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Honoring Manty Ellis, Milwaukee's 'Godfather of Jazz'

For Black History month, we're celebrating artists who made a lasting mark on the Milwaukee music scene.

Today, we're honoring Manty Ellis, a legendary Milwaukee-born guitarist who is widely regarded as the godfather of Milwaukee jazz.

Ellis was born in 1933 in a house on North 5th Street, and as a young man he was an early player in the local jazz scene. He fondly recalls, in a 2016 interview with Radio Milwaukee, the thriving jazz clubs on Walnut Street and the impact they had on Milwaukee black community.

"People call it ‘jazz,’ but I’ve always called it 'black classical music,'" Ellis said in an interview with 88Nine writer Joey Grihalva.

"At about 5:30 or 6 o’clock everybody vacated the playgrounds and went home,” Ellis said. “We would change clothes and by 6:30 or 7 o’clock everyone was on Walnut Street between 6th and 10th. You could go from club to club. We’d hang out all night. It was beautiful," Ellis said.

But he is arguably better remembered for the lasting contributions he made to music education.

In 1971, Manty Ellis and fellow musician Tony King founded an accredited jazz studies program at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. The program focused on introducing under-resourced Milwaukee students to jazz, giving them the chance to study under instructors from New York City and Chicago.

Wisconsin Conservatory of Music Jazz Studies Faculty (1977). Photo courtesy of WCM/Milwaukee Jazz Vision

Meanwhile, Ellis also opened his own music store, the Manty Ellis Music Center, which reportedly attracted jazz giants when they would visit Milwaukee.

"I had some of the best music come out of the store that you can’t even get recordings of. People like Freddie Hubbard, Frank Morgan, Eddie Harris, Sonny Stitt. I’m talking about the heavyweights. You might come up to the store and find George Benson sleeping on my couch," Ellis told Grihalva.

Now, well into his 80s, Ellis remains active in the local music scene. Every third Thursday, he brings his trio to Transfer Pizzeria Cafe stage for a regular gig. Ellis is joined by veteran players Jamie Breiwick on trumpet, and Tim Ipsen on bass, according to Transfer's website.

In 2019, Ellis was honored with an official proclamation from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, declaring the day "Manty Ellis Day." Watch him receive the award at the Radio Milwaukee studios.

Be sure to tune in to Radio Milwaukee (88.9 FM) as we honor musicians every day throughout Black History Month.

Director of Digital Content | Radio Milwaukee