John Elliott was a jazz pianist, arranger, and teacher. He spent his career in Kansas City. I don't know when he began teaching, I would guess sometime in the late '40's. He retired in '90 or '91. His students included players of many different instruments. Piano, guitar, horn players, pretty much anything. He called what he taught, "The Theory of Harmony." I'm sure that he dealt with technique with piano students, but I was a guitar player. John didn't deal with guitar technique, he didn't play guitar. However, he knew how to write and arrange for the guitar, he understood what was possible and what was not. He would simply spell the chord from low to high that he wanted you to play, and expect you to be able to find it.
I was fortunate because before I studied with John I had put in 3 years on the classical guitar with Doug Niedt. So I could already spell to some degree and I had the technique stuff together. Once after playing a chord that John had spelled he said, "Only about 30 per cent of my guitar students can play that chord." I had had that very chord in a Beethoven piece that I had done with Doug; I worked every day for a whole semester on that stupid chord!
I wound up with John thusly:
In 1976 I heard George Benson's guitar playing for the first time. I was young but had been playing guitar professionally since 1969. School functions, coffeehouses, night clubs, you know the deal. I had taught myself in the mid '60's by listening to records. Hendrix, Cream, Mountain, Santana. Guitar trios, mainly. Conceptually, the music I liked was improvisational and that's why I wound up loving jazz. I was also influenced by acoustic oriented songwriters - James Taylor, Neil Young etc. George Benson was completely different than anything I had ever heard before. I bought every George Benson album I could find. Very shortly that led me to Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and Pat Martino. During this time I also discovered John Abercrombie, John McLaughlin, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, Al Dimeola, John Scofield, and many more. After a couple of years of trying to teach myself that George Benson style I had to admit to myself that my talent wasn't enough - that MAYBE in 10 years I could fake it but I would never know what I didn't know. At that point I began to look for a teacher. I bar-hopped incessantly looking for a guitar player who played the way I wanted to play, who played that stuff I was hearing and couldn't figure out. It seemed like everyone I talked to said, "John Elliott". I wasn't convinced however. He didn't even play guitar. (The guitar subculture is very inbred.) In the meantime I found Danny Embrey. "This," I said to myself, "is the guy!" (More on Danny here) My recollection is a little vague here. I think I studied with Danny sometime in '78. I remember this distinctly though. It was my 5th lesson. Danny said, "This will be your last lesson because I'm moving to L.A. next week and I don't know if I'm ever coming back." (The next time I saw him he was on the Johnny Carson show playing with Sergio Mendez.) I was devastated. "What'll I do?" I asked. Danny said, "You need to study with John Elliott. I got all my shit from him. He's a little tough but it's worth it." THAT was the understatement of the year! In resignation I said, "Ok, I might as well go to the source. It seems like all roads lead to John Elliott." Danny gave me his number and told me he had a year's waiting list, but that he would call him and put in a word for me. A week later I called John. "Yeah," he said, "Danny told me about you, you're on the list. It'll be about a year."
I wasn't about to wait a year. John had a trio gig at the top of what was then the Alameda Plaza Hotel. Every week I showed up and bugged him. He called and offered me a slot in about 3 months. I studied with him for 7 years. It wasn't all fun and games either. Danny was right, he was tough, especially the first few months. If you weren't prepared he sent you home - immediately. Too many mistakes - he sent you home - immediately. No back talk, no negotiation, no excuses. He was capable of slamming the door and telling you not to come back. After all, there was a year's worth of people just waiting to get your slot. But you know what? I KNEW this guy had what I needed and I was willing to do whatever it took to get it. I'm lazy, just like everyone else. I needed to get kicked in the ass. I KNEW it was good for me, even if it didn't feel good. After a few months, it seemed he lightened up and the atmosphere became more casual. I've often wondered if this was a conscious method on his part to weed out the people who weren't really serious. It wouldn't surprise me if it was. Well, he was everything I'd heard he was and then some. Time and space constraints will not allow me to tell anecdote after anecdote about my lessons. How many times he amazed me with his playing. About the time he re-harmonized Giant Steps 4 or 5 different ways - on the fly. He wrote some of the most beautiful arrangements for guitar I've ever heard. How much I learned. Yes, he taught me how to think about music. He gave me tools, and taught me how to use them for myself. Everyone that I've ever talked to that studied with him tells the same kinds of stories.
