Local Jazz Notables Return to Milwaukee to Honor Manty Ellis

April 27 has been officially declared “Manty Ellis Day” in Milwaukee.

Renowned protégés of legendary guitarist Manty Ellis are returning to join the Milwaukee jazz icon to pay homage and celebrate his six decades of musical influence. The show, supported by the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music whose Jazz institute was co-founded by Ellis, will bring together these four artists with Ellis in the 88Nine Performance Space on Saturday, April 27.

In addition, the city is declaring Saturday Manty Ellis Day, and the Conservatory has named a scholarship for him.

In an interview last week in anticipation of the concert, Ellis, 86, said he’d been immersed in jazz since he was in the cradle. His father was a self-taught jazz pianist who practiced in the next room when Ellis was a baby.

“I was born right into it,” he says. “I didn’t have a choice.”

Ellis says that he began playing the piano sitting on his dad’s lap when he was just a year old. His father showed him one single note, Middle C, and from then on he learned all the notes from his father. Ellis said his father would show him things on the piano and then later ask him to teach it back to him. “So I started teaching as I learned,” Ellis recalls.

Manty Ellis; photo courtesy of Wisconsin Conservatory of Music

Ellis admits he was never really that interested in piano; he had always wanted a guitar. But he says he didn’t have money to buy one at the time, though he constantly thought about it. So he used his piano skills, performing with bands, to save up money and eventually buy himself a guitar. He believes you can learn any other instrument from the piano — and he did.

He bought the guitar and started practicing on his own. His father took him to his own former music instructor, George Patrick, and that’s where he began to further develop his skills. And just like when he learned to play the piano, while Ellis was learning the guitar he taught his father at the same time.

“So I had developed some kind of a system where I could convey what I had in my head to him, which is a very unique thing in teaching,” Ellis said. “Because that’s what a teacher’s supposed to do.”

After becoming a very talented student and teacher at the same time, Ellis went on to establish the city’s first jazz program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music with Tony King. Ellis was and still is very passionate about the jazz program. He says that jazz should be taught as “spontaneous improvisation,” and that’s where the best performances are found. He says he instilled that concept into all of his students, leaving them with his life-long influence.

The four protégés joining Ellis on stage Saturday are all hand-picked, notable jazz artists and Milwaukee natives: Jeff Chambers, a talented bassist known for his improvisational dexterity; David Hazeltine, one of the most-recorded jazz pianists of our time; Carl Allen, a talented drummer and band leader; and Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Brian Lynch.

Ellis and the other artists will hold a discussion panel on Milwaukee’s jazz culture and Ellis’ lasting influence in the community. The discussion will take place at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s Goodrich-McIntosh Mansion located at 1584 N Prospect Ave.

The show later that day will be at 8 p.m. at 88Nine’s performance space, 220 E. Pittsburgh Ave.