Pee Wee Ellis

J-Night is proud to have a long relationship with one of the leading funk / soul / jazz saxophonists in the world.

Pee Wee Ellis was born to play music.  From first piano lessons in Lubbock, Texas to discovering a saxophone in his grandmother’s bureau at age nine, he showed exceptional aptitude.  In Texas Pee Wee got to see blues greats like Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Fats Domino; by 11 he was sneaking in to play with touring dance bands.  With clarinet and sax lessons in school, he was skilled on reeds as well as piano when his family moved to Rochester, New York at age 16.

In Rochester, he began gigging earnestly in a scene that included future bass legend Ron Carter;  the two would travel to New York City to see jazz heroes at Birdland.  Pee Wee here met Sonny Rollins, who agreed to give him lessons.

Pee Wee joined James Brown in 1965, immediately began writing and soon came up with the first pure hardcore Funk hit, Cold Sweat, followed by 26 others that defined what we think of as Funk to this day.  Six months after he was hired, Pee Wee became James Brown’s musical director.

Pee Wee has been called The Man Who Invented Funk: influenced by Miles Davis, he distilled R&B and made complex, polyrhythmic arrangements that created a dialogue with James’ singing rather than just a backing track.  Pee Wee’s effect on music was huge, leading directly to George Clinton, Sly Stone and, in a circular twist, Miles Davis’ 70’s work.

Pee Wee yearned to grow beyond the confines of James Brown, and left by 1970 to work as arranger and musical director for CTI-Kudu records, the most popular jazz label of the 70s.  He worked with Esther Phillips as well as George Benson, Hank Crawford and dozens of other CTI artists.

In 1979 Van Morrison asked Pee Wee to do arrangements for his Into The Music album, leading to Pee Wee becoming Van’s musical director, an association that lasted for six years and five albums then was repeated for another five years and five more albums in the last half of the 90’s.   In between, a reunited JB Horns - Pee Wee, Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker - made several albums and toured extensively.

Also through the early 90’s, Pee Wee released several solo albums that illustrated the depth of his music.  As well as funk-jazz , there were big band and two pure jazz albums, 12 and More Blues and Yellin’ Blue, made with just a bassist and drummer; both garnered rave reviews.

Van Morrison came calling in 1992 and Pee Wee’s return to the band coincided with a new surge in popularity for Van; the first album was Days Like This, with the hit title song arranged by Pee Wee, followed by How Long Has This Been Going On? with another hit, That’s Life, big band arrangement by Pee Wee.  His last album in this run with Van was Back On Top, yet another hit, critically and commercially.

Meanwhile, Pee Wee had found world music, or it had found him.  He contributed arrangements for Malian singer Oumou Sangare’s album Worotan also for Senegalese singer Cheikh Lo; the result was a brilliant and natural fusion that caught the attention of many.  That led to arranging and playing for two Cuban legends: Cachaito and Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz. He continues to arrange for World Circuit Records, including work with Ali Farka Toure on what turned out to be sadly,  his last album.  Also on Cheikh Lo’s latest and funkiest cd ‘Lampfall’

Since 2000, Pee Wee has released Live ‘n Funky, a brilliant New York live set, Ridin’ Mighty High, a gospel album that has been his biggest hit yet, and his latest project  Different Rooms, a new genre for the new millennium “SMUNK”, smooth funk.

The Pee Wee Ellis Assembly regularly tours, he  has worked with UK jazz singing sensation Clare Teal, and last year was asked to North Carolina – to write songs once again for James Brown. In 2005 he visited Japan with the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa to great acclaim and in 2006 they played together again, in South Africa and a sell out week at Yoshi’s in Oakland.

Most recently he has performed with and arranged for the Miami based Spam All Stars with whom he will be performing live in 2007. Pee Wee and Fred Wesley performed together together London and Europe in 2007 and he also toured a gospel show with Martha High in Dec 2007.  He continues to work in the education field and produces and arranges as always.

In 2008 Pee Wee started leading a new project Still Black, Still Proud - An African Tribute to James Brown, with his long time colleague Fred Wesley, and Cheikh Lo from Senegal. Others guests in the show are Vieux Farka Toure (Mali) Tony Allen (Nigeria/Europe), Simphiwe Dana (South Africa) and Manu Dibango.

Since 2012 Pee Wee has been performing alongside legendary drummer Ginger Baker, percussionist Abass Dodoo and Alec Dankworth (bass) as Ginger Baker's Jazz Confusion.

Pee Wee Ellis's website

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Interview with Pee Wee Ellis