George Russell: Composer and theorist who provided inspiration for Miles Davis and broke new ground for jazz musicians

Thursday 06 August 2009 00:00

At the time he wrote the composition that fired off his career, George Russell didn't have a garret in which to starve. He was a creative composer whose urgent talents were known to the inner cognoscenti of jazz musicians, but his great works only seemed to stick up when the tide went out. Although of similar talent, he never achieved the momentum with the great jazz public that Gil Evans did. And heaven knows the GJP looked in the other direction while even Gil Evans enjoyed musical riches and endured physical poverty.

The composition that Russell wrote which has remained a small pillar of jazz history was "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop", recorded by Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1947. Its revolutionary modal introduction alerted Russell's young friend Miles Davis, and Russell's work led Davis directly to the explorations, which resulted in his 1959 Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all time. "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop" was an immensely enjoyable and exciting performance, and it also heralded Russell's great innovation, The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organisation.

Don't ask.

You need to be a practising musician or indeed a composer to grasp fully the Lydian system that Russell brought before the musically literate in a book called The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organisation published in 1953. Put crudely, the system involved developing scales from the notes of chords, opening up limitless avenues of creation for musicians to follow. Russell called this "pan-tonality". He had stepped round the recent atonality used by contemporary classical composers to open up a much wider potential field. Apart from his substantial and unique contributions to jazz as one of its major theorists and composers, Russell's legacy is that his Lydian theory is today taught in music colleges throughout the world.

Russell gave his soloists – notably his most favoured ones, the pianist Bill Evans and the trumpeter Art Farmer – a new freedom, and their improvisations often took Russell's works in directions that the composer had not forecast.

"A jazz writer is an improviser, too," he said. "Given a set of musical facts (just as a soloist is given a sequence of chords), he can, in the same way that the soloist improvises upon chords, improvise upon these musical facts pertaining to his composition, and produce a swinging, logical, vital-sounding piece of new music."

One such was Russell's most famous composition, "All about Rosie", written first to feature Bill Evans in 1957 and then brilliantly refurbished by Russell in 1961 for the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band.

Russell's father was a professor of music at Oberlin University in Ohio. As a boy, Russell took up drums and in 1938 won a scholarship to Wilberforce University, but his childhood and early career were blighted by tuberculosis. Lengthy periods in hospital gave him the chance to study musical theory, and he concentrated from then onwards on composition and orchestration rather than playing, although he briefly played drums in the Benny Carter band of 1944.

After the stir caused by Russell's 1947 arrangement for Gillespie, he wrote scores for the bands of Claude Thornhill, Charlie Ventura and for the adventurous band led by Artie Shaw at the end of the Forties.

At the beginning of the Fifties, Russell left the music scene to concentrate on his studies, returning in the Sixties to make some pleasingly accessible recordings, including the particularly successful 1961 album Ezz-thetics, and to lead a big band and a sextet that played his compositions. This was a high spot in Russell's recording career, which as a whole was generally an alarming mixture of exhilarating triumphs and indisputable failures. He had by now become an accomplished jazz pianist, and the musicians associated with him at this time included Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis, David Baker and the extraordinary vocalist Sheila Jordan.

Russell took the sextet to Europe in 1964 and, finding Scandinavia convivial, he settled there, moving between Sweden and Denmark to teach his theory and play with local musicians, who included the young Jan Garbarek and Terje Rypdal. Russell worked frequently on Swedish radio and made more recordings, characterised perhaps by their emphasis on theory and lack of emotion. In 1966 and 1967, he created and recorded his Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature. He also collaborated with the expatriate avant-garde trumpeter Don Cherry during this period.

In 1969, Russell returned to the US. His way eased by his old friend and president of the college, Gunther Schuller, he began teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music. Although they were not a great success commercially, his bands played at prestigious events such as the Newport Jazz Festival. Musicians continued to flock to him, although during the Eighties his music, by now involving electronics, had become too abstruse for much of the jazz public. In 1988, he began an occasional series of big-band concerts at the Smithsonian Institution with a band made up from his students.

He formed his Living Time Orchestra in 1986, a group consisting of his American rhythm section and eight London-based horn players, one of whom was the tenor player Andy Sheppard. The band toured the US, Japan and Europe and in 1989 gave concerts in London. As was the case with the contemporary work of Gil Evans, palpable rock influences and eruptions of collective improvisation by the band deterred some of Russell's earlier followers.

His later years were marred by illness, but he continued to receive awards from all kinds of colleges and institutions.

Steve Voce

George Allen Russell, composer, musical theorist, pianist: born Cincinnati, Ohio 23 June 1923; married Alice (one son); died Boston, Massachusetts 27 July 2009.

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