March is National Women’s History Month and I thought that because of her local significance I would honor Ms. Midge Ellis.  Perhaps you’ve never heard of Ms. Ellis but are very much aware of some of the things she has accomplished.  Midge is one of the founders of the DetroitMontreux Jazz Festival, ran a very popular big band jazz series for the Clarenceville school district for 20 years and is the current producer of the Michigan Jazz Festival.  Though she has worked mostly behind the scenes, jazz fans and musicians know her by name and by the nickname given to her by popular Detroit Free Press columnist, the late Bob Talbert, “Mama Jazz”.

Midge grew up in Corbin, Kentucky, fifty miles from Tennessee and fifty miles from Virginia and as she puts it “the middle of nowhere”.  Her father was a jazz buff and made sure that all of his children listened to and appreciated jazz music.  Never in her wildest dreams did she ever think that one day she would know or hobnob with some of our great national artists.  She would listen to music on an old Atwater Kent radio while sitting on her father’s lap.  On many Saturday nights she would be allowed to stay up so that she could hear broadcasts from cities as far away as Cincinnati, New Orleans and even here in Detroit (I wonder what station that was), over clear-channel stations.

As an adult, she later traveled to the jazz Mecca, New Orleans, where she met some of the bandleaders she had listened to in her youth at the Blue Room in the Roosevelt Hotel.  It was here the foundation was laid for her career as a booking agent, where she hired these bands for country clubs in Mississippi and Louisiana.  Undoubtedly, her love and knowledge of this art form and her subsequent experiences have provided her with some great stories!

In the early 1960’s, Midge moved to the Detroit area where her love affair with jazz continued and provided her the opportunities for what maybe her greatest contributions to jazz and the state of Michigan.  The first was her involvement with the Clarenceville School District series of jazz concerts during the 70’s and 80’s.  The story goes that when the school was looking for something to bring into the new L.E. Schmidt Auditorium in Livonia, it was Midge that suggested that they bring in jazz and big band music.  The first band that was booked was the great drummer Buddy Rich, who performed for the now unheard of fee of $1,700 for a musician of his stature.  Subsequently, she brought in the likes of Count Basie, Gene Krupa, Stan Kenton, Don Ellis (no relation), Maynard Ferguson, Chuck Mangione and many others.  A component of every concert and festival was the performance of young people in jazz studies programs.

Another significant contribution was organizing the Michigan Jazz Festival.  In 1996, two big band leaders, John Trudell and Emil Moro, felt that Michigan deserved a jazz festival that focused on our great local talent.  The concept of the Michigan Jazz Festival would be to “showcase local talent and offer it at no charge, thereby exposing young musicians to the music and take it into the schools whenever possible.  There were plenty of musicians that were willing to play for union scale in the hope of furthering the reach and appreciation of our “national art form”.  Midge and an associate, Eileen Standley were asked to bring their organizational skills to the event and the festival was moved from its first location “Freedom Hill” to the historic “Botsford Inn”, where it grew continuously for four years.  The Inn was sold to Botsford Hospital and the festival eventually settled in 1999 at Schoolcraft College where it continues today. 

I am one of many that would say that the Detroit – Montreux Jazz Festival is her greatest contribution.  A friend filled me in on the history: Don Lupp, the director of jazz studies at Henry Ford Community College, had been taking his students to Montreaux, Switzerland to perform in their jazz festival before he was hired by Wayne State University.  He asked Midge to travel as the “band mother” to keep an eye on his WSU students.  Through her association with Don, Midge and high-profile citizens that included Chuck Muer, Alan Lichtenstein and Clarence Baker were on the original committee that worked with Claude Knobbs and Michele Ferla (both with the original Montreux Festival) to put on this great event that was sanctioned by then mayor, Coleman A. Young.  This annual international jazz festival is in its 32nd year and is the largest free jazz festival in North America.

So join me as I salute this humble lady from very modest means for her contributions to jazz music and musicians nationally and most importantly locally.  Though “she may not get around much anymore” her legacy is etched in stone and she is always on the tip of our tongues whenever we talk about jazz in Detroit and southeastern Michigan.  At 87 years of age, she remains active and essential to the local jazz community.

How important is the jazz festival to Detroiters?  Watch this:

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