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Ernie Elly – Give the Drummer(s) Some

28th May 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

The history of New Orleans music is as much about its present and future as it is about the past. It’s a continuum that can be heard and discovered every day. Drummer Ernie Elly, who leads a quartet at Snug Harbor on Tuesday, May 27, represents a link in the drum line that connects yesterday, today and tomorrow. Well-versed in both modern and traditional jazz, Elly, 71, toured and recorded with the legendary Ray Charles and notably performed with trumpeters Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton on their self-titled album that won a Grammy for the duo’s performance of “Stardust.”

At the Snug Harbor date with trumpeter Kevin Lewis, guitarist/banjoist/vocalist Carl LeBlanc and bassist Kerry Lewis, Elly will focus primarily on classic New Orleans jazz as he has done in the latter part of his career. “We’ll do some little bebop-ish kinds of things too,” promises Elly, who was once active on the modern jazz scene at spots like Lu & Charlie’s laying down the rhythm behind artists including saxophonist Earl Turbinton and pianist Ellis Marsalis.

“I’ve always loved the drum since I first laid eyes on it and heard it,” Elly proclaims. He credits his brother Frank for turning him on to jazz. “There was this radio show, “This Is Jazz” – I think Al Gourrier hosted it – that was on from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays. Me and my brother would be shining our shoes and doing our ironing and listening to that. Sometimes we’d take a little break and get one of those little hair combs and start beating in time with the music. My brother – he had the talent but didn’t use it – was my real first influence. He got me to start listening to jazz.”

Elly turned his ear to the now-legendary great drummers such as Max Roach and Art Blakey and remembers that the first album he ever purchased was by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

At Carver High School, Elly studied with the now-renowned music educator, the late Yvonne Busch. He recalls that another excellent New Orleans drummer, David Lee, went to Carver for a time but changed to Booker T. Washington.

“When I graduated, I went into the Air Force Band and David was in the Army Band and we were both stationed in San Antonio at the same time,” says Elly of their crossing paths. “I ran across him in a nightclub – there he was. I’d see him around at different military things. Then when I got with Ray Charles playing at the Fillmore East — there he was. He was with {trumpeter} Dizzy Gillespie and I was with Ray and both of us were on the same show. It’s a small world.”

Elly regrets that he never heard the late, great drummer Ed Blackwell play live. He did meet him once while in Los Angeles touring with Ray Charles. Coincidentally, Blackwell, a New Orleans native who remains most noted for his brilliant work with the creative saxophonist Ornette Coleman, also did a stint, though brief, with Charles the “Genius of Soul.”

A sock hop at Carver stands as the only time Elly heard Vernel Fournier perform. The drummer, who left his hometown of New Orleans early in his career, went on to work with pianist Ahmad Jamal (1956-1962) among other nationally acclaimed artists. “I don’t know if I even been behind a set of drums yet,” Elly says of the period. “I heard this amazing drummer and I didn’t even know who he was. I have so many influences – I tried to listen to everybody. Oh, and of course, there was James Black.

“I can’t tell you about drummers without mentioning Bob French,” Elly adds, noticing that he hadn’t spoken about those in the traditional jazz field. “He did it right. He had a touch for it. Then there was Louis Barbarin. I was working at Crazy Shirley’s and we used to walk over by the (Preservation) Hall and take a little peek. That’s when they used to keep the shutters open. Oh, and when I heard Freddie Kohlman (who studied under the famed Louis Cottrell Sr.), I said, ‘Wow, who’s that?’”

Ernie Elly, often praised by drummer Johnny Vidacovich as one of the city’s best, frequently is behind the drumset at Preservation Hall where he saw Louis Barbarin perform. On Saturdays, he can be found in the rhythm section with another veteran, bassist Chuck Badie, at the Palm Court Cafe. And, of course, this Tuesday he makes a rare appearance as leader at Snug Harbor.

“I’m hanging on,” says Elly, a drummer of all seasons.

Jazz in the Park – Two More to Go
The fifth season of Jazz in the Park, the immensely popular, Thursday evening series of events at Armstrong Park, is winding down. There are only two more concerts on the spring schedule. The To Be Continued Brass Band (TBC) headline on May 29 with the Daria & the Hip Drops opening. June 5 boasts a double bill with the Wild Magnolias hitting following The Original Pinettes Brass Band. The musical activities get started with a second line at 4 pm with the first acts taking the stage at 5 p.m. and headliners at 6:30 p.m. So if thoughts like, “I’m too busy this week” or “I’ll go next time,” have kept you from attending any (or too few) of these events, now’s the time.

This article originally published in the May 26, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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