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First Three Tunes

William Ellis, Photographer

John Robert Brown

William Ellis
William Ellis

"I started jazz photography twenty years ago. Previously I'd been photographing all sorts of performances. Then I left it for a time. But I really started when I was a kid, listening to my mum's Frank Sinatra records. When you are five or six, you don't know why, but it sounds so great. That's where it came from. I'd forgotten that for a while - Sinatra, accompanied by the incredible arrangements by Quincy Jones and Nelson Riddle."

Quietly spoken and affable, the photographer William Ellis has become a familiar presence at jazz events in Britain and abroad over the last five or six years  "The black and white photography I started by photographing at small town festivals," he tells me when we meet in a hotel bar in Manchester. "Some big names were photographed as well, Cleo Laine, John Dankworth, Julian Lloyd Webber and Burl Ives. One of the first concerts I shot was by Stéphane Grappelli. I hung on the end of the stage for the entire concert. Stéphane was looking; 'What's he doing?'"  The Diz Disley trio was Grapelli's accompanying band. "The audience was amused by this young guy taking pictures throughout the concert, rather than for the first three songs."

"For a while I worked in technical sales. I was at the high end, working with leading professional photographers, while admiring the work of Man Ray, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, August Sander and Richard Avedon. Subconsciously, I was developing a visual sense. In the late eighties, after going via Hendrix, Dylan and Marley, the music of Miles Davis hit me like a ton of bricks." When Miles Davis toured the UK in 1989, William Ellis decided that he had to photograph the trumpeter. "I managed to speak to the promoter, convinced him that I wouldn't fall over the drum kit, and went to the Apollo in Manchester," he says. "There was a compliments slip left for me, with 'first three songs' written on it."

John Robert Brown
John Robert Brown by William Ellis

"That kicked off the whole thing at a serious level." Normally a photographer is given the first three tunes, or ten minutes. "Sometimes you don't have those restrictions," he says. "Then it's great. When photographing Miles I was the most nervous I've felt before any concert. When Miles returned the next year my pictures were included in the brochures for his concerts. In 1990 I photographed Miles again, as well as Dizzy Gillespie. The whole thing grew through the Miles Davis images."

William Ellis is enthusiastic about the jazz photography of Herman Leonard, William Caxton, the British photographer Terry Cryer, and Roy DeCarava, who was the first African-American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. Asked about his equipment, Ellis says: "I still shoot with a Leica, which is a quiet film camera, particularly useful backstage. I use digital cameras for most performance work."

In 2002 Ellis travelled to Cuba. "The guy I'd been in touch with for accreditation turned out to have no connection with the festival! I took my folio into the press office in Havana. People enjoyed looking at my work, so I got a personal invitation to shoot. Roy Hargrove was there, as was David Murray. At the exhibition of photography in Havana I met Rashid Lombard, the CEO of the Capetown Jazz Festival. He invited me to Capetown. At about the same time I went to the North Sea Jazz Festival, and photographed Archie Shepp, which led to an invitation to exhibit at The Hague in 2004. I had a 40-picture show in the Rembrandt-Saal." In the same year (2004) William Ellis exhibited at the conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) in New York City.

The latest major project he is working on was commissioned by the Bridgewater Hall Manchester, being an exhibition to produce a body of work to reflect the diverse range of music presented there. 

"It's been so exciting working with great musicians in other genres - I got the assignment through my jazz portfolio. To work with artists like Liza Minnelli, the Hallé Orchestra, and to make portraits of Herbie Hancock, was particularly interesting."

First published in Jazz Journal, July 2010. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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