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John Ellis: Words and Tones

In his collaborations with playwright (and neighbor) Andy Bragen, the saxophonist taps into deep reserves of grief, horror, and humor

John Ellis
John Ellis (photo: Emra Islek)

On Valentine’s Day weekend in Manhattan, a few weeks before the rampant spread of COVID-19 squashed the pleasure quotient of macabre entertainment, the Jazz Gallery presented a CD release party for The Ice Siren (Parade Light), a jazz oratorio composed by saxophonist John Ellis, with libretto by playwright Andy Bragen. Its narrative involves the journey of a male protagonist (Miles Griffith) into the phantasmagorically frozen world beneath the crypt inhabited by his beloved (Gretchen Parlato). The singers were reprising their performances at The Ice Siren’s 2009 Jazz Gallery debut, and the 2015 repeat performance there that spurred Ellis to document the work on his label. So were such New York stalwarts as guitarist Mike Moreno, tubist Marcus Rojas, vibraphonist Chris Dingman, and percussionists Daniel Freedman and Daniel Sadownick, who—along with a string quartet—interpreted Ellis’ quasi-atonal score.

“[Jazz Gallery artistic director] Rio [Sakairi]’s guidance was to try to get outside what would normally be comfortable,” Ellis stated two weeks after the show in the studio apartment he shares with his wife in a Mitchell-Lama co-op complex in the East Village. He looked across the table at Bragen, a tenant in another building in that same complex since 2000, as he recounted the beginning of their artistic partnership, stemming from a compositional commission by Sakairi. “I immediately thought: ‘Maybe I should try to collaborate with a writer. What writers do I know? Oh, it’s got to be Andy.’”

Their first effort together generated 2007’s Dreamscapes, comprising Bragen’s readings of a dozen 12-line dream poems followed by Ellis’ scored or improvised responses. “My mind was in a very good place to write surreal dreams,” Bragen said, adding that he’d written the poems after his father was diagnosed with liver cancer, to which he succumbed in November 2007. “I was running back and forth to New Jersey, getting care for him, taking care of him. Watching this happen was so overwhelming that my father ended up surfacing in a lot of the dreams—they were pretty profound to write. To his credit, John didn’t think, ‘You’re a playwright; you can only write a certain kind of thing.’”

“I think of that project as the raw material of our collaboration,” Ellis said. “I’d experiment by giving words to different members of the band, almost like a script, and then they’d play a musical version of whatever that was. The only continuity was the conceptual idea.”

East Village Party

At that point, Ellis and Bragen shared mutual affinities nurtured over a decade-long friendship. They’d met in February 1997, soon after Ellis—who’d spent much of the previous four years in New Orleans, where he studied with Ellis Marsalis and gigged locally with luminaries like Nicholas Payton and Brian Blade, but also had traveled across Africa as a USIA Cultural Ambassador—came to New York to matriculate at the New School. Already in town was Ellis’ mother, an English teacher, who had relocated from her rural North Carolina home to work toward a master’s in playwriting at Hunter College, where Bragen was enrolled.

“Andy told her he had a place where I could stay,” Ellis said. He declined, opting instead to live in Williamsburg with his older brother David, also in New York at the School of Visual Arts, whence he transferred to Cooper Union. “[David] told me New York was great, better than New Orleans, and he had a cheap place to live where he’d be for the next 20 years. Four months later, we were about to be out on the street. I thought I should check in with the guy my mom told me about. Andy still had a place for me.”

Their relationship blossomed over the next three years in a “cheap, wacky situation” on East 7th Street between Avenues C and D. “The first time John showed up, he and his brother had biked across the Williamsburg Bridge on dirtbikes,” recalled Bragen, whose childhood home at Avenue A and East 4th is down the block from his current digs. “I liked them both a lot; John and I were connected as people a long time before we ever worked together. I ran a little travel agency out of the house while working on various theater things.”

Bragen’s passion for theater came in part from his own mother, a junior high school teacher who moved from Mississippi to the East Village in the early ’60s. Her final illness is the subject of his well-received play Notes on My Mother’s Decline, which ran three weeks Off-Broadway during the fall of 2019. Bragen’s two-with-nature upbringing contrasts drastically with Ellis, who grew up on an 18-acre spread two miles outside of Cameron, North Carolina, a hamlet of 200 souls in tobacco country. Ellis recalls playing with his brother amid Native American rockpile burial areas and abandoned underground stills that once were used for making moonshine.

“My mother was very isolated in this tiny town,” Ellis said. “She wanted to be around hyper-literate friends and talk about books and ideas and write plays—I think she often felt like she had no peers. My dad is a Presbyterian minister, who wanted a big garden and a small church. That isolation made her extra-conscious about trying to expose us to cultural things, which was not the easiest thing there. She’d tell us she was afraid we’d both end up working at the gas station, or aim low, or not get to see the world. We did all that maybe better than her wildest dreams.

“Both my mom and Andy have an amazing knowledge of language and words. I have to keep Andy close in my life as we go forward, because I’m often going to need to know, ‘What does that mean?’ We get into problem-solving things where we’re trying to say something with a certain number of syllables, and you work at finding the right word. The compositions that have worked best for me lately involve attention to creating a problem. Once you have a problem that is clear, then solving it is fun. There’s an unlimited amount of ways to think about what kind of problem you want to solve. You never have to do it the same. It’s like a game.”

Originally Published

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.