George Russell (1923-2009)

name
George Russell
Photo courtesy New England Conservatory

Composer, arranger, pianist, and educator George Russell died in Boston at age 86 on July 27, 2009. Russell was also an extremely influential music theorist whose Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization led directly to the pioneering modal experiments of John Coltrane and Miles Davis. The recipient of nearly every award and honor given to jazz musicians, Russell was a MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient, NEA Jazz Master, Kennedy Center Jazz Living Legend, two-time Guggenheim awardee, multiple Grammy nominee, recipient of the American Music Award, the British Jazz Award, the Swedish Jazz Federation Lifetime Achievement Award, and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.

Russell, born June 23, 1923 in Cincinnati, OH, began playing drums with the Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps and eventually received a scholarship to Wilberforce University where he joined the Collegians, whose list of alumni include Benny Carter, Frank Foster, Fletcher Henderson, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, and Cootie Williams. But his most valuable musical education came in 1941, when, in attempting to enlist in the Marines, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While spending six months in the hospital, he was taught the fundamentals of harmony by a fellow patient. From the hospital he sold his first work, “New World,” to Benny Carter. He subsequently joined Carter’s band as a drummer, but was replaced by Max Roach; after Russell heard Roach, he decided to give up drumming and try composing. He moved to New York where he was part of a group of musicians who gathered in the basement apartment of Gil Evans. The circle included Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Johnny Carisi, and on occasion, Charlie Parker. He was commissioned to write a piece for Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra which resulted in “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop,” the first fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz, which was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1947.

Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, first published in 1953 and updated several times, introduced the idea of chord/scale unity. It was the first theory to explore the vertical relationship between chords and scales, and has been frequently cited as the only original theory to come from jazz. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Russell continued to work on developing the Concept and leading bands under his direction. On the first album issued under his name, The Jazz Workshop (1956), a sextet including pianist Bill Evans and trumpeter Art Farmer performed a set of twelve Russell compositions. By 1960, Russell began recording as a pianist and leading his own sextets around the New York area and at festivals; he also toured throughout the Midwest and Europe. Important Russell albums from this period are Ezz-Thetics, which featured Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis, and Steve Swallow, and The Outer View, which included the first commercial recording of vocalist Sheila Jordan; the latter album’s “You Are My Sunshine” remains a singular marvel of jazz singing and arranging. A subsequent five-year stay in Scandinavia yielded Russell’s seminal first recording of his album length composition Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved By Nature, featuring Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal.

In 1969, Russell returned to the United States where he began a lifelong affiliation with New England Conservatory at the invitation of then-President Gunther Schuller. At the time of his death, Russell was Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Emeritus and had been awarded an honorary Doctor of Music in 2005. He also coached small ensembles and regularly conducted NEC jazz orchestras and big bands. His students at NEC included Don Byron, Marty Ehrlich, Anton Fig, Satoko Fujii, Ricky Ford, and Jason Palmer. Russell continued to compose extended jazz compositions, among them The African Game, which was recorded in 1985, one of the first new albums issued by the revived Blue Note label, and subsequently received two Grammy nominations. In 1986, Russell was invited by the Contemporary Music Network of the British Council to tour with an orchestra of American and British musicians, which resulted in The International Living Time Orchestra, an orchestra with which he worked for the rest of his life. In 2005, the orchestra released The 80th Birthday Concert, a critically acclaimed double CD set culled from two 2003 performances in London and Dusseldorf that featured the composer’s most ambitious music.
(—Largely culled from a press release issued by the New England Conservatory)