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Trombonist, band leader Morris Ellis, dead at 88, played with greats

Morris Ellis (right) and his orchestra played "Fanfare for the Common Man" at the inauguration of Mayor Harold Washington (holding horn at center). | Provided photo

Morris Ellis may have owed his big band career to the young hoodlums he ran from as they chased him for his lunch money when he was a freshman at DuSable High School on the South Side of Chicago.

“I was running all around the school and ran right into the band director,” he said in an interview posted on YouTube last year.

That would be the renowned and imposing Capt. Walter Dyett, who turned DuSable into a spigot that poured out musicians including Nat “King” Cole, Dinah Washington, Bo Diddley, Dorothy Donegan, Von Freeman and Gene Ammons.

Trombonist Morris Ellis. | Provided photo

“What the hell do you want?” Dyett demanded.

“I wanna be in the band,” young Morris replied.

Dyett asked if he could play trombone. When he said yes, the band director told him, “Get a trombone out of the cabinet, and here’s a book. You got one week to learn it.”

“I played in the band for four years,” Mr. Ellis said, “and I became captain of the band.”

Mr. Ellis died Sept. 1 at his home in Beverly. He was 88 and had Parkinson’s disease.

In a long career as a trombonist and band leader, he played with Tony Bennett, Count Basie, Natalie Cole, Curtis Mayfield, Sammy Davis Jr., Gladys Knight, Donny Hathaway, Stan Getz, Lou Rawls, Sarah Vaughan, Ramsey Lewis, Jerry Butler, the Chi-Lites, Peabo Bryson, Joe Williams and Vic Damone.

Musician Morris Ellis with Sammy Davis Jr. | Provided photo

Before Davis came to town, “he would call Morris and see if he had those days available,” said Bob Alexis, a friend who conducted the YouTube interview.

The Morris Ellis Orchestra performed Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” at the inauguration of Mayor Harold Washington, which Mr. Ellis considered a  high point of his career.

He retired several years ago but continued to stage free summertime concerts in his backyard that drew as many as 180 guests to dance to Big Band standards. The most recent was on Aug. 30.

Two days later, he died.

“It was a yard full of friendship and love,” said Linda Ellis, his wife of 28 years.

Morris and Linda Ellis hosted free concerts by the Morris Ellis Orchestra in their yard in Beverly. | Provided photo

An 87-year-old relative described that last golden evening. “That music was so powerful to me, I didn’t think I’d be able to balance,” said Josephine Ellis. “But I got up and danced with a fella.”

Morris Ellis (right) performs with legendary singer Sarah Vaughan. | Provided photo

Mr. Ellis, who learned to play as a youngster, was from a prominent Chicago jazz family. His brother Jimmy and niece Diane Ellis became acclaimed saxophonists.

“He had high standards,” said Diane Ellis. “It was all right to make a mistake — but he didn’t want the mistake to be made again.”

After graduating from DuSable, he got a psychology degree at Howard University while keeping up his music by sitting in with a band that practiced in his dormitory. Mr. Ellis asked his father — named Frederick Douglas Ellis after the abolitionist — to mail him his trombone.

“He worked at the post office, and he really knew how to pack a horn,” he said in his interview. “It took me two days to open the case.”

Morris Ellis and trombone. | Provided photo

One of his roommates was Andrew Young, the future civil rights leader and Atlanta mayor.

“Andy was a very funny guy,” Mr. Ellis said. “But he became very serious when Dr. [Martin Luther] King decided he was going to make him his right-hand man.”

Returning to Chicago, Mr. Ellis worked in the juvenile courts and helped young Chicago Housing Authority residents mount shows, according to his wife, who met him when they both worked for the CHA.

“His dimples caught my eye,” she said.

Mr. Ellis started his own band to guarantee he’d always have a gig.

“That was his heart and soul,” she said, “and music, music, music.”

Morris Ellis with Count Basie. | Provided photo

The Morris Ellis Orchestra, ranging from 11 to 16 pieces, performed at many society events.

“He had a wonderful orchestra,” said Stanley Paul, a well-known Chicago band leader. “He was very well thought of, and he was always such a gentleman.”

And he loved the Bears.

“Every year, he was hoping we’d win and look respectable,” his wife said.

“He had a lot of fun, class and charisma,” said Diane Ellis. “He had what you call a Pepsodent smile, a beautiful white smile.”

Mr. Ellis is also survived by his daughter Shari, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. His first wife, Barbara, died before him, as did his daughter Nicole, son Morris II, sister Martha and brothers Fred and Curt. His family plans to greet friends from 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Thompson & Kuenster Funeral Home in Oak Lawn.

The Morris Ellis Orchestra. | Provided photo