Jazz Profiles from NPR
Ellis Larkins (1923-2002)
Produced by Njemile Carol Jones

Ellis Larkins  

Pianist Ellis Larkins' elegant playing style has been described as a rainbow of interwoven musical textures. His layered technique created a warm and intimate palette of sound that brought out the full artistic potential of his partners in jazz -- Coleman Hawkins and Ella Fitzgerald among them.

Listen to pianist and educator Dr. Billy Taylor and actress Corrina Menetto talk about Larkin's piano playing

An understated and unselfish performer, Larkins rarely -- if ever -- sought the spotlight. He stressed the importance of musical patience, of adhering to a song's melody. Trumpeter Ruby Braff, who recorded with Larkins in the 1950s, recalls, "[His] playing was so beautiful -- a complete orchestra by itself."

Larkins is best remembered for his remarkable recordings with singer Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Sings Gershwin features Larkins as the sole accompanist -- just the way he wanted it.

Ella Fitzgerald  

When initially approached to work with Fitzgerald, Larkins made clear his strongly held belief that piano accompaniment alone would best serve the singer's significant talents.

Listen to singer Joe Williams, Ellis, and Taylor talk about Larkins' work with Fitzgerald (left)

Ellis was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 15, 1923. Both his parents were classical musicians. His father, a violinist, started his young son on piano lessons at the age of four, encouraging him to practice at least two hours a day.

The child progressed quickly, eventually joining his father in performances with a local black orchestra in his hometown. In high school, Larkins became the first black student admitted to Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music.

Listen to Ellis recall attending the Peabody Institute of Music

"You have to have patience, that's the most important thing -- patience with yourself especially. (There's) a tendency to go for yourself and you forget all about the other person."
-- Ellis Larkins  

From Peabody, Larkins would move on to The Juilliard School of Music in New York City. To meet expenses, he began playing evening studio sessions, drawing on his classical technique to play jazz and popular music.

Soon Larkins became a prominent fixture of the Manhattan nightclub scene, playing regularly at venues like Café Society, the Blue Angel, Gregory's, and the Village Vanguard.

Sometimes Larkins led a trio, but most often he accompanied singers, including Herb Jeffries, Joe Williams, Anita Ellis and Mildred Bailey. His solo performances at the Carnegie Tavern below Carnegie Hall also became a New York institution.

Listen to bassist Keter Betts recall hearing Larkins' solo performances at the Carnegie Tavern

Larkins also made a great contribution as a mentor and teacher, and as a musician whose technique and creativity have been a great example to many others. Singer and stage actress Corrina Manetto was one of his first students, and recalls his supportive approach as both an accompanist and teacher.

As well-known jazz educator Dr. Taylor notes, "I know that he influenced a lot of folks. I can hear it in their work." Joe Williams summed up Larkins' generosity in all areas: "His gift is everything he's done." Ellis Larkins died at 79 on Sunday, September 30, 2002, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Listen to Larkins reflect back on his jazz career


View the Ellis Larkins show playlist


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