TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Roddy Ellias’ musical journey still has a long way to go

Roddy Ellias has written a modern day opera with puppets.

In his 68-plus years Roddy Ellias has played a lot of music and released his share of CDS, but the one he has just finished recording is “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Ellias recorded the as yet untitled disc with one of his regular playing partners, bassist Adrian Vedady and the well-known New York-based pianist Marc Copland, who often tours with players such as John Abercrombie and Gary Peacock.

“We did a record two weeks ago in Montreal. It won’t be out for awhile but the tracks are down. It’s the best thing I have ever done. Marc came up for that session and we spent two days rehearsing and then recording. Three compatible people got together and it just clicked.”

Ellias would like to get a tour booked after the release but that’s down the road. Beforehand, folks will get a chance to see this trio in action at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival on June 25. Copland will also play with Peacock and Joey Baron on June 23.

Ellias has always been open to different musical partners and styles but Ottawa has always been the place he comes home to even though he has worked elsewhere.

“I did study in Montreal for a couple of years. I lived in Nova Scotia for three years and lived in Los Angeles for a year after I left high school.” he said listing some places.

He has always been musical but there have been periods of his life when performing was put to the side, he said.

“I started teaching in Montreal full-time in 1994. We came back here in 1996-97 and I commuted three times a week. It was crazy. I didn’t do a lot of playing and writing then.” But he retired five years ago and has returned to music with a passion … performing, writing and teaching part-time at Carleton.

His journey, however, did not begin in a particularly musical home.

“I don’t even think my parents had a record player. My sister had one of those little RCA players that cost $20. She was into music. My dad was born here. He has a Lebanese background. He would do these sort of chants around the house and mom sang Broadway tunes, badly, but she did it.

“There was a piano at my grandmother’s and I played that a few times.” But Roddy’s interest was captured when his sister brought home a classical record.

“She brought home the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1.” He can still sing the notes.

“I was 11 or 12 and I’d run home every day to listen to it. It was so beautiful.”

That awakening lead him to the Beatles. “That was about it for pop music. I never really like the hard edged stuff.

He was right there at the beginning of Beatlemania in the early 1960s.

“I went down to the Treble Clef (record store) and bought the first copy (of the first record). Two weeks later I knew every tune.”

When he was 12 he picked up a guitar. At the same time the family moved into an apartment block on Breezehill Avenue near Sherwood. “In four of the nine apartments there were guitar players. Two of them were in a band that played at the Glenlea Golf Club six nights a week. I remember (one of them) teaching me Big Bad John or something like that.”

Another taught him how to play Hawaiian lap guitar. And there were a couple of brothers who were just out of reform school, “one payed harmonica and one played guitar. They were incredible.”

When Roddy 13, or 14 “a guy named Roger Veckman brought me a Nancy Wilson record. And I became a fan. It was the perfect introduction to jazz for me because wasn’t too heavy. It was lyrical.”

Ellis said he always liked to improvise on his guitar.

“Even when I was in a pop band and playing a Beatles tune I could never play the same solo as George Harrison. I always had to play my own solo. And I always noodled on my grandmother’s piano.

“I was always writing too as soon as I started playing I was writing songs. I started trying to write classical things like little canons.”

In high school, at Glebe Collegiate, he played the tuba and picked up some music theory which he applied to the guitar. That helped with the writing.

But he knew he needed more knowledge and he started taking classical guitar lessons and music-reading lessons. His guitar teacher was named Bob Sabourin.

“He was probably four pages ahead of  me in the guitar book. But he was a really great teacher. If you did the work you prospered. If you didn’t do the work … oh man he could make you feel like crap. I remember coming in a couple of times and the vibes were a little frosty.”

Ellias picked up the guitar quickly and was getting gigs even while still in high school.

“I had played all through high school with a band called the Lew Kirton Soul Review. We played all the Motown stuff.”

After graduating he auditioned for a group out of Montreal called The Sceptres and made the grade. He toured with them for a year. After that tour he came home and pretty soon someone else came calling.

“I was subbing in on a gig at the old Skyline Hotel when the maitre’d came up and said I had a call from Los Angeles. It was a half Canadian half American group who needed a guitar player and they had heard about me. They asked me to join the band and two days later I was in L.A. I played with them for a year.”

It was 1970 and Ellias was just 20.

“They were a middle of the road lounge band and I didn’t really like the music, but playing every night was nice and so was the travelling.” He toured across the States to California, Oregon, Alaska, Ohio and Michigan. They would play in a spot a week at a time.

“We were clean cut Ivy League types. One time in Michigan we played a rock club and the band there the week before was The Grateful Dead. … They hated us.”

Back to Ottawa where he found work at the Skyline Hotle in the dining room. During this period he studied with the legendary guitarist Pat Martino, he says. “He wanted me to move to New York, but New York was rough then in 1970s. And so I stayed here” playing six nights a week with guys in their 40s. He was in his 20s.

“That was my jazz schooling. I was trying to figure out how those guys played. I’d come home every night and practice because they sounded so good and I sounded like dog dirt.”

When he entered his 30s, he decided he needed more schooling and took some courses at the University of Ottawa with Dave Hildinger, another name from the city’s music scene.

“I’m a hometown guy. To me quality of life has always been important. I like the quietness of Ottawa. I worked very hard but I was in the right town at the right time. I blossomed at the right time. The 1970s were incredible for me I was working all the time.”

Nowadays, he says, “it’s harder to make a living as a player now. No-one is buying CDs. Last three tours I did it was hard to sell CDs.”

Now that his best work is down on tape, he is “hoping it will make a comeback. I’m hoping for cassettes,” he says with a typically understated quip.

Pablo Casals said when somebody asked him, when he was in his 80s, why he kept practicing several hours a day ‘Because  I think I’m making progress.’

“Some people peak,” Ellias says, “but I feel like I’m on this (climb up). I was talented but I wasn’t a super-whiz kid I am more like (Joseph) Haydn, someone who builds slowly and gets better and better. As long as a person is growing it’s good. I’m one of those people that doesn’t like to stay still.”

Roddy Ellias, Adrian Vedady and Marc Copland

TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival

Where: La Nouvelle Scene Studio A

When: Sunday June 25 at 8 p.m.

Tickets and information:


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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.