Rarely do we see any extensive features on instrumentalists in reggae music these days. There are so many unsung, exceptional talents from the fifties, sixties and seventies that still awaits any real recognition and appreciation for their efforts in those days. As it tends to be, they're just 'names' on the album covers. But what is their history, where did they start it all and what happened during the heyday of the music? What was their experience looking back on it? There's a bunch of great horn players in Jamaican musical history and one of the top names is something of a master on the trumpet, namely Mr Bobby Ellis. A graduate of the famous Alpha Boys School, Bobby became one of the most requested horn players in the early stage of the music and onwards; from the very start of the local music industry, he was there, being a foundational member of the Mighty Vikings outfit who recorded for Studio One at the time. He was a bandleader for names on the JA North Coast scene like the Young Experience band as well as in Derrick Harriott's studio group The Crystalites, to name a few. He also toured and recorded with Burning Spear in the seventies as part of Jack Ruby's Black Disciples band. Bobby is now in his seventies, a seasoned 'oldie' but still blowing - as opposed to 'going' - strong as far as I could hear on tour with the Ethiopian and Max Romeo in February, '04. He is a true gentleman of the old school and was a real pleasure to talk to. My thanks to Bobby, Tim (Maestro Ent.), Bob Schoenfeld, Mr Phillips, and Steve Barrow.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: Well, as you know I'm a Jamaican. I was born in Kingston.

Q: Which part of the city?

A: (Chuckles) I call it 'The Heart of the City' in Kingston, it's really central, right. And I'm born 1932, 2nd of July. I went to Alpha when I was nine years.

Q: Alpha Boys School, right.

A: Yes. That's where I learned music. The guy who taught me to blow the instrument was Raymond Harper.

Q: Right, he did tunes like 'African Blood' for Prince Buster to name one.

A: Oh yeah, yeah.


Sister Ignatius

Q: So how come you were sent to Alpha school at that time? It's a Catholic school for street kids, basically. Some say it's for juvenile delinquents, which is just one of many parts of those who make up the 'clientele'.

A: Yes, it is a Catholic school run by Sisters of Mercy. Well, at that time I guess there was a kind of tie between Alpha and the government. I don't know but I went to the course, I wasn't a bad boy (laughs)! But I went to the course. You see, my father was working in the hospital and the doctor really in charge of the boy school, he works with him in the hospital, the public hospital. And therefore he asked him, and he said yes, he could do a t'ing. And me and my older brother, both of us went at Alpha. I spent seven years in Alpha.

Q: You got examination in your teens then?

A: No, after we reach sixteen, I went there when I was nine, and when I reach sixteen, that's the day we generally left the institution and come out back to normal life. We are around our relatives and things like that. Because you see, when we are at Alpha we are in a institution.

Q: Very strict?

A: I wouldn't say it's very strict, yunno. It was just what do you call... discipline, a well-disciplined place, 'cause it's an institution. At the time when I was there it was four hundred an' odd boys were there, you understan', so you have to have different t'ings that you do, y'know. And learn where to go and t'ing like that, so it was well-disciplined. Well, when I was there after a while, around when I was between I think ten or twelve or thereabouts, right, I had a bigger friend, he was in the band. And he asked me if I want to come in the band, and I tell him yes. I wouldn't say foolishly of me, he was blowin' the trumpet and I choose the trumpet also. That's how come I go in the band, and start to learn to play the trumpet.


Q: What is the general difference, technically, between the trumpet and the flugelhorn, because you play flugelhorn too, I think?

A: Yes, the flugelhorn. There's no difference. It's only the instrument, the instrument that it give you a sound between the trumpet and between the French horn, right. So it give you a slightly deeper sound than the trumpet. And it is a lighter sound than the French horn. So, that's it. But is the same finger in everything.

Q: How did you find it in the beginning to master the 'blowing in the wind' instrument?

A: Oh! It was quite difficult, because when you have to... to blow an instrument, whether it is a trumpet, trombone, saxophone - any blowing instrument, the first thing is you have to try to blow it and acquire a sound. And sometimes that can take you years, sometimes that can take you months (chuckles) to get a sound. So that is the first thing about blowing an instrument - have to try acquire a sound. Well, as time goes by you learn to acquire it better and better until you learn to control it. That's a next part of it. You see how the trumpet only have three bars, right. You have like several notes, this first valve alone, you have several of them. So is like, y'know, you have to mentally learn how to tighten your lip and to flatten it, so how to get the different pitch notes. You can figure for instance if it's first valve, B-flat is first valve, D is first valve and several other notes. So it's you who mentally (chuckles) have to just figure how much tighten of the lips and all them t'ings you gotta do, and it takes a lot of time and energy to - you are able to control it that way after a while. It take years sometimes. Not like a guitar or a piano, you play a B-flat you must get a B-flat. You have to give it the right amount of ear in the mouthpiece at the time so that the lip can vibrate. That's why the trumpet and the trombone and those type of instrument doing the vibration, is not like the saxophone and clarinet where them read the vibration - is your two lips have to do the vibration to get the sound. So that's why I said in the beginning that foolish of me was to choose that instrument (laughs)!

