By Fernando Gonzalez
Composer and theoretician George Russell died on July 27th at a hospice nursing facility near his home in Jamaica Plain, MA from complications to Alzheimer’s. He was 86. He was probably the most influential figure in jazz over the past 60 years whom the general audience never heard of. But musicians knew.
I thought I knew him because I knew some jazz history and had recordings of his compositions. Then I became one of his students and I discovered a remarkable teacher, one who pushed and made me listen with fresh ears.
A drummer by training, he was part of the group that hung out at Gil Evans’ apartment in New York and included Miles Davis, Max Roach and Gerry Mulligan. “It was like a school in a way,” Russell told me in an interview some years ago. “Not an ordinary school but an esoteric school — and Gil was the schoolmaster. He was a calming force.”
In 1947, Russell wrote Cubana Be/Cubana Bop for Dizzy Gillespie, and two years later “Bird in Igor’s Yard, ” a startling fusion of Charlie Parker and Stravinsky, for Buddy DeFranco. While hospitalized for 16 months, he developed his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, an ambitious theoretical work that reformulated the chord/scale relationship. First published in 1953, it is considered the first major contribution to music theory by a jazz musician. ( His second volume on the Lydian Concept – The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity – was published in 2001.)
Russell’s work on modal music had a profound influence on Davis and led the trumpeter to his explorations in the now classic Kind of Blue. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, Russell continued his work on the Lydian Concept, refining his ideas while teaching at the Lenox School of Jazz in Lenox, MA and leading his own bands. His groups included musicians such as Bill Evans and Art Farmer (with whom he recorded the influential The Jazz Workshop), John Coltrane (who was also deeply influenced by Russell’s modal work), Eric Dolphy, Don Ellis, Bob Brookmeyer and Steve Swallow.
Frustrated by the lack of work and recognition, he moved to Scandinavia in 1964. He stayed for five years but his his work, both as a musician and teacher had a lasting impact in the Scandinavian scene and musicians such as saxophonist Jan Garbarek, guitarist Terje Rypdal, and drummer Jon Christensen.
“When I think back I realize it had a really, really big impact on me,” Garbarek told me in 2005. “It was a sort of an initiation rite. I was a very young player, only 17 at the time and being invited to play with George Russell and go on tour with him and to think this well respected, admirable musician accepted me, was like stepping into manhood.”
“But at another level it was the first time I encountered music theory,” continued Garbarek. “I had no knowledge of those concepts. I read his book and he was my teacher and he was always extremely careful not to impose his views or tell you how to do things. That I always thought was his outstanding feature as a teacher. He would catch himself imposing something and he would say ‘Forget that, erase what I said’ and explain in a more open way, just giving you tools. That was all that mattered to him.”
Composer Gunther Schuller, an old friend and then president of the New England Conservatory in Boston, enticed him to come back to the States in 1969 to teach at the newly created Jazz Department.
The teacher Garbarek described is the teacher I also remember from my days at the Conservatory. Russell was not your typical wise, old, warm-and-fuzzy professor. He was rather exacting and demanding, and challenged you to nothing less than to hear music anew.
He remained at N.E.C. until 2004 when he became Distinguished Artist-in-Residence Emeritus. He also organized a 14 piece band, his Living Time Orchestra, with which he toured regularly. His 1985 recording, The African Game, received 2 Grammy nominations.
That was the beginning of a period of much deserved, if late coming, recognition including a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, a designation as a National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master, two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Oscar du Disque de Jazz, and six NEA Music Fellowships, among others.