Tony Smith attend, toting bottles of wine and containers of fresh fruit, salads and sandwiches. They sit at round tables topped with pink linen tablecloths.
On the white wooden deck, the 15-member orchestra, led by Ellis, belts out “It’s All Right,” “My Girl” and Etta James’ “At Last.”
Philip Castleberry is on bass. Willie Woods plays trumpet. Melanie Ware, an assistant principal at Poe Classical School in the Pullman neighborhood, handles vocals. She’s been singing with Ellis since 2002.
“He’s the mastermind,” she said.
William McClellan, director of the Arts Academy at the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Chicago and a former Chicago Public Schools music supervisor, also plays trumpet.
“This is a chance to play with great people,” McClellan said. “There are no hassles, no issues, no warfare, just playing.”
People dance and hug and marvel at the simple joy of it all: Musicians doing what they love; music fans following suit.
“This is all about love, about having a good time,” Linda Ellis said as she flitted among the guests.
The concerts are by invitation only and tables are reserved first-come, first-served. Nearly 150 attended the Aug. 29 event. Attendees are asked to donate $10 a person to tip the band.
“They’re fabulous,” said Helene Winters, of Oak Lawn. “Morris works so hard getting the band together and Linda has such a passion about this. Everybody comes here, forgets their problems and has a really good time.”
Bob Vashinko, of Western Springs, said the concerts harken back to the days of the old supper clubs.
They’re an elegant, relaxing way to spend a summer evening, Carol Vashinko said.
South Side legend
Morris grew up on the South Side. On his first day at DuSable High School he was targeted by a social gang that went by the name “The Four Corners.”
“They wanted my lunch money,” Ellis said. “So I ducked into the band room to hide.”
The band director asked what he was doing and Ellis said, “I want to be in the band.”
Then he lied and said he knew how to play the euphonium, an instrument that sounds like a trombone but has three valves like a trumpet.
“I learned real fast,” he said.
Though he enjoyed playing and seemed to be good at it, Ellis had his sights set on a different profession, but, he said, “Music kept getting in the way.”
He headed off to Howard University in Washington D.C., hoping to later get into medical school.
As his father was saying goodbye at the train station, he handed Ellis $10 and said, “I don’t know when I’ll be able to send more.”
Ellis told him that was OK. He gave his dad $5 back and told him to send his trombone along. He might want to play it in his free time.
Ellis ended up playing all four years at Howard, even doing a stint as drum major for the band.
“I didn’t get in to med school,” he said. “You just never know where your life will take you.”
After he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, he came back to Chicago, and applied to John Marshall Law School.
“That didn’t work out,” he said.
He worked as a social case worker by day and played at the Club DeLisa with Red Saunders by night. When the club closed in 1955, he formed his own band.
“Nobody hires trombonists,” he said. “So I put together my own orchestra.”
Jazz in Chicago
Back then, he said, there were 300 to 400 social clubs on the south side. It was easy to find gigs.
“I’d go to the meetings and sell my band,” he said. “We were pretty good.”
Morris met Linda at his day job. Both were working as social workers for the Chicago department of welfare. They married in 1989 and moved to their Beverly Georgian shortly after.
Ellis also played for a couple of years at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva.
“It was exciting and glamorous,” he said. He met Bill Cosby, Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Wilson and Sammy Davis Jr. on those jobs.
“I’d leave my job in Chicago at 4:30, drive the hour and a half north,” he said. They’d give him dinner and then he’d play.
“I was on Cloud 9,” he said.
He’s met a lot of celebrities through his work, but by far the coolest moment came when he was introduced to Muhammad Ali.
“I have a photo of me with him hanging in my house,” he said.
“But my idol has always been Count Basie. He led one of the best-rehearsed bands going,” he said.
Ellis was among the eight founders of the Chicago Jazz Festival.
“It started as a memorial concert to Duke Ellington,” he said. “But Jane Byrne liked it so much she made it an annual festival.”
Then, when Harold Washington was elected Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Ellis got the call to play at the inauguration.
Today, the Morris Ellis Orchestra plays mostly for weddings and other special occasions. It played for actress Joan Cusack’s wedding. And a North Shore Cadillac dealer flew the lot of them out to Boise, Idaho, to play for his daughter’s wedding.
About four months ago, Ellis suffered a fall and tore muscles behind his left knee. He’s currently recovering from surgery but says, soon, he will perform again.
Alberta Draper has known Ellis since they were both students at DuSable. She’s been to many of the backyard concerts.
“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “I love these concerts and I’m just so glad the neighborhood welcomes this.”