Bill Russo

Composer with a liberal view of music
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The Independent Online
William Russo, trombonist, composer, teacher, orchestrator and bandleader: born Chicago 25 June 1928; married (one son, three daughters); died Chicago 11 January 2003.

Although his four years as musical director of the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the Fifties were what generated his world fame, Bill Russo matured later into a major figure in "serious" music.

He switched easily between jazz and the symphony, often changing "Bill" for "William" when he did so. Certainly he had a large responsibility for the most successful band that Kenton ever led and in his final decades led his own 20-piece orchestra, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, at the city's Columbia College.

The freezing gales of the Windy City had swept around Eddie Condon, Bud Freeman and the other giants of Chicago style during the Capone era. There was less boozing and a lot more intellect when the heart of the city's music became identified in the Fifties with Russo, the alto saxophonist Lee Konitz and the blind pianist Lennie Tristano. Konitz and Russo were at school together and both studied with Tristano, a cult figure and one of the most powerful and controversial teachers in jazz.

Russo's family was full of musicians and his father played the clarinet in an orchestra led by his uncle. Born in 1928, Russo was seven when he took up the trombone and, although his eminence was to come as a composer and orchestrator, he remained an exciting and skilful jazz soloist.

Whilst studying for a career in law, he played with local groups in the evening and wrote scores for them. In 1943 he worked for the band led by the ex-Woody Herman girl trumpeter Billie Rogers and in subsequent years for the "corny" dance bands of Orrin Tucker and Clyde McCoy. He wrote his first arrangement for a name band, that of Lionel Hampton, when he was 17.

Whilst at the University of Illinois he formed his first big band, the Experiments in Jazz Orchestra, which played a series of public concerts. The band made four recordings for Universal, the city's biggest recording studio, and these were heard by Pete Rugolo, then musical director of Stan Kenton's band. When, in 1948, the Kenton band played in Chicago, Rugolo sent tickets to the 20-year-old Russo:

Kenton was the biggest jazz name in the country, and I'm sure I was quite overcome by hero worship that night. I had no idea that a couple of years later he would be calling on me to join him as trombonist and arranger for the band.

All thoughts of a future career in law were dropped when Russo responded to Kenton's invitation in early 1950. There was never anyone better than Kenton for giving free rein to the talents of his young musicians and, in Russo's hands, the Kenton band began to swing for the first time ever. "Solitaire", "My Lady" (for Lee Konitz, who had joined the band), "Zoot" (to feature Zoot Sims), "Frank Speaking" (with the trombonist Frank Rosolino), "Portrait of a Count" (for the trumpeter Conte Candoli) and "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West" (for Konitz and Rosolino) were just a few from the dazzling library that he wrote for the band. Russo's writing gave Kenton a new lease of life and he even wrote a commercial hit, "And the Bull Walked Around, Olay!", for Kenton's fine singer Chris Connor. A lot of Russo's music is collected in Kenton's 1952 album New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm, still a big seller to this day.

Leaving Kenton in 1954 Russo returned to Chicago, where he continued to study composition. He toured Europe with a quintet in 1955 and in 1956 wrote music for the Ted Heath band's first tour of the United States. In 1957 Russo moved to New York where in 1958 he was given a grant to found the Russo Orchestra, a big band with added cellos. He taught first at the Lenox School of Jazz (1957-60) and then at the Manhattan School of Music (1959-61).

Russo moved to London in 1961 and led the London Jazz Orchestra (with whom he recorded several albums) and worked for the BBC from 1962-65. He had a powerful impact on the London jazz scene, continued his writing and published a lucid and groundbreaking textbook, Composing for a Jazz Orchestra (1961).

He returned to Columbia College in Chicago in 1965 and formed the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, an orchestra of his students that he led until his death. During the Seventies Russo concentrated on symphonic composition and worked also in a reciprocal musical relationship with Duke Ellington. He wrote a concerto for the Ellington orchestra that would have been performed had not Ellington's death in 1974 intervened.

Russo often used rock elements in his work and had a very liberal view of music generally. He wrote "rock cantatas" including The Civil War, based on poems by Abraham Lincoln. He became a leading figure in Chicago's avant-garde theatre faction, wrote half a dozen film scores and composed for ballet and for several New York theatre productions. In 1989 he won a Grammy award for lifetime achievement.

In 1960 some of Russo's works were played at Carnegie Hall in a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The concert included Russo's "The Titans" and he had to enlist the jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson for the performance since none of the New York Philharmonic's trumpet players could play the first trumpet part. "I don't worry about mixing jazz interpretations and classical music," he told me when we worked together two years ago. "I like to try everything, and, if it makes sense, that's fine. Music doesn't have to be classified."

In his later years Russo, ever a devotee of the classic Jelly Roll Morton, Count Basie, Jimmy Lunceford and Duke Ellington bands, returned more and more to Ellington and coached some fine young soloists from the Ensemble in the roles of the great Ellingtonians.

The Kenton music was also recreated, but the workaholic Russo continued to forge ahead through remarkable compositions like his 1997 English Concerto for violin and jazz orchestra, and a revival of his unique requiem suite In Memoriam, written for orchestra and chorus.

Steve Voce