Ellen Powell, noted musician, photographer, and environmental activist, died peacefully at the McClure Miller Respite House on November 12, 2019. She was 69 years old.
Born on February 15, 1950, Ellen had made Vermont her home since the 1960s after growing up outside of Boston. Ellen developed a life-long love of animals at an early age. She rode horses competitively and for fun as a young woman and always shared her home with four-legged companions, including beloved dogs Elsa, Muffin, and Jamie, and cat Pepper.
A Renaissance woman, Ellen was accomplished in many areas. As a jazz bassist, she was largely self-taught but had two influential teachers: Larry Woolridge, Baltimore icon jazz guitarist, and Cecil McBee, one of the greatest living jazz bassists today. As Ellen tells the story, she wanted to be a jazz guitarist and singer in the 1970s. She studied with Woolridge in Baltimore, where she lived at the time, who taught her the foundations of jazz guitar and, more importantly, how to listen. She discovered back in Vermont that she couldn’t get a gig, everyone was looking for bassists, which gave her the idea to learn jazz bass. She said “It’s just the four lowest strings on a guitar and you only play one note at a time, how hard can it be?!” She borrowed a bass and set about mastering it throughout the 1970s into the 1980s. She was a natural. In 1988 she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that made it possible for her to undertake formal study for a year with McBee in New York City, a life-changing experience. For the rest of her life, Ellen was a dedicated musician and teacher. She taught piano and bass at SUNY Plattsburgh and taught piano to many children in her home. She led the renowned Ellen Powell Trio and Ellen Powell Quartet and was featured in countless concerts, festivals, and radio and television programs. If it was Thursday night at Leunig’s in Burlington, you knew you’d be treated to Ellen playing in intimate combos with fellow musicians.
As a photographer, Ellen allowed us to see the natural world as she saw it—as a treasure of awe-inspiring beauty. She’d always wanted to be a photographer and starting in 2006 she undertook to master the art. Her work has been published in Vermont Life magazine and placed both first and second in the photography category of the Northern Vermont Artists Association’s June Juried Show in 2012 and 2014. She has shown her work at the Gallery at Main Street Landing and Grand Isle Art Works.
As an environmental activist, Ellen was an outspoken critic of the Champlain Water District’s use of chloramine to disinfect drinking water. Along with fellow activists, Ellen started People Concerned About Chloramine (PCAC) to organize anti-chloramine information and activities in Vermont. She appeared on the television program, “Holistically Speaking,” in 2013 to help get information out to consumers about the health risks of chloramine and what people can do about it. Her advocacy and activism helped raise the visibility of the dangers of chloramine and other carcinogens in our nation's water supply.
Ellen is survived by her sister, Nanine Rhinelander and her partner Carlton R. Taft of Frederick MD, her brother Neil H. Powell, Jr. and his wife Joanna of Purchase NY, and many loving nieces, nephews, and their children. Ellen is preceded in death by her parents, Neil H. Powell, Sr. and Nancy (Crocker) Powell.
Friends and family are invited to a gathering on Saturday, November 16, 2019, at LaVigne Funeral Home, 132 Main Street, Winooski VT, starting at 10:00 AM. A celebration of Ellen’s life in music and art will be held in Burlington in the spring of 2020. For more information, please email BigPartyForEllen@gmail.com and we’ll share details as they become available.