Jeff Ellwood on His Unlikely Career in Music, Practicing 9th Chord Shapes, and More

Introduction

At the 2019 NAMM Show, I was able to meet up with Jeff Ellwood, who is a saxophone player and teacher based out of Southern California. I have been following Jeff’s playing for quite some time as well practicing his educational materials, which are very good for players at all levels. For those of you who already don’t know much about Jeff Ellwood, here are some key details to note:

  • Received his Bachelor of Music from The Berklee College of Music & his Master’s from Cal State Fullerton.
  • Studied Saxophone & Improvisation with James Moody, Rick Margitza, Ralph Bowen, John Ellis, Billy Pierce, George Garzone, Eric Marienthal, and Gary Foster.
  • Jeff has performed or recorded with, Tony Bennett, Jerry Bergonzi, Rick Margitza, Terell Stafford, James Moody, Randy Brecker, Christina McBride, Stevie Wonder, Bob Mintzer, Eddie Daniels, Arturo Sandoval, Dave Grusin, and Quincy Jones to name a few.
  • In 2013, Jeff worked with saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi to produce a compilation of all of Jerry’s compositions. In addition, Jeff co-authored the book, Basic Jazz Improvisation For All Musicians
  • Currently, Jeff is the Director of instrumental Jazz Studies at Mt. San Antonio College and an adjust professor of jazz saxophone at Cal State Fullerton.

 Interview

ZS: What was your experience playing music and why did you choose the saxophone?

JE: Well nobody in my family played music but I had asthma growing up as a kid and my doctor recommended that a musical instrument might be a good idea to help with my lungs. I started playing a musical instrument in the 5th grade and chose the saxophone because I realized at a young age that girls liked the saxophone. I started on alto saxophone while in high school and played in a few rock bands but never took any saxophone lessons.

By the end of high school, I knew music was something I was interested in doing and I was fortunate enough that my dad bought me a Selmer Series II alto in black lacquer to replace my current horn. After high school, I went to a community college for a few years and was learning a lot of material that I should have learned in high school but unfortunately I didn’t. I was trying to learn this material but things were not making sense to me. Before summer break, I noticed my high school had a tenor which I asked to borrow over break and that is when things started to make sense.

In some ways I have regrets that I never had lessons in high school, but in some ways I don’t have regrets because it forced me to figure things out and explore playing differently.

You have to understand that when I came out of high school, I was awful. I did not know my major scales or how to read music. My first week at community college they made me play lead alto because I had a good sound but I could not read. I remember the first tune we had to play was a Mark Taylor arrangement of “All The Things You Are” and we had to play that in the 2nd week of school which I had no idea what the symbols meant on the page. It was a long process for me to learn scales, chords, how to read, etc. and I played a lot of wrong notes during that time.

I knew after high school that I wanted to pursue music and attend Berklee College of Music because I knew it was a place that had many great players; which would motivate me to stay in the practice room and figure things out. Although I wanted to go to Berklee right after high school, I knew that I was not ready, so my only option was to attend my local community college.

When I decided to go community college they happened to hire a new instructor who was a saxophone player named Charlie Richard and he took me on as a student and is now the Director of Jazz Studies at Riverside City College. Charlie studied with Harvey Pittel and he had me playing Ferling Etudes and studying a lot of those concepts he learned from Harvey Pittel. I don’t feel that I would be half the musician I am today if it weren’t for those 2 years at community college because Berklee wouldn’t have nurtured me the same way a community college would.

After community college, I applied to Berklee but what further interested me in attending Berklee early on was they had these summer music camps in L.A. I went to one of these camps my first year out of high school which was a week-long and this was the first time I met Billy Pierce. For some reason, I was placed in the top level saxophone class (which I don’t know why), and I was clearly the weakest person there.

I kept asking players in my class “Oh you sound great, how do you do that?” and they were not willing to help me which was frustrating. The next year, I switched to tenor and came back to the camp. When I saw Billy Pierce, he asked me “what happened?”; similar to the story of Charlie Parker getting a cymbal thrown at his head, after my first year attending camp, I started working really hard to become as good as I could.

At the Berklee summer camp they gave out scholarship money. By no means was I anybody good who was at the camp, but Berklee ended up offering me scholarship money and to this day I believe it was because of Billy Pierce talking to the judges about how far I had come from last year.

At Berklee, I studied with Billy for my first 2 years. I bounced around to a few other teachers, Jim Odgren and Dino Govoni. After Jim I moved on to studying with George Garzone for the remainder of my time at Berklee. When I studied with Billy, I was learning a lot of the bebop language. I found Billy was a very logical teacher and remember he had filing cabinets full of charts and materials over the years teaching students. This was a great help to me because I always come into Billy’s lessons with questions and he gave me material I could work on and helped me figure it out. Garzone had his own system but it was not as organized and structured in certain ways which was also good because it let me think about ideas in a different way. After Berklee, I stayed in Boston for another year and played with a hip hop band with a bunch of jazz musicians called Red Time. It was a great band but the leader of the band decided he wanted to take the band to New York; I just was not interested in making the move and ended up moving back to California.

