By Ellen Pfeifer
George Russell, author of the “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization” that undergirded the pioneering modal experiments of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, died on July 27 in Boston at age 86. He had been affiliated with New England Conservatory from 1969 when then-President Gunther Schuller invited him to return from Europe to teach. At the time of his death, he was Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Emeritus and had been awarded an honorary Doctor of Music in 2005.
“George Russell was a cornerstone of NEC’s Jazz Department for 35 years, continuing to teach through 2004,” said Jazz Studies Chair Ken Schaphorst. “George inspired generations of NEC students with his unique blend of soul and intellect. Compositions such as ‘Cubano Be, Cubano Bop,’ ‘Ezz-thetic’ and ‘All About Rosie’ were revolutionary developments in the art of jazz composition, challenging improvisers and listeners to expand their notion of how rhythm, melody, harmony and form may be organized in jazz.”
Composer, conductor, teacher and theorist, Russell was the recipient of nearly every award and honor given to jazz musicians. He 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.
At NEC, Russell taught a virtual who’s who of young jazz musicians including Jason Palmer, Anton Fig, Don Byron, Marty Ehrlich, Satoko Fujii and Ricky Ford. He also coached small ensembles and regularly conducted NEC jazz orchestras and big bands.
The Conservatory often turned to Russell for special celebrations or festivals. During the centennial celebrations for NEC’s Jordan Hall in 2003, Russell was a featured performer, conducting the NEC Jazz Orchestra in “The Best of Jazz” concert. In 1992, he was commissioned to write an evening-long work, “Time Line,” for the Conservatory’s 125th anniversary. Of that “massive collage piece,” Hankus Netsky, chair of NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation department said, “I think a lot of people were surprised at how diverse his taste in and knowledge of music was. ‘Time Line’ ranged from Dvorak to klezmer to Ornette Coleman to Glen Miller to Marvin Gaye to Steely Dan.”
A lifelong seeker, Russell was still exploring the depths of musical structure in his 80s. In a 2006 All About Jazz interview by Ed Hazell, he commented, “My aim at this point is to understand the language of music in its deepest sense and contribute to it, enrich it. … Music is a living thing, a component of the emotional center of all living things. It speaks not only to the emotional center, but also to the intellectual and physical centers. What it has to say must be understood. I want to see into the meanings of music more deeply. I want to know the inner of everything. My music is trying to tell me that so I can tell the world.”
“The thing George cared about the most in music was ‘essence,’” said Netsky. “He didn’t care how complicated your music was or if you sounded hip or square or anywhere in-between. He just wanted to feel like the music he was hearing was your real voice. If he didn’t feel that he wasn’t interested.
“In George’s mind,” Netsky continued, “the Lydian chromatic concept was not so much a theoretical system as it was an approach to life. ‘It comes from Pythagoras,’ he liked to say. ‘It’s a reflection of nature.’ It wasn’t in any way a ‘jazz’ thing, but a way to appreciate the laws of tension and release, a way of understanding Bach, Ravel and Stravinsky – and seeing Coltrane, Monk and Miles Davis as musicians who were part of the same continuum.”
A hugely influential, innovative figure in the evolution of modern jazz, the music’s only major theorist, and one of its most profound composers, Russell was, according to his official biography, “born in Cincinnati in 1923, the adopted son of a registered nurse and a chef on the B&O Railroad.” He 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 Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, Ernie Wilkins and Frank Foster. 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 hearing Roach, Russell 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 the seminal “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop.” The first fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz, “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop,” featuring percussionist Chano Pozo, premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1947. Two years later, Buddy DeFranco recorded Russell’s “A Bird in Igor’s Yard,” a piece notable for its fusion of elements from Charlie Parker and Stravinsky – an early example of a Third Stream composition.
It was a Miles Davis remark that set Russell on his life’s course. Asked about his musical aim, Miles said he “wanted to learn all the changes,” Russell recounted in numerous interviews. Since Miles obviously knew all the changes, Russell surmised that he wanted to learn a new way to relate to chords. This began a quest for Russell, and -once again hospitalized, this time for 16 months – he began to develop his “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.” First published in 1953 and updated several times, the Lydian Concept is credited with opening the way into modal music, as demonstrated by Miles on his groundbreaking Kind of Blue recording.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Russell worked as a bandleader while he continued to develop the Concept. In the mid-’50s, a superb sextet that included Bill Evans and Art Farmer recorded under his direction, producing The Jazz Workshop, an album of astonishing originality; the often dense textures and rhythms anticipated the jazz-rock movement of the 1970s. During this time, Russell also worked as a counterman in a lunch spot and sold toys at Macy’s during the Christmas season. The release of The Jazz Workshop finally put an end to Russell’s jobs outside of music.
In 1957, the composer was one of a group to be commissioned to write for the first annual Brandeis Jazz Festival, which resulted in his signature piece “All About Rosie,” based on a children’s song. The 1958 album New York, New York was striking in its evocation of late 1950′s New York City. It featured poetry by Jon Hendricks and performances by Bill Evans, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Milt Hinton, Bob Brookmeyer, Art Farmer and a who’s who of additional musicians from the Big Apple jazz scene.
From 1960, Russell began leading his own sextets around the New York area and at festivals; he also toured throughout the Midwest and Europe. One of the important albums of this time was Ezz-Thetic, which featured Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis and Steve Swallow.
Disillusioned by his lack of recognition and the meager work opportunities in America, Russell sought refuge in Europe in 1964. In Sweden and Norway he found support for both himself and his music. All his works were recorded by radio and TV, and he was championed by Bosse Broberg, the adventurous director of Swedish Radio, an organization with which Russell maintained a close association.
In 1969, he returned to the States at the request of his old friend Gunther Schuller to teach at the newly created Jazz Department at New England Conservatory, where Schuller was president. He continued to develop the Lydian Concept and toured with his own groups. He played Carnegie Hall, the Village Vanguard, the Bottom Line, Newport, Wolf Trap, the Smithsonian and elsewhere in the United States and Europe with his 14-member orchestra. He continued to compose extended works which defined jazz composition. His 1985 recording, The African Game, one of the first on the revived Blue Note label, received two Grammy nominations. Russell also taught throughout the world. -Ellen Pfeifer
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, a group with which he worked for the rest of his life. The orchestra performed in London, Paris, Tokyo and elsewhere. In 2005, the orchestra released The 80th Birthday Concert, a much-praised double-CD set culled from two 2003 performances in London and Dusseldorf that featured the composer’s most ambitious music.
This article appears courtesy of the New England Conservatory.