Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 23 June 1923, Cincinatti OH; d 27 July 2009) Composer. He played drums in the Boy Scouts, and won a scholarship to Wilburforce University High School, following Fletcher Henderson, Benny Carter and Ben Webster in playing in the Wilburforce Collegians; Ernie Wilkins was a classmate, and Frank Foster followed. Russell joined Carter's band on drums, not surprised to be replaced by Max Roach; he turned to composing/arranging and sold his first big band arrangement 'New World' to both Carter and Dizzy Gillespie in 1945. He wrote for shows in Chicago and for Earl Hines; went to NYC inspired by Monk's 'Round Midnight'; he was asked by Charlie Parker to play drums in his quintet but fell ill, spending his time in hospital formulating tonal principles at a time when jazz was undergoing profound changes, inspired by Miles Davis, who'd remarked that he wanted to be able 'to play all the changes'.

He wrote 'Cubana-Be-Cubana-Bop' for Dizzy Gillespie, based on a theme provided by Diz and premièred in Carnegie Hall '47 by the big band with Chano Pozo, who shared composer credit with Diz and Russell. 'A Bird In Igor's Yard' '49 was recorded by Buddy DeFranco's big band but not released for many years; he wrote for Charlie Ventura, Artie Shaw, Claude Thornhill; small group pieces 'Odjenar' and 'Ezz-thetic' for Lee Konitz (on Prestige). He published The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization In Improvisation '53 (revised '64). Commissioned by Brandeis U. '57, Russell wrote 'All About Rosie' (see Gunther Schuller's entry). He taught at the School of Jazz in Lenox MA '59-60; formed and led a sextet '60-65; played at Washington DC Jazz Festival '62, a landmark event in the short Presidency of John Kennedy.

Russell's sextet briefly included Eric Dolphy, also his students such as Don Ellis, Steve Swallow, and Dave Baker (b 21 December 1931, Indianapolis IN), an outstanding trombonist, also played other instruments, became a Distinguished Professor at Indiana University; his books include A History Of Jazz and Contemporary Black Music. Another member was the excellent tenor saxophonist Paul Plummer, who later lived for many years in Thailand; a close friend of Baker's, Plummer passed away in early 2012 at age 73, leaving $1.9m to the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music Jazz Studies Department. Russell's sextet played structured compositions with a 'freely swinging modality' and a 'hymnic tone' that was also being developed by Davis, reaching a 'larger audience only years later through John Coltrane's A Love Supreme' (J. Berendt).

From '64 Russell spent much time in Europe, especially Scandinavia; Sabú Martinez played with the Radio Jazz Group of Stockholm, and later re-created Chano Pozo's Cuban drumming on a new recording of 'Cubana-Be-Cubana-Bop'. Russell returned to the USA and the New England Conservatory of Music '69, taught at other schools in the USA and Europe and did many festivals and broadcasts, especially in Europe. Jazz musicians had been improvising on the chord structures of songs for decades, whereas the emphasis in modal composition is more linear (like a melody) rather than vertical (chordal); Russell's theory unites the Lydian (one of several ancient modes, which is 'the scale of unity for the tonic major chord') with a modern use of chromaticism, so that instead of a key signature limiting the musician's choice of notes, the tonal centre of a piece of music is its centre of gravity: the harmonic chordal richness is still available, but the choice of notes becomes wider. Jazz had always intimated that it had a theory of its own; the greatest jazz musicians were never afraid to break the formal rules: Russell's work is described by John Lewis, Art Farmer, Ornette Coleman and many others as the single most important advance in jazz theory. Russell describes it as 'a way to think about music which ... lends a disciplined freedom to the composer and/or improviser ... The final component -- involvement of the human being on an emotional level -- can make it complete.' Russell's humanism is evident in the wit, accessibility and emotional power of his music.

His own albums began with sextet sets: The RCA Victor Jazz Workshop: George Russell And His Smalltet '56 had Farmer, Bill Evans, Hal McKusick, Milt Hinton or Teddy Kotick on bass, Barry Galbraith on guitar (b 18 December 1919, Pittsburgh; d 13 January 1983, Bennington VT: concentrated on studio work and music education), Osie Johnson, Joe Harris (d 28 January 2016 aged 89; had earlier played in Dizzy Gillespie's big band) or Paul Motian on drums (CD reissue '87). On Decca (MCA): New York, New York '59 with Hinton, Farmer, Roach, Coltrane, lyricist/vocalist Jon Hendricks; Jazz In The Space Age '60, a 14-piece band; also The George Russell Sextet At The Five Spot and In Kansas City (both studio sets). On Riverside: Stratosphunk, Ezz-thetics (including superb Dolphy on a legendary version of 'Round Midnight'), The Outer View, The Stratus Seekers '60-2: there were two pieces by Carla Bley (then Russell's composition student), and on Stratosphunk the sentimental country song 'You Are My Sunshine' becomes scathing yet sympathetic jazz with a famous vocal by Russell discovery Sheila Jordan, for whom Bley later wrote Escalator Over The Hill. (Outer Thoughts on Milestone was a good two-LP compilation; all four Riversides have been reissued on OJC CDs.) At Beethoven Hall c.1965 on MPS was made live in Europe with Don Cherry; except for Living Time '72 on Columbia with Bill Evans, all Russell's later records, many recorded in Sweden, were on Soul Note: two-disc The Essence Of George Russell '66-7 included the first (big band) version of Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature, a concerto for unaccompanied guitar, and others; Othello Ballet Suite/Electronic Organ Sonata No. 1 '67-8 (the latter a solo by Russell turned into musique concrète on tape); a smaller-group version of Electronic Sonata '68 included a European cast with Jan Garbarek and others who later joined the roster of the ECM label. Trip To Prillarguri '73 on Soul Note was a sextet with Russell on piano plus trumpeter Stanton Davis, Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Arild Anderson and Jon Christensen; it was made live in Stockholm, as was Listen To The Silence (A Mass For Our Time) '74; New York Big Band At The Village Vanguard '78 was followed by Vertical Forms VI '79, a second small-group recording of Electronic Sonata '80 made in Milan with Keith Copeland on drums; then back to the Village Vanguard for Live In An American Time Spiral '82. The African Game '83 made in Boston was one of the first records to be issued on the resuscitated Blue Note label '85, with Copeland, Bill Urmson (b 12 June 1961, Hartford CN) on electric bass; it is about the African origin of the human race, and is another example of 'vertical form', organizing polyrhythmic complexity as heard in African drum choirs.

Russell made his first UK tour '86 to a congenial welcome from fans and critics alike: the touring band included Copeland, Urmson, Brad Hatfield (keyboards, b 15 May 1956, Columbus OH), Courtney Pine, Kenny Wheeler, Palle Mikkelborg, two members of Loose Tubes, six other Brits; Russell returned for the Bracknell Festival the following year. George Russell and the Living Time Orchestra released The London Concert on Label Bleu '93; on a UK visit '95 they played the '72 Living Time, the folksong-based An American Trilogy and a new commission from the UK Arts Council and Stockholm's Svenska Rikskonserter, It's About Time, the latter on a Label Bleu CD '97.