top of page

Jazz Ambassadors Magazine Tribute to John Elliott


Ask any former student of John Elliott who else studied with the legendary Kansas City jazz educator and the response is usually, "It would easier to list who didn't study with him."

For decades the pianist, arranger and jazz guru extraordinaire, now retired, was the guy to study with if you had a thirst for more knowledge about the vocabulary of jazz. What follows is a short list of former students who were ready and willing to say "thanks" to a teacher who made a difference. The praise we heard was unanimous, and it was offered with much love and respect.

Singer, pianist, recording artist

I was fortunate enough to study with John Elliott for only a few months. I think I "got in" just before he stopped for good. Danny (Embrey) and Rod (Fleeman) had such great things to say about him -- and they both play so great -- so, I knew I had to give it a try.

John had a very methodical and gentle way. I still have his notebook and need to get it out more often... to keep finding myself, which is common in education.

I still try to remember and use the things John covered. I wish I would have had longer with him. What a gem. The KC music scene owes him a lot!

Guitarist, recording artist

I studied with John Elliott over a two year period, and I consider it the most valuable and enlightening time of my early musical development.

John has always been regarded as the town guru and with good cause; he's taught about every musician in the Kansas City area who was interested in jazz at one time or another. His approach to harmony is still the most unique and clear I've encountered to this day.

I also had the good fortune to play with John on a couple of casuals he hired me for during the time I was studying with him. I remember one time softly playing through "Giant Steps" with him before the gig started. In a word, "wow!" In his teaching and playing John always demonstrated how thorough one has to be, which is a great lesson in anything.

Singer, pianist, jazz educator

Nothing I write will do justice to the genius of John Elliott. I wouldn't know where to begin to illustrate the many ways in which his brilliance has manifested itself over the period of time I've known him -- as a musician, composer, arranger, band leader, accompanist, teacher, and fellow sufferer on the journey of jazz.

As a teacher, it didn't matter to John whether you had your doctorate in music or barely knew a B-flat from a banana, his lessons began at square one. This brand of equanimity was especially attractive to me since I considered myself closer to the banana type on the spectrum. To explain by way of a rather obtuse metaphor, I was trying to build a house with a pitchfork. I knew how I wanted it to look, but I didn't have the right tools. John gave me those tools. He empowered my creativity. I still don't consider myself primarily a pianist (no surprise to you piano players out there), but whatever chops I have I owe to John Elliott.

John is also responsible for my learning NOT to be a jazz snob/elitist and to really listen before carte blanche slamming another artist because he/she happens not to be known principally in the jazz field. I remember how excited he was about a certain Paul Simon composition and how he could wax eloquent about other non-jazzers -- rockers, C&W'ers, folkers...

Before he retired, I used to refer my voice students to John. Whatever the instrument -- voice, horn, piano, saw -- John could escalate your relative knowledge and abilities tenfold. I still incorporate much of what I learned from him in the vocal jazz coaching I do today.

I haven't talked to John in years, but I can still hear his voice -- that soft, semi-crackly, wonderful sounding voice -- offering gentle but firm instructions. And I can still remember the very special if all-too-brief time I spent learning from him.

John Elliott is the primo jazz guru around Kansas City (and, for my money, anywhere else). I am ever grateful for having had the opportunity to study with him.

Guitarist, recording artist

I had the good fortune of studying with John Elliott for three years (1975-78). The things I learned then I still use everyday.

John was all business, but when the subject of jazz came up, the expression on his face was that of a kid with a new toy. His lessons were about harmony, but he inspired me to do my best in all facets of music.

I'm often asked where I went to school. I say that I didn't go to an institution, but I studied with John Elliott for three years. That counts as a college degree! I just wish he would give out diplomas so I could get a teaching gig!


"I am eternally thankful to you, John. More than you will ever know. God bless the day I met you." -- Bobby Watson


Guitarist, teacher, author

You know that photograph of a couple hundred Kansas City jazz musicians that was taken at 18th and Vine a few years ago? Talk to each one of those musicians -- any instrument -- and ask about influences, education. Who were the people that affected them most? I think you would find a common thread among those players. And that common thread would be John Elliott.

I am no longer surprised by the statement, "Oh yeah, John Elliott. I studied with him back in (fill in the year)." I think his influence on the Kansas City music scene, and the generally high (in many cases extremely high) quality of the jazz musicians here is directly traceable to John. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a player say, "John taught me how to think about music."

Guitarist, recording artist

John Elliott is the best teacher I have ever studied with. Two different university jazz programs I'm familiar with (Utah and Miami) didn't have anyone to compare with John and his method of music theory.

Why do I believe John's method is superior?

