John Ellis is a country boy. He grew up on an 18-acre farm with chickens, a pond, and water that came from a natural spring behind the house. He played different instruments in his father's church when he was younger, and finally started blowing the saxophone in his high school band. His older brother's gifts in painting led him to the North Carolina School of the Arts, and John soon followed, studying oboe for one year, and then switching to saxophone. James Houlik became his teacher and one of his most important mentors during his time there. He completed high school and one year of college and then began his adventures in jazz.
John Ellis started to become a city boy. He moved to New Orleans, wanting to feel what the birthplace was like. After a year at the University of New Orleans under the tutelage of Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and Victor Goines, he quit school to try to play more. He began working with Ellis Marsalis's quartet to promote the album Whistle Stop, and was gigging around town. Then he had a unique opportunity.
John started to become an international boy. He was asked to be in the house band of a jazz club in Singapore, and lived there for three months, performing with Vanessa Rubin, Ernie Watts, and Terumasa Hino. He traveled and played in Indonesia, performing with Hino at the Jakarta Jazz Festival. Soon after returning to New Orleans, he traveled to Germany with Walter Payton, legendary New Orleans bass player and father of trumpeter, Nicholas Payton. They made seven trips in one year. Ellis was then chosen to be in one of seven duos to perform in the inaugural year of the Jazz Ambassadors program, sponsored by the USIA and The Kennedy Center. He traveled as a cultural ambassador to South Africa, Namibia, Swaziland, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, and Kenya.
John Ellis returned to New Orleans in culture shock, only to find that he'd been chosen as one of 13 semi-finalists in the 1996 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition. The competition was held in the Smithsonian, and the rhythm section included Christian McBride, Kenny Barron, and Lewis Nash. The panel of judges included Wayne Shorter, Jackie McLean, Jimmy Heath, Joe Lovano, and Joshua Redman. Soon after the competition, Ellis put out his debut CD, The Language of Love. Bolstered by his success, John decided to try his luck in New York City.
The chaos of New York, and a broken arm, inspired John to return to school. He finished up his studies at The New School for Social Research / Mannes Jazz between 1997 and 1999. He studied there with Joe Chambers, Reggie Workman, and George Garzone, among many others. While completing his studies, John continued to freelance, record and work on his own music. Soon after graduation, he was invited to Portugal as a featured soloist in an Ellington concert featuring Mark Turner and Perico Sambeat. He also performed the classic Gil Evans / Miles Davis arrangements of "Sketches of Spain" and "Porgy and Bess" with Tim Hagans, Tom Harrell, Ira Coleman, Troy Davis, and Cyro Battista. The BFA came in handy right away as he was invited back to New Orleans to teach at Loyola University for one year.
New Orleans was really friendly, and welcomed John Ellis back with open arms. He became a working member of Jason Marsalis' quintet, as well as, Roland Guerin's band. He freelanced with Steve Masakowski, Phillip Manuel, Peter Martin, and the John Mahoney Big Band. When the school year ended, John promptly headed back to New York. In 2002, he placed second in the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, and continued expanding his horizons by gigging with Mike Clark, Fred Wesley and Mike Wolfe, while becoming a permanent member of Ropeadope recording artist Charlie Hunter's trio.
In late 2004, John signed a national recording deal with the acclaimed and eclectic independent record label, HYENA Records. In February 2005, John will release his first nationally distributed album with HYENA, entitled One Foot In The Swamp, featuring special guests John Scofield and Nicholas Payton. A limited edition EP version of the project is already available at John's gigs and through the HYENA website. While not working with his own band, John continues to freelance and perform as a member of Charlie Hunter group. Most recently, Hunter featured three Ellis compositions on his new album, Friends Seen and Unseen.
Look for John Ellis tour dates in support of One Foot In The Swamp throughout 2005. As his schedule away from Charlie Hunter's trio permits, Ellis will take to the road with his own quintet.
One of the youngest and most exciting tenor saxophone players on the current jazz scene, the world is going to hear a great deal more from John Ellis. As both a composer and a musician, Ellis is part of a fresh vanguard of jazz players carrying the music forward to a new generation of jazz fans.