Block Us Up! – Mr. Ellis, it is an honor to welcome you to Block Us Up! I am a fan of your work and I’ve followed your career for years. My very first time meeting you was at an SC State game when I was director at Darlington HS. That was maybe 10 years ago. Over the years I’ve had several short conversations with you about the university band program, and the great job you’ve done during your very successful tenure. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you in a more thorough capacity. Could you share with us a little about your background, your college years, and how that all shaped your path on your voyage to being the director at Morris Brown College and then South Carolina State?
Mr. Ellis – Mr. Stackhouse, thank you for having me. I am originally from Atlanta, Ga. growing up in public housing namely “Carver Homes”. I had 3 brothers and two sisters. I really take pride in not forgetting where I came from. I fondly remember how poor we were however, everybody who lived in the projects was poor! In my early years we played sports, sung on the corner until time to come in the house, fished, we even made our own wagons made out of wood and skates, we fought only to get over it until the next time. There was always music in our neighborhood, older kids practicing on musical instruments, Mr. “Speedy’s’ gospel quartet rehearsing for their gigs, jazz and rhythm and blues on the radio and being played on record players all over. However, what would later change my life was the L.J. Price high school marching band rehearsing during the fall. Since I lived very close to the high school I watched them often which sparked my motivation to join the band. When I was in the 5th grade They placed me in Mr. Paul Mitchell’s homeroom. Mr. Mitchell was a jazz musician who would also be my elementary band director. I remember when he asked the class ” who wants to be in the Band”? Eagerly raising my hand and expressing the desire to play the slide trombone and, just like that, my band experiences began. Trombone was my instrument of choice because I had heard the circus bands on TV and I liked the glissandos the trombone players would make. After elementary school I met Dr. Alfred Wyatt, the band director at L.J. Price high school. Upon entering the 8th grade. I was placed in the beginning band. Mr. Wyatt soon realized I could already play well enough to be in the intermediate band, so that’s where he ended up placing me. Upon graduating from high school Morris Brown was where I went to College majoring in Public School Music. My experiences in college were exceptional Mr. Johnson taught marching band, Mr. William Revere was mainly the concert man, Mr. Henry Gilliam was the percussion person, and Mr. Bill Braynon was the Jazz band director. We also formed a soul band calling ourselves the soulful Sounds gigging around Atlanta and other cities in Ga. We even backed up James brown’s son, Teddy. In this group were members who would later form the group “Brick”. My college studies were interrupted when I was drafted into military service. I was a member of the 8th united states Army band, stationed in Seoul, Korea. All of the above shaped my path and philosophies relative to being the band director at Morris Brown College and South Carolina State University. I never strived to be a college director only high school and then a principal. however circumstances changed my life forever. The passing of Mr. Cleopas R. Johnson and the retiring of Mr. Ronald Sarjeant.
Block Us Up! – You have over 30 years in public education. Over that span of time there have been significant changes in music education due to politics, changing demographics, technology advances, etc… Some of these changes were for the better… and some for the worst. What do you think about today’s marching bands and how has the sound of college marching bands changed over the years?
Mr. Ellis – Let me start with my thoughts on high school marching bands. As in anything there are some excellent, good, and not so good bands and the same for college marching bands. However, I am worried about the direction some of our HS programs are going in. Many past directors worked hard to bring their majority African-American high school bands within the mainstream of music education associations. Today there are a number of young directors refusing to join and attend their association’s activities. Many excuses are being made as to why… most notably; “we can’t get them in class during the day” and of course money. Although these are legitimate challenges, I’d pose these questions; what goes on when you do get your students after school or in your class? Are you planning for jamborees, gym blowouts or battles, in addition to your regular football games and parades? Is your direction dictated by; your students, competition with other bands, or the opinions of your parents/administrators? If so, let me offer some advice. Develop a system for achieving superior musicianship, precision marching, discipline and pride within your band. Stress the desired goals and sell it to your students. I read somewhere in the past that marching shows should be geared towards performing for 3 people; 1. A blind person who can only hear your music for enjoyment, 2. A deaf person who can only see the pretty pictures or precision marching for enjoyment, and 3. The normal person who has normal faculties. We constantly hear the debate and descriptions of a traditional marching band versus a corp or free style band. In some areas the traditional marching band refers to majority African-American bands that, for the most part, march with a high knee lift. This, in my opinion, is a style. Bill Moffit’s “Patterns in Motion” did not define traditional marching bands of the sixties. Patterns in motion is a concept, not a style. A concept employed to reach a desired marching performance outcome. And believe it or not, all HBCUs did not incorporate this concept. In comparison, I believe there are currently more good sounding HBCU marching bands than there were back in the day, although there were a number of good sounding bands and outstanding musicians back then as well. That statement is sure to cause debate however, I base my premise on the fact that today’s HBCU bands have so much more technology at their disposal than those bands did… namely “YouTube”
Block Us Up! – Your bands have always been known for their well executed drills and creativity. The “Coming out of the hole” field entrance is one of the best amongst college bands in my opinion. Also, the “Flower drill” is a classic and favorite amongst us SCSU alumni to this very day. Many people don’t realize that you were the drill writer for those bands for all those years. I knew you were an experienced drill writer because of the memorable stories my former students would share with me when they were home on breaks and visited the band room, but for the rest of the world, could you share with us your process for drill writing?… And who were your greatest influences in drill design?
