Wednesday, July 29, 2009

George Russell

Jazz musician and composer George Russell died two days ago, on July 27th. Russell was a hugely influential (and criminally under appreciated) musician whose inventive approach to jazz composition and theory influenced everyone from Miles Davis to John Coltrane to Sun Ra.

Though he had played drums professionally since the 1930's, Russell's career as a composer began in 1941 while he spent 6 months in a hospital recovering from tuberculosis and learning the fundamentals of harmony. The first piece of music he sold - "New World," bought by Benny Carter - was written and sold from his hospital bed. On recovering, Russell joined Carter's Band as a drummer, but was replaced by Max Roach, at which point he forever gave up drumming for writing and arranging. Russell moved to New York where wrote music for the likes of Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, and Charlie Parker. Among many other gorgeous pieces of music, he wrote the seminal "Cubano Be/Cubano Bop" for Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra, often credited as being the first fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz.

Throughout the 1950's and 60's he arranged music for bandleaders like Claude Thornhill and Artie Shaw, composed pieces according to his "Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization," and formed "The Jazz Workshop" sextet which recorded Russell's compositions under his direction and toured throughout the U.S. and Europe. Fed up with the lack of recognition he received in the U.S., Russell moved to Europe in 1964 and returned in 1969 to teach at the New England Conservatory of Music where he remained until retiring 2004. In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master, and he was honored in 2007 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as one of 33 "living jazz legends."

Asked in 1958 if jazz had a future, Russell said "If America has a future, jazz has a future. The two are inseparable."

The ever brilliant music blog Silent Springs pays tribute to Russell by linking to torrents of some of his best known recordings, right here. For those of you more interested in sharing Russell's music legally, this clip of Bill Evans, Art Farmer, Jimmy Cleveland, Gene Quill and Ed Thigpen playing the George Russell composition "Stratusphunk" courtesy of youtube.

1 comment:

Joe Moran said...

Awesome buddy!