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Off the Cuff with Manty Ellis

Manty Ellis takes giant steps for jazz

Dec. 4, 2013
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Manty Ellis is considered a cornerstone of Milwaukee jazz. In 1970, he co-founded the city’s first jazz program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, which cultivated many players who went on to become successful here and elsewhere. Now 80 years old, Ellis continues to have an impact as a dedicated performer and jazz advocate, harnessing those roles to promote Milwaukee’s often-overlooked jazz scene. The legendary guitarist talks about his new projects with the Milwaukee Jazz Foundation and the Jazz Gallery.


How did jazz education come to the Conservatory?

Jazz at the Conservatory came through Tony King and myself. It took us three years to write the program. Then I helped put it into effect, teaching guitar. When our student combos began playing festivals around the country, they would wipe out the competition. And these were judged by names like Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson; I mean you name ’em. Some students from other schools even transferred here after they heard what we were doing. One of my students even won a Grammy.


How did the Jazz Gallery fit in?

During that time, the Jazz Gallery was promoting and bringing in all kinds of artists. As a matter of fact, they have a catalog there of past bookings and newspaper articles. Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz; you’d be surprised. There was always a massive crowd. All the big names came through there because it was on the circuit. I even played there quite a bit.


Now that it has reopened, have you become involved again?

I’m associated with the Jazz Foundation of America. That’s out in New York. They help older musicians and they give us projects to work on and I’ve been confirmed to help resurrect the Gallery. Right now we have a bunch of jazz programs in the city and we have students go there for performances and performance workshops on Tuesday nights.


Tell me about your new group, the Milwaukee Jazz Foundation.

I got the best playing musicians that I know of in the area to represent the city. This group could play at any festival with any other group; these guys are just tremendous players. What we’re doing is kicking off a concert on Dec. 14, at the Jazz Gallery. We’re trying to build an audience to look at this music as an art form.


What can you say about jazz in Milwaukee?

Milwaukee is known for not supporting the arts, so all of our good musicians, when they reach a certain stage, take off. Milwaukee has done well but they just don’t stay here. I’m trying to gain attention for what guys are doing here. Good things happen here—we just don’t get credit for it.


The Milwaukee Jazz Foundation is made up of guitarist Manty Ellis, tenor saxophonist Sam Fettig, trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, pianist Ken Kosut, bassist Jeff Hamann and drummer Romarcus Jones. Catch them in concert on Saturday, Dec. 14, at 7 p.m. at the Jazz Gallery, 926 E. Center St. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5.


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