Ian Moore

Diane Ellis, the band director at Dixon Elementary School in Chatham, spends most of her weekdays teaching students in both general music classes and afterschool band programs. But on weekends she’s on the stage, a saxophonist with her band, the Jazzy Ladies.

Ellis is one of two recipients of the 2015 OPPY Award for Education, given by the Oppenheimer Family Foundation to recognize educators who make a unique impact on their students and Chicago Public Schools. The other recipient is Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teacher’s Union.

Ellis has had a long and storied career as a musician and teacher. She grew up in Chicago, in a home surrounded by music—two of her uncles are renowned jazz musicians, the trombonist Morris Ellis and the saxophonist Jimmy Ellis. At age four she started playing piano, and a few years later, she took up what would become her principal instrument, the saxophone. By high school, she knew that music would be her life’s work.

She studied music education and performance at Bradley University and earned a master’s degree in music performance from Northwestern, before spending the next ten years as a professional musician, playing jazz in Chicago and across the country. She opened for prominent jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Jimmy Smits, toured with Jimmy McGriff and Charles Earland, and became the protégé of Sonny Stitt.

“In college it’s about what you play and whether you’re playing it right or correct,” Ellis says, “but that don’t make you a great player. It’s how you play it, how you present it. It’s like talking—it becomes a language.”

Eventually, Ellis found, “things started getting scarce.” Life as a professional musician could be precarious, living from one gig to another, so in 1990 she got a job as a substitute teacher to help make ends meet. But soon, she found she had a knack for working with kids, and she got her first full-time teaching position at Ryerson Elementary School, which closed in 2013.

Ellis worked in cramped quarters, in a classroom in the basement and under a principal that restricted the band program. When the opportunity arose, she took a job at Dixon Elementary in Chatham, which was building a strong fine arts program. She’s remained there for twenty years.

“I teach general music with emphasis on jazz. So the students, before they leave Dixon, will know about the history of jazz, the mechanics of jazz, they learn how to do a little scat singing,” she says.

“I want to teach them their culture, because jazz is our culture. It is America’s only classic music that we own. So they need to know about that. And they need to know that the music that they hear today grew out of jazz or blues. So that’s the way I teach them. Then, even if they’re not performers, they can become appreciative listeners in many different styles of music.”

Ellis also brings her professional experience to the classroom, arranging workshops with experienced musicians and taking students to see live jazz performances.

“I’m always performing with the students, playing for them in short amounts in the classroom. You know, you can tell them and they might even see it on the TV, but to actually [perform] in front of their faces, to show them how it’s done—that helps them out a lot.”

Balancing life as a performer and a teacher isn’t easy for Ellis. She tries to keep a majority of her performances in the summer and on weekends, but occasionally she plays on weeknights. At first, Ellis’ principal didn’t react well to the lifestyle, which sometimes results in her being late to school.

“[The principal] said, ‘Ms. Ellis, you’re going to have to stop playing those nighttime gigs,’ and I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ That’s just like telling an artist to stop painting and just teach. How could you take that away? That’s my passion.”

At this point in her career, Ellis sees music paying off in new ways—in addition to the OPPY award, she also won the Chicago Music Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award in early 2014.

“I’m just proud that these things have happened to me,” she says. “I’ve always been a hyper kid. You want to know how I get all this stuff done, well, my work is never done, really. I’m always doing something.”

After nearly twenty-five years of teaching, she has seen some of her students grow into professional musicians themselves. One student from her first year of teaching is now a producer in California; another, Marquis Hill, just won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition.

“When I look back on all these students that are really growing and getting out there, I say I’m building my legacy,” Ellis says. “I’ve already kind of established myself, and I’m satisfied with the things I’ve done—plus, I can still do more.”

But she speaks with equal enthusiasm for her current students—her top jazz band, her “Tiny Tots Jazz Ensemble” of first to fifth graders. She can rattle off a list of names of students whom she knows will go far.

“The children that I see every day, I call them my musical sons and my musical daughters,” she says. “When you’re in a band, you become like a family.”

Correction January 20, 2015: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article was misattributed to Michelle Gan.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Not as many black women arrive to this status in Chicago. I salute Diane and cherish the moment I met her. She has encouraged me on my musical journey.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *