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Published: 1998/12/15
by Rob Turner

Dave Ellis Talks About Everything

Rob: So who put the saxophone in your hands?

Dave: Same, I just fell in love with the instrument, ah about fourth grade, fifth grade. I had actually played in third grade I just found out. My folks rented me a horn and I didn’t play it. My Dad said if you’re not gunna play it, I’m not gonna pay for it and he took it back. And about fifth grade I picked it back up again. The Berkeley High Jazz Band came to my fifth grade class.

Rob: They came into your class?!

Dave: Yeah, in my fifth grade class. They did a concert., and horns were blaring, and the sax was bad, and all those high school seniors and people I looked up to, who actually, most of ‘em were gettin’ gigs with the Ray Charles Band. They were professional musicians, thanks to the system at Berkeley. I knew then exactly what I was gunna do.

Rob: And you were the first chair, weren’t you, in the (Berkeley High) Jazz Orchestra?

Dave: Yes I did, or was.

Rob: Can you tell us about your association with Phil Lesh when you were in the (Berkeley High Jazz) Orchestra?

Dave: Oh, sure. In 1985 I was a senior in high school, actually Josh Redman was the second tenor in the Berkeley High School Jazz Band.

Rob: Wow! (laughter)

(author’s note – Josh Redman is considered by many to be one of the best young sax players around, a young lion if you will.)

Dave: Yeah, and we had been denied the championship trophy of big bands in the annual Monterey high school jazz band competition. We went to a lot of festivals where you compete against other bands, but this was kind of the pinnacle. In my sophomore and junior years we lost this festival, we won a few others but never won this one, which is kind of THE trophy festival. In 1985 when I was a senior and co-directed the group, ah actually it’s a longer story than that. Phil Hardiman, who was the director of the Berkeley school’s music program from about 1970 through 1981, and he’s the reason that Benny Green, Josh Redman, Craig Handy, myself, and all people that came out of Berkeley High, he sort of invented this system and made us all jazz musicians. He just passed away this year actually, unfortunately, of cancer. Kind of early. But he’s responsible for all of this. So, anyway in ’85 we had one last chance to win this trophy, sort of like the homecoming of my senior year football, or something like that. Since we were thirty times better than the football team anyway, at Berkeley High School, and had way more tradition. Anyway, the band that included Benny Green, Craig Handy, Dan Molinsky and all of these people that I grew up watching won this festival a few times in a row in 1978, ’79, ’80…

Rob: Peter Apfelbaum.

Dave: Peter Apfelbaum, who wrote one of the tunes I have on my record, he was part of that generation of guys. Like four or five years older than myself. And these are the guys I grew up watching, these guys are all…Craig Handy…I mean these guys are all national jazz names, they were all seniors at the same time at one high school, and I was watching them, and so was Josh Redman. So, that’s kind of why this all went nuts you know. Because it was all these people from one area. The band, by winning the California High School Jazz Competition in 1985, got an opportunity to go to Japan the following year. The Monterey Jazz Festival provided the opportunity, the flights, the gigs, everything. But the band had to get the money together through bake sales, through fund raising, through anything, anyway they could. And every way they could, because it costs a lot of money to get eighteen guys, and Peter Apfelbaum, who wound up going with them, as sort of a guest artist, over there. Peter Apfelbaum actually went in my stead, because I graduated. And I was kind of ineligible to go, because the band from 1986 was the band that went to Japan. So, this is a trip that I actually missed, but Phil Lesh, when asked, provided, I think ten thousand dollars to help the band get to Japan. This was before I really knew The Grateful Dead, we knew that Phil Lesh was a member of The Grateful Dead, and that he went to Berkeley High, and that he was up for supporting this cause. In fact Phil Lesh and Jill Lesh, through the Unbroken Chain Foundation, also just did the same thing, really for me and through me for the Young Musicians program in Cal, and donated ten thousand dollars to them this year after we did the Phil and Friends gig at The Fillmore. It’s an amazing circle of events that he would do that in 1986, and then in 1998 it would come around that I was playing, and that the Unbroken Chain Foundation was in a position to give some money and that I had a great cause. The Young Musicians program is a program at Cal that’s a summer program, sort of for underprivileged kids, and Josh Redman also went there, and a bunch of musicians that we still know, like Kito Gamble, a bunch of people. It’s funny what a small world it really is. I’ve become friends with Phil since the summer tour this year and the gigs that we’ve done. Phil was at that gig at Yoshi’s, and he brought his kids, Graham and Brian, and his wife down there. They owe me some money (laughter) so, ah, you guys you gotta cough up the fifty cents you owe me, so make sure you get that to me (more laughter). Anyway man, so, it’s turned into a very nice kind of, circle of music.

Rob: That’s somethin’ else.

Dave: Weird, isn’t it?

Rob: It’s great that Phil is conscious of these things, and that the Unbroken Chain Foundation keeps on doing these positive things.

Dave: Hey man, not just conscious, you know, actively seeking out ways to help, big time! Bob is too through the National Resource Defense Council, Rainforest Action Network, ah what else?

Rob: He’s done a lot of work preventing clearcutting and urging cities to provide more bike paths for people.

Dave: A lot of different things. Ratdog’s been doing benefits, actually we just did a recording, Ratdog, with Charlie Musselwhite which will come out soon.

Rob: Really, some hot harmonica?!?!

Dave: Gosh yeah, hey it’s great, yeah.

Rob: A full release or just a few songs?

Dave: “Take Me To The River,” and ah “Rooster” I think, yeah “Red Rooster,” was that it? Or, something like that, a couple of tunes, so nice Ratdog on CD, and more to look forward to for sure!

The rigors of the tour got the best of Dave, so the interview was cut a bit short. He seemed to be genuinely interested in sitting down again sometime after the New Year. Hopefully, I can have it arranged, and hopefully Dave and Andy will be interested in presenting the second interview here as well. This would allow me time to discuss Dave’s days with Charlie Hunter, and his previous and forthcoming work with The Other Ones. If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of In The Long Run, click here.


Rob Turner has been seeking all that still unsung since he was 14. He is a music fanatic.

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