July 29, 2009
NEC Mourns Death of Jazz Giant George Russell ’05 Hon. D.M.
Composer, Theorist, Author of Lydian Chromatic Concept, was Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Emeritus
MacArthur Fellow, NEA Jazz Master, Living Jazz Legend Taught at NEC from 1969
George Russell, author of the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization that under-girded the pioneering modal experiments of John Coltrane and Miles Davis, has died in Boston at age 86. He had been affiliated with New England Conservatory from 1969 when then President Gunther Schuller invited him to return from Europe and teach. At the time of his death, he was Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Emeritus and had been awarded an honorary Doctor of Music in 2005.
“George Russell was a cornerstone of NEC’s Jazz Department for 35 years, continuing to teach through 2004,” said Jazz Studies Chair Ken Schaphorst ’84 M.M. ”George inspired generations of NEC students with his unique blend of soul and intellect. Compositions such as Cubano Be, Cubano Bop, Ezz-thetic, and All About Rosie were revolutionary developments in the art of jazz composition, challenging improvisers and listeners to expand their notion of how rhythm, melody, harmony and form may be organized in jazz.”
Composer, conductor, teacher and theorist, Russell was the recipient of nearly every award and honor given to jazz musicians. He was a MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient, NEA Jazz Master, Kennedy Center Jazz Living Legend, two-time Guggenheim awardee, multiple Grammy nominee, recipient of the American Music Award, the British Jazz Award, the Swedish Jazz Federation Lifetime Achievement Award, and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music.
At NEC, Russell taught a virtual Who’s Who of young jazz musicians including Jason Palmer, Anton Fig, Don Byron, Marty Ehrlich, Satoko Fujii and Ricky Ford. He also coached small ensembles and regularly conducted NEC jazz orchestras and big bands.
The Conservatory often turned to Russell for special celebrations or festivals. During the Centennial celebrations for NEC’s Jordan Hall in 2003, Russell was a featured performer, conducting the NEC Jazz Orchestra in The Best of Jazz concert. In 1992, he was commissioned to write an evening-long work, Time Line, for the Conservatory’s 125th Anniversary. Of that “massive collage piece,” Hankus Netsky ’76, ’78 M.M. and Chair of NEC’s Contemporary Improvisation Department said, “I think a lot of people were surprised at how diverse his taste in and knowledge of music was. Timeline ranged from Dvorak to klezmer to Ornette Coleman to Glen Miller to Marvin Gaye to Steely Dan.“
A life-long seeker, Russell was still exploring the depths of musical structure in his eighties. In a 2006 All About Jazz interview by Ed Hazell, he commented, "My aim at this point is to understand the language of music in its deepest sense and contribute to it, enrich it…Music is a living thing, a component of the emotional center of all living things. It speaks not only to the emotional center, but also to the intellectual and physical centers. What it has to say must be understood. I want to see in the meanings of music more deeply. I want to know the inner of everything. My music is trying to tell me that so I can tell the world."
“The thing George cared about the most in music was ‘essence,’” said Netsky. “He didn't care how complicated your music was or if you sounded hip or square or anywhere in-between. He just wanted to feel like the music he was hearing was your real voice - if he didn't feel that he wasn't interested.
“In George's mind, the Lydian Chromatic Concept was not so much a theoretical system as it was an approach to life. ‘It comes from Pythagoras,’ he liked to say. ‘It's a reflection of nature.’ It wasn't in any way a ‘jazz’ thing, but a way to appreciate the laws of tension and release, a way of understanding Bach, Ravel, and Stravinsky - and seeing Coltrane, Monk, and Miles Davis as musicians who were part of the same continuum.”
A hugely influential, innovative figure in the evolution of modern jazz, the music's only major theorist and one of its most profound composers, George Russell was “born in Cincinnati in 1923, the adopted son of a registered nurse and a chef on the B&O Railroad,” according to his official biography. He began playing drums with the Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps and eventually received a scholarship to Wilberforce University where he joined the Collegians, whose list of alumni include Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, Ernie Wilkins and Frank Foster. But his most valuable musical education came in 1941, when, in attempting to enlist in the Marines, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. While spending six months in the hospital, he was taught the fundamentals of harmony by a fellow patient. From the hospital he sold his first work, New World, to Benny Carter.
