The funk and jazz saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, known for his work with James Brown, Van Morrison or Ginger Baker, has died at the age of 80 due to heart failure. This was announced by his official Facebook page: “It is with great sadness that we have to announce that Pee Wee passed away last night due to complications with his heart. We are working on the preparations to celebrate his wonderful life, and we hope you can take the time to listen to his music and continue his legacy.
Born in Bradenton (Florida) on April 21, 1941, Alfred James Ellis began playing the saxophone at the age of nine. Shortly after moving with his family to New York in 1955, he played with Chuck Mangione and Ron Carter, and in 1957 he had an encounter with Sonny Rollins that changed his life. “I was walking down Broadway in New York and had my saxophone fresh from the repair shop,” Ellis recalled in an interview. “There was someone walking up to me with a saxophone who happened to be Sonny Rollins, on his way to a rehearsal room on 48th Street. I asked him if he would teach me, like a cheeky young man, and he said yes.” He then attended the Manhattan School of Music, to return to Florida to form his own R&B group, Dynamics Incorporated.
Signed by James Brown in 1965, Ellis would end up being its musical director and is considered one of the architects of funk music for his compositions and innovative arrangements on songs like ‘Say It Loud – I’ m Black and I’m Proud ‘or’ Cold sweat ‘. “We were at the Apollo Theater in Harlem,” Ellis said in an interview, explaining how he was inspired by the latter. “Mr. Brown called me into his dressing room and said, ‘I have an idea,’ and he started growling, like, ‘Uh. Uh uh uh. Oh. ‘ . . . We got on the bus and in the back he had a table where he could write music. I wrote down what I considered to be the ‘growls’ and kept it in my mind, which turned out to be the bass line of ‘Cold Sweat’. I’d been listening to Miles Davis, and ‘So What’ was on my mind too, and that gave me an idea for the ‘Cold Sweat’ line. “
At that time he also worked as an arranger and music director for the Kudu label of CTI Records, collaborating with artists such as George Benson, Hank Crawford, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Sonny Stitt, Leon Thomas and Esther Phillips, and in the late 1970s he moved to San Francisco to form a band with David Liebman.
He worked with Van Morrison between 1979 and 1986, and then from 1995 to 1999, and in the late eighties he reunited with old Brown bandmates like Fred Wesley and Maceo Parker to form the JB Horns. In the nineties he resumed his solo recording career with his own group, The Pee Wee Ellis Assembly, and also worked with many other artists of the ‘World Music’ such as Oumou Sangare, Ali Farka Touré, Cheikh Lo, Angá Díaz or Cachao, as well as with Marianne Faithful.
In 2007 he participated in the album ‘Goin’ Home: A Tribute to Fats Domino ‘(Vanguard, 2007) with the Rebirth Brass Band composed of Troy’ Trombone Shorty ‘Andrews, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker and Lenny Kravitz. Between 2009 and 2011 he made a tribute tour to James Brown, ‘Still Black Still Proud’, and in 2012 he went on tour with Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion, a quartet composed of Ellis, the drummer. Ginger Baker, bassist Alec Dankworth and percussionist Abass Dodoo. In July 2014, he was recognized with a PhD by the University of Bath Spa.
Various figures of jazz and funk have dismissed the myth of the saxophone on social networks, highlighting the importance of his work. “We just lost another bandmate and legend, Mr. Alfred ‘Pee Wee’ Ellis,” wrote Bottsy Collins. “He was a member of James Brown’s band in the 1960s, recording many of Brown’s recordings like ‘Cold Sweat’ or ‘Say It Loud.’ He also worked with Van Morrison. A quiet genius and brilliant arrangements. Prayers for the family!
Living Color founding guitarist Vernon Reid says goodbye to him: “Pee Wee Ellis was a rarity: a jazz musician who was so moved by James Brown’s Funk that he had to join together, help and collaborate to shape and direct it . Pee wee impressed James so much that he became the leader of his band. Ellis was a major contributor on legendary tracks like ‘Cold Sweat’ and ‘Say It Loud.’
For his part, the also legendary George Clinton has shared a photograph of his colleague with this message on the profile of his band Funkadelic / Parliament: “Rest in the eternal power of the One, Alfred” Pee Wee “Ellis (Alfred James Ellis, born April 21, 1941, died September 23, 2021) of the James Brown Band.