Cellist co-founded Santa Fe Community Orchestra

Jody Ellis, (foreground) who co-founded the Santa Fe Community Orchestra, died of natural causes Wednesday at the age of 92. She often played the cello in concerts for the group. Courtesy InSight Foto

Jody Ellis wanted to open a candy store in Santa Fe. So she did.

On a more ambitious scale, she wanted a place where Santa Fe musicians could come together and perform in public, so she co-founded the Santa Fe Community Orchestra.

And her love of books — particularly those having to do with New Mexico — inspired her to co-found Sunstone Press in Santa Fe.

Ellis — described by many who knew her as a kind woman who sprinkled sweetness, candy and music wherever she went — died of natural causes Wednesday at her home in Santa Fe. She was 92.

“I will always think of her as a stout, humorous and sprite person,” said Anne-Lise Cohen, who co-founded the community orchestra with Ellis in 1982. “She was such a mover — she got things done.

“She was the soul of the orchestra.”

Ellis’ varied background also included a stint as a nurse in the United States Air Force and work as a music educator, composer and cellist.

Ellis and her partner and spouse, the late artist Marcia Muth, were honored for their contribution to Santa Fe’s culture by being named Santa Fe Living Treasures in 2006. The two artists, who co-founded Sunstone Press in 1971, met in Santa Fe. Muth died in 2014.

“Jody was the most delightful person I had ever known,” said Marilyn Fisher, a longtime friend. “She was totally upbeat, totally kind, totally loving and very smart in a right-brain way. Marsha was the left brain, Jody was the right brain.”

Ellis was born in September 1925 in Sterling, Colo. While she attended college — apparently to study nursing, friends say, though they are not sure — her parents came to Los Alamos to help construct buildings for the Manhattan Project. By her own account, Ellis first visited Santa Fe in 1946, saying of the experience that she “knew from the first time I stepped foot in the city that this is where I wanted to live forever.”

She served as a nurse in the Air Force and was stationed in Germany during the early days of the Korean War. She moved to Santa Fe in the early 1950s and opened La Placita Bon Bon Shop in Sena Plaza — a favorite neighborhood stop for children who would later grow up to play as adults in the community orchestra with Ellis.

Her love of candy never dimmed. Decades later, while working with the community orchestra, Ellis would give the players Hershey’s Kisses to either energize or reward them, said Paul Pease, past president of the orchestra.

An accomplished painter, Ellis gave up pursuing visual arts in favor of learning how to play the cello in the late 1970s, when she was over 50 years old. A few years later, she and Cohen started the Santa Fe Chamber Music Orchestra with the goal of providing a venue for amateurs, professionals and those who fell somewhere in between to perform together. The group performed its first concert in the courtyard at the Palace of the Governors in July 1982.

“It was a broad spectrum of abilities, and that’s what made it so important to her. It wasn’t just one class of musicians,” said Pease. “Because of her, the orchestra was a very happy place to be. She made it that way.”

Before many of the concerts, Ellis would take to the stage to introduce the music, often finding a simple way to connect with the younger people in the audience by spelling out such words as “adagio” and tying the meaning to the music the group was about to play. She invariably finished her spiel by pointing to her feet and saying it was going to be a good concert because she was wearing her lucky socks on that particular day.

In truth, the type of socks didn’t really matter, said Oliver Prezant, music director for the orchestra.

“Jody was a folksy person,” he said. “She was just plain folks. The whole thing about lucky socks was just one of her trademark lines by which she connected with an audience.”

He said it is rare for someone like Ellis to take up music so late in life and then, “found an orchestra, become a music teacher and a composer. She kind of did it all in music, and in her own way and on her own terms.”

The community orchestra performed Ellis’ last composition, “Espíritu de la Caldera,” which she worked on with composer and musician Jeremy Bleich, during a concert last autumn. In the program notes for that concert, Ellis said a visit to the Valles Caldera inspired the piece.

“My next piece is going to be called ‘Santa Fe Blue,’ about our incredible Santa Fe blue sky,” she said at that time. “I can’t believe that I’ve had the chance to do all of this in Santa Fe, which I so dearly love.”

Muth and Ellis shared a love of animals and absurd humor. As a couple, they ghost-wrote articles for The National Enquirer in the 1970s on such topics as “What kind of person are you if you have a certain type of dog?” and “What watching television does to your mind,” according to a 2010 article in The New Mexican.

Friends say Ellis did not have children or living siblings. They plan a memorial event for her at one of her favorite eateries, Joe’s Diner, sometime in March. Prezant said the orchestra will honor Ellis at its April 8 concert.

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com