Artist and stutterer JJJJJerome Ellis: ‘There is so much pain when you don’t feel fully human’ | experimental music

please don’t finish JYYYJerome Ellis’s sentences. The New York composer, producer, multi-instrumentalist and writer, who stutters – hence the repetition of J’s in his name – demands patience from whoever he is talking to. “Sometimes people just walk away,” he says. “Maybe because I didn’t stick to tt-the choreography tt-that we are often used to.” These kinds of experiences make him feel extremely vulnerable, he tells me candidly through a video call. “So much pain comes from not feeling fully human. Not feeling intelligent. People who think I might be dodging a question.” This reality is most apparent to Ellis when he is stopped by the police: “I don’t want my Blackness to come across as a threat and I don’t want my stuttering to look like evidence of lying.”

Ellis is interested in raising awareness of this intersection of stuttering (which he also calls dysfluency) and blackness. His latest project The Clearing is an in-depth and richly structured 12-track album with an accompanying book, which combines spoken word and storytelling with ambient jazz and experimental electronics to create a soundscape that is both meditative and theatrical.

It weaves together personal stories, such as the audio of a bookseller who hangs up the phone on him after he can’t speak, with historical accounts such as a story of enslaved Africans conquering their captors through music. It started as an essay in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Voice Studies and later turned into a musical journey. “I was interested in the role that clocks and watches played on plantations in the antebellum South. How slave masters deliberately didn’t let enslaved people own them [them], as a way of domination and control,” says Ellis, who wanted to find the connective tissue between this history and how it puts ability at a disadvantage for people with speech impediments because they don’t adhere to certain time streams. In Ellis’s poetic yet political artwork, disfluency instead becomes a means of existence beyond ordinary time, as defined by a white-dominated world.

When he finished the essay, he began to experiment musically. “I had some sounds that I made in Ableton with piano, saxophone, flutes and trap-influenced drums.” Ellis has a glottal block—his stuttering isn’t in stammered syllables, but rather in silences caught in the throat (trying to say “uh oh” but can’t get past the “uh”). The album captures these blocks in a way that turns them into their own instrument or artistic material; he is not ashamed of his disfluency and asked to acknowledge his stuttering in these interview quotes. “On the album, I feel safe stuttering because it’s just me. I have the ability to score my own stuttering. That felt very liberating.”

Ellis was born in Connecticut but grew up in Virginia Beach. His mother is Jamaican and his father is Grenadian. “I grew up in a very Christian family,” he says. His earliest memories are of playing music in church with his late grandfather. “He was a pastor and had a shop in front of a church in Brooklyn,” he says. “When he preached, it was so intensely musical. Sometimes he would sing explicitly, and the peaks and valleys of his speech were so dramatic. On the album, I wanted to embrace that kind of intertwining of speech and music.” His grandfather also introduced him to opera and classical music, while his father showed him “reggae, and calypso and soca”. At the age of 13, Ellis started playing the saxophone.

In 2011, he received a BA in music theory and ethnomusicology from Columbia University and in 2015 he received a Fulbright Fellowship for research on samba in Salvador, Brazil. He has presented work at Lincoln Center and was the subject of an episode of This American Life. “I only started teaching at Yale this fall. I love it,” says Ellis, who now works in the sound design program. “One of my goals as a teacher is to create a space where we feel as free as possible. We can experiment, be vulnerable, improvise together. Both musically, but also how we learn.”

The concept of “cleaning up” for Ellis is one way to encourage “experiments with freedom,” as written by Saidiya Hartman in her historical study of early 20th-century black women, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. “Her combination of scientific rigor and lyrical language” is something Ellis strives for. Other sources of inspiration are the composers Steve Reich, Bach and John Coltrane: “All three of them have such a vision and are not afraid of height.”

The album has been a source of healing for Ellis by depathologizing his disfluency, but it has also been a channel for him to connect with something much bigger than himself. There’s a line in the song called Stepney where the speaker Milta Vega-Cardona, discussing Ellis’ stuttering, says:

You create a non-linear time continuum,
and access to the ancestors,
Both for you and for the listener.
You are a channel

“I am so thankful to [Vega-Cardona] to offer that,” says Ellis. “It’s something I’ve felt for a long time, but never have the words for; that stuttering has an SS-spiritual dimension.”

Ellis was made to speak. Even during our brief encounter, his storytelling is very captivating; and as shown on the album, it opens portals to histories and sensibilities that are impossible to forget. “When I think about my grandfather. He would tell a story about Moses and it would take him 30 minutes to get through those five verses because he would wait and hang around and turn within the verses and say them over and over and sometimes say just one. [phrase] such as ‘he saw, he saw, he saw’. For me, in the congregation, it opened a window to something else.”

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