Mr. Ellis – First, let me start off by saying that the coming out of the hole by the band was suggested to Prof Johnson by a visitor to our rehearsal preparation for the “Coaches All America football game” to be played at the Atlanta Fulton county stadium in 1965 or ’66. His name I believe was Mr. Bill Blackburn, who was an assistant to Mr. Bill Moffitt. The drum major skip was Mr. Johnson’s concept. The Flower drill was a Texas Tech formation designed by Dean Killion, My influences were Dr. William P. Foster, Mr. A.R. Casavant, Dr. W Julien, Mr. Bill Moffit, Dr. Issac P. Greggs, Mr. Cleopas R. Johnson as well as Mr. Dan Ryder, Peter Emmons, Mike Moxley, and Kenneth Snoeck among others. I make every effort to plan drills based on marching shows geared towards performing for those 3 people I spoke of earlier; The blind person, the deaf person, and then the person who has normal faculties. Also there are mitigating factors such as; time allotment for halftime shows, frequency of home games, the music selection and the band’s instrumentation. All of these things should be considered to ensure that you accentuate the strengths of the band.
Block Us Up! – What was it like studying under Mr. Cleopas R. Johnson? He is one of the legendary directors I’ve always wanted to know more about and to feature here in our “Legendary Quotes” series but I haven’t been able to find any interviews on him. How did his tutelage affect your aspirations and dreams of becoming a band director?
Mr. Ellis – Mr. Johnson was a showman, and entertainer. He was also very competitive and loved marching bands. Some of his memorable quotes that he drilled into us were; “You kill a mosquito with a sledge hammer!” or his constant “Pick up your feet, play your part and drive, drive, drive!” That chant was very motivating to us. An interesting fact is that he taught drill design in his high school methods class.
Block Us Up! – As Director of the MBC and SCSU bands you were the direct supervisor of over 300 students during most years. In comparison, my largest marching band may have been 130 students and even that proved to be challenging… How did you manage such large groups? What were rehearsals like? What was your staff like? You are known and respected as a recruiting guru. What are some tips that you would be willing to share with the young college directors struggling with small bands and small budgets?
Mr. Ellis – Keep business as business. Do not allow yourself to be buddies with your students, for in the end they will turn on you. However, they should believe that you would do anything within your power for them. Start rehearsals on time and end on time (although I admit to not always adhering to the ending part). Develop a system for appointing the best possible student leaders at your disposal. Keep rehearsals moving as much as possible, stopping only when you really have something to say relative to the music. Don’t stop and go on a long tantrum, remember the students come to rehearsal to play, let them. Good staffs are very difficult to find. The more you have the more difficult it is to properly supervise. However, make every attempt to get the most qualified people that you can. I have learned that it is better to do without than to have a staff full of members with their own agendas. The best possible scenario would be former students or classmates. On recruiting, first you have to have something to sell; scholarships, your school, your band program and yourself. When all four are present your job is not as difficult however, when you represent a situation and some of the items are missing you have to work harder and it’s you that sell. Don’t be disappointed if you go to a school and get no students, keep going because the next school might give more than you need. Don’t be afraid to go to schools where you have had differences with directors in the past because they probably don’t know you or they are going by what someone else said about you or your school. Don’t be afraid to go to a high school where the student population might not be majority African-American. You are looking for good students regardless of the skin color. currently most band directors are working at schools with struggling budgets. Work with what you have, get parents on your side, and the administrators will follow. Don’t complain about your budget when you have a band that’s unorganized, poor discipline, lackluster shows and you aren’t professional yourself. Allow your students to be advocates for your program. Always keep something positive coming from the band room.
Block Us Up! – You are highly respected in the band world having garnered many awards and citations for excellence throughout your career. I think I read somewhere that you were even given “The Key” to a few cities… Out of all the awards you’ve received, which award touched you the most, and why?
Mr. Ellis – Every school I have ever taught at my main focus was centered around my students and trying to make sure they had every experience students at other schools had. Even though personal awards are nice, they could never compare to the smiles and happiness I saw on my students’ faces when they achieved what we set out to achieve. Remember all band directors majored in music education for the fun it offered, not for the awards that are given. It’s all about the students and not about you!
Block Us Up! – If you could send a message to a band director that’s reading this, what would you say and why?
Mr. Ellis – You should pray everyday and keep God first. Don’t allow yourself to become involved with questionable conduct. Continue to learn. Never believe that you have arrived and that you are God’s gift to band. Never get to the point where you know it all. Always be willing to help someone else. Make friends based on character not for who they are because If you put any of us under the microscope you will discover bacteria.
Block Us Up! – Mr Ellis it has been an honor having you Interview with us here at Block Us Up! It is my hope that our “Legendary Interviews” series would help cement the legacies of our great HBCU band directors with a written account of your lives and legacies in your own words. You contributed to this effort in a great way today and I thank you for this interview and, more importantly, your contribution to music education. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Mr. Ellis – Thank you! It has been my pleasure. If there was anything I would add it would be to my young directors, always remember there is more to teaching band than just moving your hands, and arms. Continue to teach impeccable balance, blend, and musical interpretation! Be humble, a good citizen and keep in mind your students are watching and they look up to you!!
Mr. Eddie Ellis is a 1975 graduate of Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Ga. with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public School Music and a minor in Education. In 1986, he obtained a Master of Music Education degree from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Ga. He has also studied at Florida State University, the Cincinnati Conservatory and The University of Texas at Austin. In 2011 Mr Ellis was awarded the Palmetto Patriot Award by South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer. The Palmetto Patriot Award is given for one’s commitment to public service within their state and community. The award is the highest civilian honor that the lieutenant governor can bestow.