Alumni Profile: Brad Ellis
Quite by accident, Brad Ellis ’80 found himself in a recurring role on the hit TV show Glee. Dressed all in black, shaggy-haired, and bespectacled, the Berklee alumnus plays “Brad,” the glee club’s pianist who doesn’t mask his disdain for the students. But nary a word had Ellis uttered, silently scowling as he accompanies everything from pop hits to show tunes. His silence did not go unnoticed. In fact, it created quite a buzz in social media-spheres, as his Twitter followers and Facebook fans (there are several pages dedicated to him) waited in vain for Ellis to speak.
Their wait is over. Two weeks ago, halfway into Glee’s fourth season, Ellis—who is a self-proclaimed “musician who pretends to be an actor”—broke his silence when he thanked cheerleading squad coach Sue Sylvester for stripping his loathed glee club of practice space.
Ellis, who said he was fine with being silent, said he doesn’t know whether speaking on the show will become a regular thing but he has nonetheless been floored by the response to his debut lines. “The feedback has been overwhelming! I now have 20,000 Twitter followers, many of whom blew their lids! And it’s been picked up by a lot of the press. It’s really kind of out of proportion, if you think about how many actors (were featured) last week and a few lines on television!”
Ellis commented on his speaking debut over email from L.A., a week after he gave a wide-ranging phone interview from his home, during which he talked about his time at Berklee, a gig playing with Dizzy Gillespie, being the subject of a prank by classmate Aimee Mann '80, and his dedication to organ donation.
Ellis was introduced to Berklee when his Lexington High School music teacher—“a god, a hip dude, and amazing musician”—took him and his classmates on a field trip to the college. He saved up enough money for a few semesters by way of a summer stint as a juggler and musician at a local amusement park.
At Berklee in the late 1970s through early 1980s, Ellis studied composition. Along with his scholarly pursuits—he counts Dean Earl, David Mash, and George Monseur among his influences—there was plenty of time for laughs. He recounted when Aimee Mann “semi-kidnapped” him and died patches of his hair fluorescent blue, green, and pink. “I had a gig that night (with an old school big band) and I managed not to be fired,” he recalled with a laugh.
Shortly after Berklee, Ellis landed a gig with Dizzy Gillespie thanks to his private instructor Dean Earl. Gillespie was in his prime then, well into his “puffy cheek phase,” said Ellis. “It wasn’t so much that he was looking for the very best players available as much as he was looking for someone who was available,” said Ellis modestly. “Dizzy was the show.” Still, Ellis learned a lot, including an important life lesson. One night after playing in a Maine college town, the club owner confessed he couldn’t meet the guarantee he’d promised due to lower than expected turnout. “‘Just so you know, you never arrive,’” Gillespie told Ellis. “I’ve never forgotten that.”
From there, Ellis went on to such gigs as musical director and pianist for Forbidden Broadway, composer for the Off-Broadway production of The Tin Pan Alley Rag, composer and pianist for TV shows and films, including Bunheads, Gilmore Girls, Close to Home, and De-Lovely. He’s also orchestrated for Billy Joel and Rod Stewart, and played for Broadway stars such as Angela Lansbury, Patty LuPone, and Kristin Chenoweth.
As for Glee, Ellis was brought on as musical director, and served as a vocal coach for the actors. His role was then augmented further when creator Ryan Murphy told him, “You can start wearing black.” Ellis showed up the next day in head-to-toe black and Murphy told him, “No, just wear black when you’re on the show.” That he was even being considered for an on-screen appearance was news to Ellis.
When he’s not on the Glee set, Ellis has plenty of other projects going, from working on the live stage show based on the songs of Bob Merrill, Love Makes the World Go ’Round, to serving as music director and piano player for Glee star Matthew Morrison’s solo stint.
Then there were his encounters with President Obama, whom he’s played for twice. Ellis jokingly credits himself with helping his reelection bid by giving him tips on how to take care of his voice. “He didn’t lose his voice all the way to the election,” Ellis quipped.
Ellis has also waged a very personal crusade to raise awareness for organ donation. Fourteen years ago, he received a heart transplant after going into congestive heart failure due to a childhood virus. He uses his Hollywood clout to get the message out.
Through all his endeavors—whether on set or off—Ellis keeps the lessons he learned at Berklee close: using the foundation of his chops to be able to compose on the fly, knowing how to give the musicians what they need, but mostly just being a consummate professional. “Professionalism is the biggest thing I learned from Berklee.”