Saxophonist, composer and arranger Pee Wee Ellis was a key member of James Brown’s ground-breaking band from the 1960s onwards and has since released his own albums and worked with Van Morrison and Ali Farka Toure amongst others. Now in his seventies, Pee Wee Ellis spoke to SJM editor Charlie Anderson.
Tell us a bit about your jazz roots.
“I’ve been interested in jazz for all my life. I studied with Sonny Rollins for a bit, around 1957. My early years were spent playing jazz and R’n’B and I listened to as much jazz as I could, and learned from anyone I could, by asking questions. And every day I worked hard.”
You’re known as ‘the man who invented funk’. Where did funk come from?
“Well, in my opinion it came from a mixture of R’n’B with jazz. Where funk comes from is with a good drummer, good bass line and guitar. It’s a feeling. It’s hard to explain if you don’t know how you feel about funk. James Brown was the funkiest man in the world. There were other people as well, Fred Wesley, Maceo Parker, Clyde Stubblefield.”
Tell us about your latest band, Funk Assembly.
“On guitar we have Tony Remy, a fabulous guitarist. Gareth Williams on keyboards who is amazing. Lawrence Cottle, the premier bass player and one of my favourites, and Mark Mondesir on drums. And James Morton is going to play alto. It’s going to be a fun evening.”
I saw James Morton playing at last year’s South Coast Jazz Festival. He’s an impressive player.
“He’s an amazing player, and he’s still young!”
Thank you, Mr. Ellis. It’s been a real honour speaking to you.
“Now, Mr. Ellis was my father. You can call me Pee Wee!”
Pee Wee Ellis performs with his Funk Assembly at the South Coast Jazz Festival on Wednesday 24th January, 2018 at The Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham-by-Sea.