I learned a lot about learning because of my lessons with John. (I have to tell this anecdote!) John would write out every lesson by hand. He would sit at a table writing out my next lesson while I played the lesson from the previous week in all keys in every position. His back would be to me - he's not even looking at me. All of a sudden he would say, "You're playing an A natural in the alto voice, it should be A flat." The pencil would not stop while he's saying this, he wouldn't even look up. The first time this happened I was flabbergasted. He's multi-tasking! That's AMAZING! This guy's a genius! He's writing the next lesson down and at the same time hears every note in every chord that I'm playing! Do you know how intimidating that is? If you played the lesson to his satisfaction, he would give you the next page. One day, he gave me the next page. I didn't think I was ready for it. I said, "I don't really understand what I just did, how would you use that?" He answered, "Why is the sky blue?" In other words, shut up and do what I tell you. In other words, you wouldn't understand the answer if I gave it to you. I began to dream chord spellings. I began to solve technique problems, fingering problems, in my dreams. I realized my brain was working on this stuff at a subconscious level. I came to the realization that I should trust John and let nature take its course. I was ready for the next page if he thought I was, even if I didn't think so. All that from "Why is the sky blue?"
The stuff I got from John I use every day of my life. To a great degree, he has enabled me to make a living with the guitar and for that I am immensely, eternally grateful. I consider it providential that his path and my path intersected. I have benefited enormously by having known him.
Jay EuDaly, May 2008
June 27th, 2013: I have just learned that John died Monday, June 24th, 2013. Go here for an obituary.
There is very little of John Elliott on the net. His career predates it, and as far as I know he never left Kansas City. He therefore has not enjoyed wider-than-local recognition as a player. However, his influence is felt worldwide because of some of his students who have gone on to major recognition. If you've listened to Pat Metheny, Bobby Watson, Larry Williams, Danny Embrey, Steve Cardenas - you're hearing John.
Jazz Ambassadors Magazine - Feb/Mar 2018: John Elliott: The Theory Guru Who Influenced a Generation of Kansas City Jazz Musicians.
Starting in 1962, John wrote and arranged for the KC Kix Band, a big band that existed as a writing and arranging vehicle for John. See the JAM Magazine article here.
June/July 2015 issue of Jazz Ambassadors Magazine features a story on Tim Whitmer; a Kansas City Jazz pianist. Besides studying with George Salisbury, he also studied with John:
Tim also studied with another legendary KC educator, John Elliott. “John had a waiting list of six months to a year. I put my name in. For a couple of years I was blessed to be taking lessons with both George and John, and that was a great combination for me. George really taught the ear. He’d play a chord and ask if I heard it. He’d play chords that were very strange, things you would never think to play at that point. John taught methodically, the logic; he’d teach the reason why you played that chord, and how this chord led to the next chord, which led to another chord, and the different voicings.
“With John you got a half-hour block. If your block was 3:00 to 3:30, it ended right at 3:30, even if you came in late. He charged a month ahead of time. If you called in sick or had to miss for any reason it was fine with John, he had your money! At the 30 minute mark, he could be in the middle of a sentence and it would be over. There were people waiting. At one time I had to take off for a couple of months, and when I was ready to come back I had to wait six months for an opening. It seems that everybody who was around at that time studied with John.
I shared the comment Bob Brookmeyer made about John, a life-long friend, that John was the only person who would give him an honest opinion about his music. Tim laughed. “One time when I had really started playing I brought a live tape from the night before that I thought was pretty darn good. It showed that I was making progress. I asked John if he’d listen to it and give his opinion. I had 30 minutes, however I wanted to use it. He tore it apart. It didn’t hurt my feelings. He was right. He gave a clinical answer. Later, when he eventually tells you something is good, what a compliment! George was different. If he didn’t like something, he’d just be silent. If he liked it, he’d say so.”
April/May 2015 issue of Jazz Ambassadors Magazine featured an article on four important Kansas City guitar players:
Pat Metheny, Rob Whitsett, Danny Embrey and Rod Fleeman. The article had this to say:
"All four guitarists took lessons from pianist John Elliott, which gave them another influence in common. For a generation of players, Elliott was the music theory guru, opening ears and minds to what Pat called “a wider palette of harmony.” Rob studied with Elliott for less than two years, but he remembers being amazed as how well John understood the guitar. “At first I had doubts about John being able to teach me, since I was a guitar player and not a piano player. That went away real quick. It blew my mind that he understood the fretboard of the guitar more than I did.”
“He was teaching theory that was particularly important for guitar players,” Rod recalls. “John would turn the brain on. I’d say, ‘Well, that particular chord, I don’t think you can play it on the guitar,’ and he’d say, ‘Oh you’re not looking. Try that lower string group.’”
Gary Sivils is a well-known trumpet player around Kansas City. He was a major influence on Pat Metheny. Gary was the cover interview for the June/July 2009 edition of Jazz Ambassador magazine. He had this to say about John Elliott:
John and Bob Brookmeyer have been life-long friends. Bob was the cover interview of the Feb/Mar edition of Jazz Ambassador Magazine. He had this to say about John Elliott.
The April/May 2008 issue of Jazz Ambassador Magazine's cover article is an interview with Danny Embrey and Rod Fleeman, both awesome jazz guitarists. They spent quite a bit of time talking about John Elliott.