1) He is complete and thorough in his approach, which was frustrating at first because I thought I was beyond rudiments like scales. However, he was right. And my first lesson learned was one of humility.
2) John is consistent and logical. Each lesson was built upon the last. And everything was to be done in all twelve keys.
3) Seriousness. The John Elliott Furrowed Brow was something akin to the John Houseman death stare in "The Paper Chase." Teaching is serious business to John. And I believe it disturbed him when someone didn't have the same compassion for learning.

Earlier I wrote that my first studies with John taught me humility (with a lot of furrowed brows). In later lessons I experienced smiles, encouragement and redemption.

Thanks John, for all that you've done for me. 

Pianist, recording artist

John Elliott was not very easy to get along with. That is, unless you were showing him by deed, not by talk, that you were taking his teachings to heart. He set the pattern that if you did what you were supposed to do, he would give you more of what you needed. Step by step over the years, he would chisel your ability to control musical sounds. He gave you the tools that would help you continue to develop your own unique musical personality.

One of the most cherished memories I carry with me today is feeling John Elliott's stamp of approval as we said our last goodbyes.

Graphic artist, writer, guitarist

"I don't think I can get my fingers to do that," I said.

"I've heard other guitarists do it," John Elliott replied, a tad impatient and making a clear reference to such former students as Embrey, Fleeman and Metheny.

Then there was another time John was instructing me on a voicing selection based on what other instruments might be in the band. I chuckled when he said there could be accordionist.

"If you're going to be a professional musician," he said, "sooner or later you're going to end up on a bandstand with an accordion player."

I studied with John Elliott for about 18 months. But being a kid (17 at the start), I lacked the discipline and focus to learn all he tried to teach me. Still, a lot of it stuck, and to the extent that I am competent as a jazz musician, John deserves most of the credit.

Actually, the music theory, the standards out of the Real Book, and the Patterns for Jazz material he offered is only part of what I learned. John taught me that talent is worthless without effort and preparation. And that there are simply no excuses if you mean to accomplish those things that apply to all endeavors.

I've been fortunate to have had some brilliant mentors in the various courses my life has taken. John Elliott tops the list.

Pianist, singer, recording artist

There are a lot of good jazz musicians who cut their teeth in the Kansas City scene during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. If you were to poll them, most would say that they were students of John Elliott.

Not only would they tell you that, but they would say it with a lot of pride. I am fortunate to be in their number. In my opinion, John is simply the finest music theory teacher that ever graced the KC scene. His method was grueling and all-encompassing, but if you put in the time to follow it, you would become a much better player, that's all there is to it.

Not only did John give his students wonderful musical instruction, but his great brand of humor and common sense advice also helped give many of us the fortitude to cope with the business.

Thanks John.

Guitarist, 14-time Grammy winner

The time that I spent studying harmony with John Elliott inspired me to think of things in a totally different way than I had before. And the things that I learned in my lessons with him have helped me enormously in the ongoing search to try to define a harmonic language of my own.

John really opened me up to an expansive view of sound through chords that is almost infinite in its application. By guiding me through a very clear and thorough approach to redefining the traditional functions of diatonic harmony through an alternate implied bitonal view of how they could also be described and utilized, he literally threw open a door for me that I refer to constantly to this day. And I am quite sure all of his other students would say the same.

But going beyond his deep harmonic sensibilities, what made John such a great teacher was the genuine enthusiasm that he himself brought to the study of the musical materials at hand. You could feel that, as he was showing an example of how to use this or that device to resolve a chord sequence in a particular way, he was as thrilled about the sound itself and the musical opportunities that it may offer as he was by the look of light bulbs going on over his student's head.

And getting to play occasionally with John during those years was always a thrill, as well.

I think that all of us who ever got to study with John Elliott share something special and recognize how lucky we were to get the opportunity to be around him.

Photographer, pianist, retired instrumental music instructor (Lee's Summit schools)

I started taking lessons with John to simply change my style of playing the piano. What I received was an incredible course in jazz harmony, arranging and pianistic styles. He teaches jazz like a 19th century harmony class, as a very exacting art.

My playing still sucks, but I developed the highest appreciation and respect for the jazz field. All because of John Elliott. 

Saxophonist, recording artist, Director of Jazz Studies at UMKC

When I went to John, I had already started trying to compose and to understand the theory behind improvisation. But there was still a lot of mystery. John was recommended by several musicians around Kansas City I had much respect for. So I called him and got on the waiting list.

I used to drive out to where he was teaching every Saturday. I couldn't wait for my lessons with John. They removed the mystery and gave me a template for learning that has served as the foundation for continued learning throughout my life. They also served as a model for teaching others over the years.

Although I only studied with John for a little over a year, his clarity in explaining the science of music and the assignments he gave me set me up for life.

I am eternally thankful to you, John. More than you will ever know. God bless the day I met you.

© Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors 1996-2001. All rights reserved.

bottom of page