Miss Ellen – music was who she was

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Ellen Welters Sanchez    “…. music was who she was”

Photo courtesy of Monroe County Library

“Miss Ellen”, as many of her piano students called her, was born on Smith Lane (now Appelrouth Lane) in 1902. She was so tiny and frail her mothered feared for her survival. Her father, Frank Welters, was the band leader of the Welters Coronet Band, a large and impressive group that toured the state’s major events, parades, concerts, and played as a funeral marching band for prominent people in Key West. The Welters Coronet Band varied in size from 15-25 members always dressed in sharp crisp uniforms. Welters played and taught every instrument in the band. Ellen would watch and learn from her father.

They finally got a piano in their house, and Ellen and her sister, Romelda, learned piano. Welters also had a smaller jazz orchestra, The Imperial Orchestra. He played the flute and his daughters would play piano. The Welters Sisters would play duets all over town.

Music has been a constant theme of her long career. After learning piano at the St. Francis Xavier Catholic Convent (on Virginia between Simonton and Duval), graduating as Saluditorian. Ellen said “My Daddy gave me the elements and Sister Mary Elizabeth at the Convent gave me my manipulation.” After graduating from high school Miss Ellen and her sister began teaching piano in 1919 for 75 cents a lesson. Her music teaching career would span well over 70 years.

Miss Ellen organized and led The Island City Choral Society. She taught music at the Douglas School when it was run by the WPA during the Depression, and she often perform with multiple church choirs on Sundays.

Many of her piano students became successful. Bill Austin entertained in California and co-wrote the jazz standard, “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby”. Fats Navarro studied piano with Miss Ellen for two years and went on to be the best BeBop Jazz Trumpeter until his early death in 1950. Her favorite piano student was Lofton Ambrose Butler (aka Coffee Butler) who wanted to be the next major league’s Jackie Robinson in 1949.  Miss Ellen never gave up on him and, after a brief baseball career, encouraged Coffee to entertain in local venues and he became known as the Key West Louis Armstrong. The new Key West amphitheater bears his name.

Miss Ellen taught kindergarten from 1949 until her retirement in 1969. Then taught a free kindergarten class out of her home on Chapman Lane in Bahama Village, where she lived for over 50 years. She taught music to a small group of children until her vision failed in 1997. Music was not what she did, music was who she was.

Along the way, Sanchez wrote and composed music, including her original song, “The Beautiful Ilse of Key West”, which was written for President Harry Truman. She asked her godson, Coffee Butler, to perform for President Truman at the 1948 dedication of Truman Avenue (formerly Division Street). In the 70s, This beautiful waltz sings the many praises of Key West with very creative lyrics. Bill Huckel of Solaris Hill recorded a 45 rpm vinyl record of this and another song by Ellen Sanchez “I’m Truly Yours.” Both performed by Coffee Butler, recorded by Dan Simpson. Coffee would go on to perform her song to the new arriving cruise ships in the late 70s and thousands of tourists. He would also try to work it into his regular Key West gigs. Coffee loved Miss Ellen.

In 1999, Robin Kaplan created the Bahama Village Music Program (BVMP) to provide free music lessons to children (BVMP motto – To Give the Gift of Music). She started the program to honor Miss Ellen,whose retirement had left a music void in the Bahama Village community.  Originally, located in a small room off the stage at the Frederick Douglass gym, BVMP moved to the rejuvenated Fredrick Douglas Band Room in 2002.

Bahama Village Music Program Founder Robin Kaplan, left, unveils a bust of lifelong piano teacher, Miss Ellen Sanchez, center, as piano man, Coffee Butler, right, leads the students in a round of applause after everyone sang Sanchez’ original tune, ‘The Beautiful Isle of Key West.’

On February 19, 2002, the BVMP band room was officially dedicated as the Ellen Welters Sanchez Band Room, in her honor. At the dedication, there was an unveiling of a statue of Miss Ellen (commissioned by Ms. Joan Leggett, leader of the Blessed Community Choir). The dedication began at the VFW Hall, on Emma Street, where Coffee and many of her former students, performed. In attendance were the students’ parents, supporters, and a host of talented musicians. At 100 years old and wheelchair bound, Miss Ellen listened intently and smiled when Coffee sang her favorite song, “The Beautiful Ilse of Key West”.

After bringing music to countless children in the Bahama Village neighborhood, Mrs. Ellen Welters Sanchez passed away on June 15, 2007, a day before her 105th birthday. She had a very busy life of music.



One Comment

  • Jolee Vasquez says:

    When I first started delivering mail in Key West, I was a “floater” who filled in on 5 different routes on the regular’s day off. Ms. Ellen gave me one of those 45’s for Christmas in the early ‘80’s. Very sweet lady.

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