MILWAUKEE - On a cold January day, music from a boom box warmed the Milwaukee home of guitarist Manty Ellis.
"That’s an original tune," Ellis said as he listened to the sound of jazz. "It’s the Black art form of our culture."
Ellis, 88, has had a lifelong love affair with making music. He remembers being 9 years old and playing with a "big band." His first love was piano, but for decades he has used the guitar to express himself.
"There have been times where I’ve been put in a situation and tears just run out of my eyes," Ellis said.
As Milwaukee’s storied jazz history was written, Ellis has remained a crucial character. He has performed with respected musicians, once owned a music store, and even released a CD. The guitarist has been called the Godfather of Milwaukee jazz.
"I would describe jazz as highly improvisational, predicament that you put yourself in with the music," Ellis said. "You are free to do anything that it takes to express yourself."
In 1971, Ellis and the late Tony King founded the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music’s renowned jazz institute. It’s one of Ellis’ greatest contributions to the city.
"That’s an enormous legacy that we all should really strive for," Mitch Shiner, Chair of Jazz & Contemporary music at the conservatory, said.
Shiner first played with Manty Ellis as a teenager.
"He can say so much in one note than many other people can say in 100 notes," Shiner said.
The music is thriving in the many musicians Ellis has influenced, like Los Angeles-based guitarist Charles Small.
"To me, he's a giant. Even though he doesn't consider himself a giant, in my eyes, he's a giant," Small said.
The death of Ellis’ wife and the pandemic has made it hard for Ellis to pick up his guitar. He hopes to start playing soon.
"After she passed, I just have to get myself back together and start over again. It’s like a fighter who gets knocked down and takes the eight count."
Looking back at his life, Ellis is proud he always followed his heart.
"Wherever I go… I just start digging in and doing the best I can and I’ve never failed on anything."