Q: (Laughs) Compared to saxophone and clarinet at least, isn't trumpet a bit 'limited' in scope if you put it against those two?

A: Nooo... if you're born with a strong lip, because y'know different peoples muscle are stronger than some, right. You can born with a very good lip muscles, so therefore you can pitch as high. I hear trumpeters pitch as high as a whistle, and I mean (laughs) they were born with very strong lips! Is just that.

Q: At that time in the forties, what music was played at Alpha Boys School?

A: Classic, we learned classic. We learned classic...



Bobby Ellis.

Q: And march music.

A: We do marches, overtures, selections, waltz. Anything that is classical, that's what you learn, right. And you learn the different... the tears (?) of music, and what goes with it to learn to play classical music. And generally when you are about playing now, the time when I was up there there was an orchestra. They start playing t'ing like Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes and all those things, y'know. All right, but by the time I reach up to the time of leaving Alpha, the orchestra dissolved. So I never really get to play in the orchestra. They prepare me, for when I come out in the street and blow my work, is what you'd call a 'pop band', yu understan'.

Q: Swing.

A: Swing it was at the time. So I played a lickle of it, yunno, but I never play sufficient. At the time I never had a instrument neither. My family was poor and I never have a instrument. I had to work and save until I go and buy a instrument, and I start all over again.

Q: Right, you had to save for a long time.

A: Yeah, I want to tell you - a second-hand instrument I bought too, before I could buy a brand new one (chuckles). So that's how it goes. But if you want to do the t'ing in order - you know, in Jamaica our foreparents used to say 'if you want good you know you have to earn' (chuckles). So therefore, just make up your mind and try to do it, you'll get success in the end.

Q: So who was contemporary at Alpha in those days, say early forties?

A: Oh, a lotta guys like... they were senior too. You have Raymond Harper, a guy name Ferdie Brown - uh - Ferdie Gray, right, was trumpeters. I mean, Dizzy Rich also, beca' I went into the band around then too supporting the beat, but he left Alpha before me and went to England, that's where he end up, yunno. But he started there in Alpha, and became a very known trumpeter. All right, you had guys like Tommy McCook, the Gaynair brothers (Bobby & Wilton), Joe Harriott, a guy name Mullo (short for Mullings), he used to play trombone. You know, there was a lot of guys. Because, if you ask the band it depends on what instrument you took at the time. Because you had quite a few of the guys, when they were at Alpha they went into the military band also, which is a brass band.


Bobby Ellis.
(photo: Ryan Moore)

Q: And the military band is not associated with Alpha school in any way, no link as such, some kind of exchange?

A: No, is not really associated with Alpha Boys School. From you learn music and you can do it then you make your application, and if they need people - the instrument that you play, you just go and take an audition, whether you either pass or you fail, that's how it goes.

Q: But it's not only music you learn at Alpha, what other trades is on offer there, or was?

A: Music? Noo... You go to your school and you come home, you had the shoe-shop, the tailor-shop, what we call work-shop that you do mechanical... uh, not mechanical, since I leave I hear they had mechanical, motor mechanics. But we used to do like wood-work and things like that. You know, they try to fit you where you would like to go. You had the printery also, to learn printing and book-binding.

Q: Was this - apart from playing the trumpet - the direction you took? What was the trade you learned?

A: No, well, beside playing the trumpet I was a printer. I learned printing.

Q: OK, that's your trade apart from the music.

A: Yes, some of that. That's what we do.

Q: Was that something you worked with after leaving Alpha?

A: No, I never work with the printing, never a dime from it (chuckles). But anyhow, that was school still, y'know, learning the trade. I used to love read, I was proficient. I stopped go to school when I was fifteen (chuckles), because I never have no further to go, if you understan'. So I stop go to school like I just go to the printery, and from the printery in the afternoon. So in the evening I go way back off, to the band, band's office. And it last actually two years, it run so until I left the school.


Nambo Robinson

David Madden

Johnny "Dizzy" Moore

Q: Some of the Skatalites people like Johnnie 'Dizzy' Moore, Nambo, Chico, most of those guys went to Alpha, or they got their training elsewhere?

A: Johnnie Moore is Alpha bwoy, Nambo (Robinson), Chico (Chin), Dean Fraser.

Q: (David) Madden?

A: No, Madden is a Alpha bwoy also. Nambo, Chico dem, well all of those were being taught by a guy named Dave O'Brien. But he was also a Alpha boy, long before I even reach there (chuckles), y'know.

Q: Senior since time.

A: Yeah, a senior too. Far, far senior, Dave taught them. So these are a (chuckles) protegé, a lickle offspring of what happened at Alpha, Dave taught there.

Q: What was played in the dancehalls? It was mainly swing music, standards, dance-friendly 'pop' of the times, not so much the free-form jazz, be-bop came at a later stage I guess.