Just before Berklee, I was still trying to figure out how I heard music and stumbled across a Rick Margitza album which is when the lightbulb went off and is how I heard and wanted to play music. I transcribed and listened to so much of Rick Margitza and knew that I wanted to study with him. I got his phone number and just called Rick and said I need to study with you. For our lessons, I would play on a cassette tape and send it to Rick. After, Rick would listen to it and then talk on the other side of the cassette tape, write things down for me to review, and send the tape back. Those were some of my most valuable lessons I took to date.

When I moved back to California, I really had no desire to get a college teaching job but was teaching saxophone lessons on the side as I was trying to get my name out there. Back at my community college Riverside City College they had an evening jazz ensemble that was filled with local band directors, semi-professionals and professionals. That ensemble was being run by my former teacher Charlie Richard and he pulled me aside one day and asked if I would teach the improvisation class at the college, which I said sure. From there, I started to coach some combo’s and teach some students. After some time, Charlie recommended that I go back to college and get a Master’s degree. I decided to attend Cal State Fullerton and got my Master’s Degree in Performance. The teaching path was never on my radar but I kind of fell into it.

ZS: Who would you say are your biggest influences?

JE: Really my top three influences are Rick Margitza, Jerry Bergonzi, and Seamus Blake. I try to listen to other players but I keep gravitating back to these three players.

ZS: As a teacher and player, what are your thoughts on how jazz is being taught in today’s schools compared to the past? What are some similarities and differences?

JE: I think because of the world we live in, I don’t think honesty is something that happens a lot in education. I don’t think a lot of students come out of school as qualified and ready as they should be. Back when I was studying it was much more black and white. I was being told all the time, that what I was doing was not good enough and that I was not working hard enough to get it together. I knew this advice was coming from a loving place and my teachers were not trying to destroy me but simply telling me what it really takes to play music well. I don’t see students listening to music the same way as I did in the past. I find students are not listening, memorizing and internalizing their favorite player’s solos. Even today we have access to so much material online but some students are lazy and want to be told what to do instead of figuring out the material themselves.

ZS: With jazz blending more into other genres of music, what opportunities are you seeing for both yourself as well as young players entering the scene today?

JE: I am seeing younger players taking charge of their own careers. By leveraging technology, I see players coming up with their own type of music and carving out a path for themselves. I am not always a fan of some of the music but I understand these players are trying to make a living. Being an educator has allowed me to play what I want to play. I only want to play music that inspires me and play with players who want to make great music.

ZS: Do you think young saxophonists and veterans can just get by with just playing music, or do you see teaching as almost a requirement if you want to make music your full time career?

JE: Let’s be realistic; you would be foolish to not teach players who want to learn from you. I think Chad Lefkowitz-Brown and Bob Reynolds are great examples where they are carving out their own path related to teaching, with e-books and educational based websites. I myself am working on a Seamus Blake transcription book with Remi Bolduc from McGill University that I hope to release soon and think a lot of players will enjoy checking it out.

ZS: What projects are you currently working on right now?

JE: I am hoping to get in the studio in February and make my first record as a leader.

ZS: What are you working on today (exercise). Educational materials you would like to share with readers?

JE: What I have been working on lately has been chord sounds. In particular I have been working on 9th chords and really figuring out every possible way to mix up 5 notes and playing them at all upper extensions. Using voice leading you can combine these melodies.

Taken from Jeff’s 9th Chord Shapes Exercise

Click here to download Jeff’s 9th chord shapes exercise in PDF format.


ZS:  What is your current setup today and what are your thoughts on the importance of equipment (Vintage V.S. Modern)?

I have never played any vintage gear or had the desire to. Part of the reason is because I love technology but I never wanted to be in a situation where my Mark VI is lost or gets stolen and I could never replace it. If anything were to happen to my Yamaha, I could go to a shop or Yamaha directly and get a new horn. I have never spent much time playing Mark VI’s or SBA’s. I actually had something happen to my modern Selmer Series II tenor so I was looking for a back-up tenor. At that time, the Yamaha Custom 82Z’s were not as expensive so I bought a black lacquer Yamaha Custom 82Z. After playing the Yamaha Custom 82Z and comparing it to my Selmer Series II, I found the Yamaha to be a better saxophone. I was later able to get connected with Yamaha and have been a Yamaha artist for quite some time. Recently, I picked up the new Yamaha Custom 82zii Atelier model and I absolutely love this horn.

JE:

Equipment

Saxophone: Yamaha Custom 82zii Atelier – Bronze finish.

Mouthpieces: Ted Klum – Florida Model 8* (Played an old Ted Klum Acoustimer previously)

Reed: Roberto’s 3.5 Hard

Neck: B.S.S Heritage Neck

Ligature: Original Silverstein ligature

Strap: Balam Strap

Case: B.S.S. Ambassador Case

Links

Jeff Ellwood Website: https://www.jeffellwood.net/

Book: Developing Bebop Lines

Transcription: Rick Margitza “All The Things You Are”

Book: Music Of Dick Oatts