Midge Ellis, a champion of jazz in Detroit, dies at 91
Jazz in Detroit never had a better friend than Midge Ellis.
The late Free Press columnist Bob Talbert dubbed her "Mama Jazz" decades ago, and the nickname stuck because it was, well, perfect. Ellis, who died Jan. 9 at the age of 91, was only 5-foot-2, but she was a force of nature, rearranging mountains in her spare time to nurture the music that she loved — and to support the legions of musicians that she liked to refer to as her "babies."
Ellis was a founder and the indefatigable organizational engine behind the Michigan Jazz Festival, an annual showcase for local musicians. She also played a key, if unsung, role in the creation of the Detroit Jazz Festival. In the 1970s and early '80s she ran a jazz concert series at Clarenceville High School that brought all of the touring big bands of the day to town, among them the orchestras of Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson.
Ellis became a confidante of many of the stars too, and it was not uncommon for Basie or Buddy or Maynard or Woody to call her home at home in Livonia to talk over some business or personnel problem. Or maybe just to chew the fat. The calls would come from around the world at 3 or 4 in the morning, but Ellis relished her role, as Detroit trombonist Ron Kischuk put it, as a "global jazz consigliere."
She played a similar den mother role for some musicians in Detroit, developing close ties to veterans like the late drummer J.C. Heard and championing younger players on the way up like saxophonists Rick Margitza and Chris Collins, now director of the jazz program at Wayne State University and artistic director of the Detroit Jazz Festival.
"She was the heart and soul of Detroit jazz for a long, long time," said Kischuk.
Born in Corbin, Ky., on Sept. 4, 1923, Ellis was introduced to jazz at age 4 by her father and spent her childhood exploring the music on record. She never lost a passion for the big bands of her youth, but she also adored small-group soloists improvising the music out of thin air.
"Jazz is such a different kind of music," Ellis told the Free Press in 2006. "There is such freedom in it."
Ellis moved to Detroit from Louisville, Ky., with her second husband in 1961. A decade later, she started the concert series at Clarenceville, cementing friendships with many of her heroes and building up a treasure trove of stories. Like the time the kids manning the door wouldn't let Buddy Rich in without a ticket, even as he pleaded that he was, in fact, the drummer leading the band. Or the time she was driving Basie to a gig, and a big band came roaring through the radio speaker.
"That's Kenton," Ellis said.
"How do you know?" he asked.
"Because I recognize the Kenton chord. He's the only one who plays that."
At the concert Basie started the first tune with a block of harmonies that had his players scratching their heads, trying to figure out what he was doing. Basie smiled at Ellis in the front row: See, I can play the "Kenton chord" too.
Ellis was part of a small group of aficionados, including Donald Lupp, a music teacher at Henry Ford Community College, who traveled to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in the late '70s. The group conceived an annual Detroit satellite festival, and the late Robert McCabe, then president of Detroit Renaissance, championed the idea among city leaders. Starting in 1980, what is now called the Detroit Jazz Festival grew into one of the country's leading jazz festivals.
In 1995 Ellis helped start the Michigan Jazz Festival as a showcase for local talent, after musicians Johnny Trudell and Emil Moro had come to her with the germ of the idea. The festival, held every June at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014. "We want to make jazz a national treasure," Ellis said in 2004. "It's recognized that way in Europe but not here. We want to change that."
Ellis held a variety of administrative jobs at Schoolcraft College from 1974 to 1991. She continued to actively promote jazz and run the Michigan Jazz Festival through her 80s, even as macular degeneration left her legally blind. Her health declined precipitously in the last year after a fall at home.
Ellis is survived by a daughter, Holly Jan Ellis, of Redmond, Wash., and sons Gary Drew Ellis of Brighton and Timothy Scott Ellis of Thousand Oaks, Calif. No services are planned, but the family says a celebratory concert in honor of her life will be held sometime this spring. That's exactly what Ellis would have wanted. Nothing made her happier than a front-row seat at a jam session.
Contact Mark Stryker: 313-222-6459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.