A: Well yes, be-bop was in activity but it was really later on we played that. Right, it was mostly foxtrot, and you know swing, and we used to play some bolero, and t'ings like that. In Jamaica, especially in those times, you had to play all various type of music. You had to play our mento, or calypso, or what you want to call it. And what you had was to play ballads, right, and play waltz - everything. You have to be well-rounded, have a repertoire of all the various type of music. That's what you had, y'know, was to do at the time. So when you go into the dancehall to play, you have to play to suit everybody likeness (chuckles). You know, that was it.

Q: What was the main dancehall in those days?

A: Dancehall? A place like - it named Bournemouth, you had a place named Adastra out the east too. You had places like Silver Slipper, at Crossroads' Sombrero, and there were many clubs. It was mostly clubs, yunno, that keep the business going. At that time you had... oh, Glass Bucket, several. I can't remember all of them (laughs)! What really make all those clubs become non-existent is simply through certain amount of violence, the violence really cut out the clubs, yunno. So, that's it. Because at one stage you had Red Hills Road, it had a strip of nightclubs, and that was where a lot of people used to go. You had around three or four nightclubs was on Red Hills Road alone. But the violence really curtailing, right, so that's how it is.

Q: If there was any band at the time who 'carried the swing', so to speak, was that Eric Deans' orchestra?

A: Well, Eric Deans Orchestra was one of the big names that carried the swing. I want to tell you, it went on till after a while Eric left and went to England, and Roy Coburn took it over, a guy by the name of Roy Coburn. But you really had a lot of other names too, because there is Val Bennett and you have Redvers Cook, and Mapletoft Poule, you have a lot of sets (coughs). There was a lot of clubs and there was a lot of different bands, yunno, or artists just in those times.

Q: And Jack Brown?

A: All Jack Brown too. I...

Q: Christy Scott, Milton McPhearson.

A: Eh? All those, all those hard names (laughs)! All those had orchestras in Jamaica. Yeah man.

Q: And you had to be skillful to be able to join a band in those days, it's always the case anyhow (chuckles).

A: Well, that is true because, you see, although there was a lot of bands, there was a lot of Jamaicans who loved music at that time, and wanted was to be in the profession. Not like now, most people just want to be a deejay, and that's it. People used to want to be a musician, right. There was a lot of guys at that time.



Bobby Ellis.

Q: What was payment like at that time? It took a while anyway before you were able to join an orchestra, after leaving Alpha?

A: Yeah! I didn't have any money so I never really start blowing 'til around six years after I left Alpha, yunno.

Q: That long?

A: Yeah (chuckles). I start practicin' again. All I had was to work, and buy my own instrument. So I (giggles)...

Q: What did you do for a living in those times?

A: In those time? I want to tell you I learned all a trade, I learned a t'ing: bus-building (chuckles). Yeah, in those time (laughs)! All I had was to get somet'ing to do, and do it, and try and see. So, if I wasn't determined really to play music and love it, right, I wouldn't be in the field. But I thank God I was determined enough to do what I did, y'know, at the time. I thank God for that.

Q: Who would you refer to as being influential on the trumpet at the time? Apart from someone like Raymond Harper.

A: No, well, at the time yunno, right, we used to listen mostly to foreigners, and at that time Dizzy Gillespie was in his heavens - yu understan'? He was in his heavens, and Charlie Parker and all those guys. That time the be-bop was comin' on, yunno, so we used to listen to a lot of those gentlemen. And then there came Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. We listened as much as we could and whatsoever training we get, yunno, we learn to develop from there, put them together and be a better player there.

Q: But to play the be-bop stuff in Jamaica, on the commerial circuit, this was 'behind the curtains', wasn't it? Underground, like. You would get hired for playing the swing, the 'pop' stuff, nothing as progressive or hardcore as be-bop at the time. I don't know how open-minded Jamaicans - or should I limit that to the 'promoters' - were in those days. I mean, you wouldn't get a job with that, or am I wrong?

A: Yeah! No, you wouldn't get any job, playing the progressive. But what we used to do, yunno, we used to kinda use the progressive stuff to broaden our t'ing deh. What we say now 'broaden our knowledge of music', right, and it also help you to play. In other words the progressive stuff was the more harder music to play at the time, 'cause it take a lot of speed and all those t'ings. So when they start, when they playing the swing, it becomes more easier. Because we was practicin' mostly a harder t'ing than what you go out there and do in the dancehall, so that was the trend. Because we used to have a little thin, very thin book, with Dizzy Gillespie '52nd Street (Theme)', 'Dizzy Atmosphere', and all those tunes in it. We practice that as like a cheater, that was it was there for, was being like a cheater. And the show, you start from like on the metronome, from that like you say, you start from 80 and from they get used to it they go up to probably 90, and then from 90 to a 100 and from 100 to a 105, until you reach 120. When you are doing it at 1. 20 you are doing it like Dizzy Gillespie, that's how it used to do. And everybody used to try and have those lickle books, yu understan', and practice. So not only trumpeters but also saxophonists used to do it, and that's how we start develop.

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