Ellis Kell - Inspired and Inspirational

I set out this morning to write an article about fundraising efforts for my friend Ellis. I wanted to promote the GoFundMe fundraiser and the Jam for Ellis. Not five minutes after I sat down, I noticed a single post on my social media that gave me a chill. Thirty minutes later, my worst fears were confirmed by an update from the family. Today we lost Ellis Kell.

On October 18th, Ellis was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. In true Ellis fashion, he decided to not make the diagnosis public, especially with the upcoming Moondance fundraiser. Kristi told me of the diagnosis at the fundraiser but explained he didn’t want the night to become about him. He played briefly with the house band, and I captured a few photos. I visited with him when he came off the stage, and helped him find a seat. I didn’t know at that moment how sick he was, and I certainly had no idea that would be the last photograph I took of him, let alone the last time we would speak.

Ellis, with the help of an equally committed group of people, built the River Music Experience into what it is today. He had a vision of hope for local musicians and especially for children. Over the years he has inspired so many musicians, and has exposed thousands of children to music. Aside from his vast musical knowledge, there was this love of music and love of community that emanated from him, and guided his every step.

Ellis would send me the occasional email, or stop me at a performance and ask if I could stop by for a non-performance event and take some photos. He wanted to document the great things that were happening at the River Music Experience beyond the performances. He tirelessly taught group after group of children who came to the RME to learn about the history of the blues. I watched as he and Bret Dale would take song lyrics the children wrote in their classes and put them to music. The kids loved hearing their own words made into real blues songs. Then he would bust out the kazoos and the whole room would play a blues song together, call-and-response style.

Another time he had me stop by for the drum circle. On this occasion (it was anniversary week), the circle had been moved outside, and Terry Hanson along with other members of the RME taught kids about drumming in the courtyard. I remember there were folks there from Living Lands and Waters, and some of the “drums” were river rescued trash.

Last year I was able to experience Winter Blues from the inside, thanks to Ellis. Normally, I would just attend the final concert. This time, I wandered the halls of the RME – there were blues bands in every nook and cranny of the building. Ellis worked with a group in the space by his office, while other local musicians worked with groups in the basement and the performance hall. There was even a group of kids practicing in Deb Powers’ office! At the end of the week during the final concert, he beamed with pride and joy at every one of the groups of children who took the stage.

In all of this, Ellis Kell’s love and devotion to music shined through. His commitment to our music scene was unwavering, and his vision of keeping it alive through the youth of our community was powerful and infectious. He inspired so many musicians and lovers of music. I (and so many like me) owe him a debt of gratitude. Without him and his vision, our music scene would not be where it is today. Yet in his humble way, he thanked me on so many occasions for my small contribution, reminding me often that we were all in this together – keeping the music alive.

This Tuesday, December 20, musicians and music lovers from all over will converge on Cabanas in Rock Island to hold a jam session in his memory. This was the fundraiser I originally started to write about. I spoke to the organizers, and the event will still take place. Money raised will be given to the family, as there is still an immediate need. Please consider stopping by, if even for a moment, and drop a bill or two in the hat.

Moondance 2015 - winner of the John O'Meara bass
Playing with the Whoozdads summer 2015