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Sessions Players

Keith Ellis' big band pays Tribute to its founder

It's been a long time -- more than a half-century -- since the glory years of big-band jazz. But despite several changes in musical formats and styles, and the economic pressures that made keeping large bands together an extremely difficult proposition, big-band jazz has never really gone away. It's just gotten a little more difficult to find.

There's no better place and time to discover the continued vitality of big-band jazz than BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups on Monday nights. There you'll find the Sessions Big Band -- 16 members strong -- performing three sets of music from 8-11 p.m. But one thing that's a little hard to find is a seat when Sessions is performing. The place usually fills up by the start of the first set with a mix of area jazz fans, conventioneers, tourists searching for a taste of local music and a few young music students as well.

"It took a while to build an audience for big band on Mondays," says Ross Gentile, a DJ at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville's WSIE (88.7 FM). Gentile, a regular at the Monday-night Sessions performances, recalls the differences between his first visit to hear Sessions several years ago and the group's current popularity.

"I think there were about three other people and me on that night, and most of the others were John Auble and his camera crew," says Gentile. "They were doing a story on the band for Channel 2. I ended up playing live tapes of the band on my radio show and encouraging people to come and see them play. But it's really a testament to the long-term commitment of BB's to keep giving the band a place to play, the fine musicians in the group and, of course, the dedication of Keith Ellis, who started Sessions Big Band."

The Sessions Big Band has been playing at BB's for almost four years now -- ever since the club reopened. But although the group is now an established weekly presence at the club, the band now plays without its founder, trombonist Keith Ellis. On May 16 last year -- the morning after he had led the Sessions band through a concert at the Generations club on Watson Road in celebration of the band's debut recording, Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise -- Ellis died of a heart attack. He was 39 years old.

The sudden, unexpected death of Ellis was clearly a blow to the remaining musicians in the band. But they immediately formulated plans to perform a tribute concert for Ellis, which also functioned as a fundraiser for a trust fund for the two young children of Ellis and his wife, Cherie. The concert, held at Westport Playhouse last June, featured nationally known musicians Maynard Ferguson on trumpet and baritone-sax player Nick Brignola. In addition to jump-starting the trust fund, the event also seemed to steel the resolve of the Sessions members to keep the band together. And that's turned out to be a greater tribute to Ellis than any concert could ever be.

The band's dedication is paying off. On Monday, the Sessions Big Band won't be playing its usual weekly gig at BB's. Instead, the band takes the spotlight at the Pageant for a concert marking the release of its second recording, Tribute. Ironically, the title of the release originally referred to the late Elmer Feltner, one of the original members of Sessions, who died in 1999. But now it's clearly meant as an homage to Ellis, the driving force behind the band.

Trumpet player Steve Schankman, known primarily as a co-founder of Contemporary Productions (now part of SFX), has been playing for Sessions for the past three years. He's also taken on the role of interim leader and business manager for Sessions since Ellis' death. Before a recent performance at BB's, Schankman took time out to recall his initial experience meeting Ellis and becoming a member of the band.

"I had been playing trumpet in my own band, the Fabulous Motown Revue," says Schankman, "and I enjoyed playing so much I was also sitting in with a 50-piece concert orchestra. But I was still looking for a place to play that offered more freedom and creativity. When I came down to hear Sessions, I just had to try and work with them. Keith asked me to start playing, and I've been with the band about three years now. It's infectious, and there's no doubt the reason the band became so good was that other musicians really wanted to play with Keith. He was always going out of his way for you."

BB's owner Mark O'Shaughnessy also underscores the drive and energy that Ellis brought to each Monday-night gig at BB's. "Keith was an enthusiastic guy," he says. "He didn't mind being a grunt -- hauling all the band's equipment in by himself. He was just so into it, you wanted to pitch in and help him, whatever it was he was trying to do."

The recordings that make up the Tribute album were actually done just before Ellis' death, so his fine trombone playing is prominent on the release. For the concert at the Pageant, Sessions will perform cuts from Tribute, including several that feature guest vocalist Sherry Drake. In addition, the band will perform several original compositions by Ellis that were originally recorded by a sextet but have now been rearranged for big band. But, according to Schankman, the concert will not feature any nationally known musicians as special guests. "We thought about doing that," he says, "and we could have easily arranged it. But it's really the band's chance to shine at the Pageant, and, working on that big stage, the great musicians in this band should really be at their optimum that night."

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