George Russell (1923–2009) was one of the charter faculty who led the NEC jazz studies program, beginning in 1969 and beyond his official retirement in 2004, when he became a Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Emeritus. He remained a cornerstone of the NEC jazz community through his death on July 27, 2009. Russell, his music, and his ideas are inextricably woven into the international history and culture of jazz and music that has learned from jazz, and his legacy is found in NEC's all-embracing approach to the study of music.
For almost 40 years, every jazz student at NEC was exposed to Russell’s music and ideas, even if they did not work with him directly as a studio teacher. Up to his retirement, Russell spent almost every spring semester with the players of the NEC Jazz Orchestra, studying and rehearsing his music for a traditional end-of-semester concert. Due to the aleatory elements in Russell’s music, this nuanced composer/performer experience prepared generations of NEC alumni to be uniquely qualified interpreters of these large-scale works.
A hugely influential, innovative figure in the evolution of modern jazz, Russell was one of its greatest composers, and its most important theorist. His 1953 book The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization is credited as a great pathbreaker into modal music, as pioneered by Miles Davis and John Coltrane. His second volume on the Lydian Concept, The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity, was published in 2001. All of the music’s most important developments—from modal improvisation to electronics, African polyrhythms to free form, atonality to jazz rock—have taken cues from Russell’s pioneering work.
Russell's Living Time Orchestra has performed throughout the world, including the Barbican Centre and Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, the Festival d’Automne and Cîté de la Musique in Paris, and Tokyo Music Joy. His career as a leader is preserved on more than 30 recordings, including work with such musicians as Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, and Jan Garbarek.
Among Russell's awards are a MacArthur Fellowship, the NEA American Jazz Master Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, six NEA grants, three Grammy nominations, the American Music Award, the British Jazz Award, the Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend Award, the Swedish Jazz Federation Lifetime Achievement Award, and election to the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. NEC bestowed an honorary Doctor of Music degree on George Russell in 2005.
Russell's commissions include the British Council, Swedish Broadcasting, the Glasgow International Festival, the Barbican Centre, and the Massachusetts Council on the Arts. He taught throughout the world, and was a guest conductor for Finnish, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, German, and Italian radio. Russell has been the subject of documentaries by NPR, NHK Japan, Swedish Broadcasting, and the BBC.
in photo: George Russell conducts in NEC's Jordan Hall in 2003 as part of celebration of Jordan Hall centennial (photo by Tom Fitzsimmons)