He subsequently joined Benny Carter's Band as a drummer, but was replaced by Max Roach; after Russell heard Roach, he decided to give up drumming and try composing. He moved to New York where he was part of a group of musicians who gathered in the basement apartment of Gil Evans. The circle included Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Johnny Carisi and on occasion, Charlie Parker. He was commissioned to write a piece for Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra which resulted in the seminal Cubano Be/Cubano Bop. The first fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz, Cubano Be/Cubano Bop was premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1947 and featured Chano Pozo. Two years later, Russell’s Bird in Igor's Yard was recorded by Buddy DeFranco, a piece notable for its fusion of elements from Charlie Parker and Stravinsky—an early example of Third Stream composition.
It was a remark made by Miles Davis that set Russell on the course which has been his life. Asked about his musical aim, Miles said he "wanted to learn all the changes," Russell recounted in numerous interviews. Since Miles obviously knew all the changes, Russell surmised that he wanted to learn a new way to relate to chords. This began a quest for Russell, and—once again hospitalized for 16 months—he began to develop his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. First published in 1953 and updated several times, the Lydian Concept is credited with opening the way into modal music, as demonstrated by Miles in his groundbreaking "Kind of Blue" recording.
Using the Lydian Scale as the Primary Scale of Western music, the Lydian Chromatic Concept introduced the idea of chord/scale unity. It was the first theory to explore the vertical relationship between chords and scales, and was the only original theory to come from jazz.
Throughout the 1950's and 60's, Russell continued to work on developing the Concept and leading bands under his direction. In the mid-fifties, a superb sextet, including Bill Evans and Art Farmer recorded under his direction, producing The Jazz Workshop, an album of astonishing originality; the often dense textures and rhythms anticipated the jazz-rock movement of the 1970's. During this time, Russell was also working odd jobs as a counterman in a lunch spot and selling toys at Macy's at Christmas; the release of The Jazz Workshop finally put an end to Russell’s jobs outside of music.
In 1957, the composer was one of a group to be commissioned to write for the first annual Brandeis Jazz Festival which resulted in his signature piece All About Rosie, which was based on an Alabama children's song. The 1958 album New York, New York was striking in its evocation of the New York of the late fifties. It featured poetry by Jon Hendricks and performances by Bill Evans, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Milt Hinton, Bob Brookmeyer, Art Farmer and a Who's Who of the New York jazz scene.
From 1960, Russell began leading his own sextets around the New York area and at festivals; he also toured throughout the Midwest and Europe. One of the important albums of this time was Ezz-Thetic, which featured Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis and Steve Swallow.
Disillusioned by his lack of recognition and the meager work opportunities in America, Russell sought refuge in Europe in 1964. In Sweden and Norway he found support for both himself and his music. All his works were recorded by radio and TV, and he was championed by Bosse Broberg, the adventurous Director of Swedish Radio, an organization with which Russell maintained a close association and admiration. While there, he heard and recorded a young Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, and Jon Christensen.
In 1969, he returned to the States at the request of his old friend, Gunther Schuller to teach at the newly created Jazz Department at New England Conservatory where Schuller was President. He continued to develop the Lydian Concept and toured with his own groups. He played Carnegie Hall, the Village Vanguard, the Bottom Line, Newport, Wolf Trap, The Smithsonian, Sweet Basil, the West Coast, the Southwest, and Europe with his 14-member orchestra. He continued to compose extended works which defined jazz composition. His 1985 recording, The African Game, one of the first in the revived Blue Note label, received two Grammy nominations. Russell also taught throughout the world, and served as guest conductor for Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, Danish, German and Italian radio.
In 1986, Russell was invited by the Contemporary Music Network of the British Council to tour with an orchestra of American and British musicians, which resulted in The International Living Time Orchestra, an orchestra with which he worked for the rest of his life. Among the soloists of stature were Stanton Davis, Dave Bargeron, Brad Hatfield, Steve Lodder, Tiger Okoshi, and Andy Sheppard. The orchestra performed at the Barbican Centre in London and the Cite de la Musique in Paris, augmented with string players from the U.K. and France; the Theatre Champs-Elysées for the Festival D'automne in Paris, the Glasgow International Festival, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Tokyo Music Joy, the Library of Congress, Festivals of Umbria, Verona, Lisbon, Milano, Pori, Bath, Huddersfield, Ravenna, Catania, North Sea, and many more.
In 2005, the orchestra released The 80th Birthday Concert, a much-praised double CD set culled from two 2003 performances in London and Dusseldorf that featured the composer’s most ambitious music.
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Recognized nationally and internationally as a leader among music schools, New England Conservatory offers rigorous training in an intimate, nurturing community to 750 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral music students from around the world. Its faculty of 225 boasts internationally esteemed artist-teachers and scholars. Its alumni go on to fill orchestra chairs, concert hall stages, jazz clubs, recording studios, and arts management positions worldwide. Nearly half of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is composed of NEC trained musicians and faculty.
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