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*On this date in 1923, George Russell was born. He was a Black jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and theorist.
George Allen Russell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to a white father and a Black mother, later the adopted only child of a nurse and a chef on the B & O Railroad, Bessie and Joseph Russell. Young Russell sang in the choir of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and listened to the Kentucky Riverboat music of Fate Marable. He made his stage debut at age seven, singing "Moon Over Miami" with Fats Waller.
Surrounded by the music of the Black church and the big bands which played on the Ohio Riverboats, and with a father who was a music educator at Oberlin College, he started playing drums with the Boy Scouts and Bugle Corps, receiving a scholarship to Wilberforce University, where he joined the Collegians, a band noted as a breeding ground for great jazz musicians including Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Freeman Lee, Frank Foster, and Benny Carter. Russell served in that band at the same time as another noted jazz composer, Ernie Wilkins.
When called up for the draft at the beginning of World War II, he was quickly hospitalized with tuberculosis, where he was taught the fundamentals of music theory by a fellow patient. After his release from the hospital, he played drums with Benny Carter's band but decided to give up drumming as a vocation after hearing Max Roach, who replaced him in the orchestra. Inspired by hearing Thelonious Monk's"'Round Midnight", Russell moved to New York in the early 1940s, where he became a member of a coterie of young innovators who frequented the 55th Street apartment of Gil Evans, a clique which included Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, and John Lewis, later the music director of the Modern Jazz Quartet.
In 1945–46, Russell was again hospitalized for tuberculosis for 16 months. Forced to turn down work as Charlie Parker's drummer, during that time he worked out the basic tenets of what was to become his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a theory encompassing all of equal-tempered music which has been influential well beyond the boundaries of jazz. The first edition of his book was published by Russell in 1953, while he worked as a sales clerk at Macy's. At that time, Russell's ideas were a crucial step into the modal music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis on his classic recording, Kind of Blue, and served as a beacon for other modernists such as Eric Dolphy and Art Farmer.
While working on the theory, Russell was also applying its principles to composition. His first famous composition was for the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, the two-part "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" (1947) and part of that band's pioneering experiments in fusing bebop and Cuban jazz elements; "A Bird in Igor's Yard" (a tribute to both Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky) the next year. Also, a lesser-known but pivotal work arranged by Russell's was recorded in January 1950 by Artie Shaw entitled "Similau" that employed techniques of the work done for Gillespie. Russell began playing piano, leading a series of groups. He was to record a number of impressive albums over the next several years, sometimes as a primary pianist.
In 1957, Russell was one of six jazz musicians commissioned by Brandeis University to write a piece for their Festival of the Creative Arts. He wrote a suite for orchestra, All About Rosie, which featured Bill Evans among other soloists, and has been cited as one of the few convincing examples of composed polyphony in jazz. Members of the orchestra on his 1958 extended work, New York, N.Y., included Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, Bob Brookmeyer, and Max Roach, among others, and featured wrap-around raps by singer/lyricist Jon Hendricks. Between 1960 and 1963, the Russell Sextet featured musicians like Dave Baker and Steve Swallow and memorable sessions with Eric Dolphy and singer Sheila Jordan (their bleak version of "You Are My Sunshine" on The Outer View (1962). He received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1989.
In his career, Russell also received the 1990 National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the British Jazz Award, among others. He has been elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, won the Oscar du Disque de Jazz Award, the Guardian Award, the American Music Award, six NEA Music Fellowships, and numerous others. He taught throughout the world and was a guest conductor for German, Italian, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish radio groups. He is considered one of the first jazz musicians to contribute to general music theory with a theory of harmony based on jazz rather than European music, in his book Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization (1953). George Russell died of complications from Alzheimer's disease in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 27, 2009, according to his publicist.
Image: Scott K. Fish