Ellsworth Brown- Des Moines Jazz Master
Interview by Dartanyan Brown
The Following is an interview with Pianist, Composer,Theorist Ellsworth Brown. Conducted by his son, Des Moines native and former (pre-gannett) Des Moines Register reporter Dartanyan Brown, this interview was taken two years before Ellsworth's induction to the Iowa CJC Jazz Hall of Fame in Des Moines. It was one of the last extended interviews he would give before his passing on Christmas Eve 2009.
The music of post W.W.II America, like all things, was in a tremendous ferment and, like a fine race horse fighting for its head in a close race, beboppers (disciples of the Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker school of hot, uptempo swing) were feverishly testing the limits of what could reasonably be described as Jazz. Parker, a Missouri native himself, was at the forefront of the new music and the midwest roots he shares with scores of important players have been central in their impact on the history and development of Jazz.
Des Moines, the geographical hub of a circuit which includes St. Louis, Kansas City, Omaha, Chicago and later Minneapolis, was fertile ground for territory band activity both as a concert stop and a way station as musicians like Count Basie, Oscar Dennard and Art Tatum crisscrossed the region playing music in the clubs, concert halls, road houses and community centers.
Ellsworth Brown, then a resident of Newton, N.J. lived with his young family in Des Moines from 1949 until 1961. His recollections of the Des Moines Jazz scene and the great musicians who created it are included here. These interviews, conducted over the last several years, review things I know to be true from my childhood recollections. We hope to fill in as much of the day-to-day elements of being a Jazz player in 1949--in Des Moines.
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Dartanyan: Tell me what the heck made you come to Des Moines in the first place?
Ellsworth: Well, your Mother wanted to be near to her family so a few months before you were born, we left Los Angeles and moved to Des Moines.
Dartanyan: What did you find here when you arrived?
Ellsworth: There were definitely some cats who were seriously interested in the music at that time. I met Wesley Bettis an Alto Sax player, a fine musician and a fine person too. He was a demonstrative band leader with a knack for getting guys together of all stripes. In the early 50's there was a lot happening and we were lucky to be there at that time.
I came (to DM) in as a sax player but changed to piano later after studying on my own and working with guys like Speck (Redd) and Oscar (Dennard). I gigged at Rocky's Steak House for awhile. That gig came from my brother-in-law Guy Hawkins, Guy was working there as head janitor and he hired me as his assistant. It was Roy Compiano and wife Della and their son Roy Jr. as I remember it. Guy worked there as head janitor and I was second in command, but he soon spoke up to Roy and said that I could play Jazz and so in time I was hired as a bandleader and I stayed there for 8 years. In the meantime I started working with all the cats around town.
Dartanyan: I remember when I was very young, hearing musicians playing in the house all the time. Were these some of the guys?
Ellsworth: Of course, there were Oscar and Speck, there was Francis Bates the bassist, Orville Cox who also played bass, Bobby Parker was THE MAN on drums. Irene Myles played piano, Orville played with her I think. Ernest..(pianist Speck Redd) lived right down the street from us (Walker St. in East Des Moines) and we became fast friends from my first days in Des Moines. His wife and your mother were also great friends. We did a lot of things together in the early days but, of course, the main thing was the music.
Dartanyan: Were there other players around?
Ellsworth: Well, there was Helen Gale, The Gray Brothers, Charles Gator, Jerry Beardmore was a drummer and his wife was a great singer too. Ross Cornelison and his sister (Ellen Rucker) Lots of guys came through during those years. Oscar Dennard comes to mind.
Dartanyan: Tell me about Dennard.
Ellsworth: Oscar Dennard came through Des Moines with a band that played shows at the Iowa State Fair. Somehow they got stranded and he stayed in Des Moines. That had to be in '50-52. The band he had was from St. Petersburg Florida (guys from Florida A&M as I remember) . They played with the same fire that Nat and Cannonball Adderly had and they played jazz and bebop. They were schooled players who also had street smarts. Oscar was something very special, he played Classical music too, and his gifts were considerable.
Dartanyan: Did you hear him at the Fair?:
Ellsworth: No, He was in town to play the Fair and after the gig was over they came to the Sepia Club. He brought his band to the jam sessions that we ran down there. The Billiken (another Jazz lounge) was also where Oscar showed up. Orville (Cox) was leading the band there with the Gray Brothers. Talk about cookin'.. it was unbelievable. Helen Gale was in the audience, you should ask her. That had to be 1955-56.
I hired Oscar to play in my band after that which began one of the most creative times of my life to that point. I didn't have much fear at the time and as a band leader I wasn't afraid to try things and Oscar never made people feel underestimated. We played at the Morocco Club on Keo. They had a little elevated bandstand and the people would dance a little but the main thing was listening to the music.
I was just trying to keep a breast of myself. Oscar understood that and he never criticized what I wrote or tried to write. I was getting as far out as I could get. He listened and looked at the arrangements. I was studying (the) Schillinger (method) at the time. Our drummer Bobby Parker was supposedly a non reader but he had so much talent and such big ears that he could play anything asked of him. A wonderful player.
(Editors note: It is also known that Dennard spent his formative years in Memphis associated with players including pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Jamil Nassir and the legendary alto saxophonist Frank Strozier among others. After leaving Des Moines, shortly after working with Ellsworth, Dennard began a 5-year stint with Lionel Hampton in both small and large group contexts.)
Please send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be glad to communicate with you all on matters of interest to Des Moines Jazz or Buxton, Iowa history buffs.
Stay tuned and remember. The heritage of the music and musicians of your home region are either as strong or as irrelevant as you choose to make them. Honor your artists, they bring inestimable value to your community--as we are now acknowledging about those 'crazy beboppers' of the late 40's and 50's. Peace out. -db-]
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