Obituary: Bill Russell
Tuesday 11 August 1992
ONE OF the most shameful and yet most productive periods in the history of jazz was at the time of the internecine wars between the followers of New Orleans jazz and those of the then new be-bop music. It has never been clear why the former, characterised by sandals and scraggy beards, were known as Mouldy Fygges. The boppers affected berets and goatees and, to a bopper, the holding of a banjo, symbol of traditional jazz, had roughly the same effect as holding up a crucifix to a vampire.
Bill Russell, a gentle and well- liked man, was yet at the crucible of Mouldy Fyggism. But the poet Jonathan Williams has noted that in earlier years Russell was composing percussion music before Edgard Varese arrived on the scene, and had already set an example to homegrown composers such as John Cage, Lou Harrison and Harry Partch.
Russell abandoned all that to devote himself to traditional New Orleans jazz. He was a prime mover in the rediscovery of the trumpeter Bunk Johnson, an ancient from the early days of the Crescent City. This apparently minor event triggered the very important New Orleans revival of the Forties. Russell played a significant role in the first contacts with Johnson in 1939. Johnson's subsequent, moving letters to the record-collectors in the north from the rural New Iberia in Louisiana where he worked as a farm- hand have become legendary jazz documents. 'My teeth went bad in 1934, so that was my finish playing music. I know I can really stomp music yet. Now, here is what it takes to stomp trumpet, that is a real good set of teeth. And that is what I am in deep need for. Teeth and a good trumpet and old Bunk can really go.'
Indeed he really went, for he blued on booze the money which the jazz enthusiasts up north sent down south to buy teeth with. But true believers do not give up easily. Eventually Johnson was brought to New York, his mouth bulging with new teeth, to play faltering trumpet which none the less shook the world. He expired, having done his best to live for ever, after a surfeit of hot music, young women and booze in 1949.
Bunk Johnson was one of Russell's triumphs and he made seminal recordings of the trumpeter for his American Music record label. He continued to preserve the music on records by the clarinettist George Lewis, the drummer Baby Dodds and many of the New Orleans giants whose work would not otherwise have been properly documented.
Russell was an accomplished violinist and composer as well as being one of the first jazz-record collectors to achieve eminence. As early as 1935 he ran the Hot Record Exchange and contributed to the few jazz magazines of the early years. He continued to record musicians in Los Angeles, New York and New Orleans until 1958, when he became curator of the jazz archive at Tulane University in New Orleans.
In 1967 Russell joined the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, with which he recorded prolifically. He toured Europe with the band in 1975 and 1987. His books cover many aspects of New Orleans jazz and he was generally regarded as the leading expert in that field. His writings include a biography, only completed a few weeks ago, of the Creole jazz pianist and composer Jelly Roll Morton.
For some years Russell lived in Preservation Hall, the great centre of revivalism in New Orleans, which he had helped to found with Alan Jaffe. Here he shared his life with his greatest love, a parakeet called Pretty Boy. Since the bird would sleep nowhere but on the end of Russell's finger, Russell trained himself to sleep with his hand sticking out of the bed so that the bird could perch. Such devotion was ill rewarded when the bird inadvertently infected the finger with psoriasis.
A collection of Russell's writings, published and unpublished, is held in the archive at Tulane University.
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