Russell, George (Allan)

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Russell, George (Allan)

Russell, George (Allan) , jazz composer, pianist, drummer and brilliant theorist, lecturer, and educator; b. Cincinnati, Ohio, June 23, 1923. His biological father taught music at Oberlin Coll.; his mother was a black student there who gave him up for adoption at birth. He never knew them, and his “real” parents were Bessie Sledge, a nurse, and Joseph Russell, a chef on the B&O Railroad. He played drums in a Boy Scout drum and bugle corps. He received a scholarship to Wilberforce Univ. H.S. program in Ohio, where he played in the Collegians with Ernie Wilkins. He was hospitalized in Chicago at 19 (c. 1942) for tuberculosis; he learned arranging from a fellow patient, bassist Harold Gaston. He played drums with Benny Carter but was soon replaced by Max Roach and began to concentrate on writing. Russell wrote for Earl Hines in the mid-1940s; he sold his first big-band compositions to Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie in 1945. Inspired by hearing Monk’s “Round Midnight,” in 1945 he moved to N.Y., where he became friends with Gil Evans. He then had an offer from Charlie Parker to tour as his drummer, but fell ill again with tuberculosis. While in the hospital (September 1945–December 1946), he began work on his textbook on the use of modes in jazz music, inspired by his friend Miles Davis, with whom he would sit at the piano and trade chords. Russell’s early compositions included “Cubana-Be-Cubana-Bop,” written with Gillespie for a Gillespie Carnegie Hall Concert in September 1947. He studied privately with classical theorist Stefan Wolpe in N.Y., 1949. He became a widely published composer in the late 1940s and 1950s and his songs were performed or recorded by Buddy DeFranco (“A Bird in Igor’s Yard,” 1949), Hal McKusick (“Concerto for Billy the Kid,” 1955), Charlie Ventura (“West of Bengazi” and “Caravan”), Artie Shaw (“Poinciana”), and Lee Konitz (“Ezz-thetic,” a striking variation on “Love for Sale,” also recorded by Max Roach). His book, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, was first published in 1959. In the mid-1950s, he began a rehearsal group, his “Smalltet,” with Art Farmer and Bill Evans, Hal McKusick, Barry Galbraith, Joe Harris, and either Milt Hinton or Teddy Kotick on bass. After teaching at the Lenox School of Jazz (1958–59), he became active as a pianist in his own sextet (1960–65). The sextet briefly included Eric Dolphy in 1960, and at times Don Ellis, Chuck Israels, and Steve Swallow. He played at the landmark 1962 Washington D.C. Jazz Festival, toured the Midwest and played the Newport Festival in 1964. In 1964, he toured Europe, and then settled in Sweden. Swedish Radio’s jazz director, Bosse Broberg afforded Russell numerous recording opportunities and new commissions. Russell taught at Lund Univ. in Sweden, the Vaskilde Summer School in Denmark, and in Norway, and toured Europe with a sextet of Scandinavians. He performed with the radio orchestras of Oslo and Copenhagen. He returned to the Boston area and has been a faculty member at the New England Cons. of Music since 1969, where he directs the Living Time Orch. This 19-piece band spent six weeks at the Village Vanguard in 1978, and since then has toured throughout Europe and Japan, including frequent appearances at the Bottom Line, N.Y. He made his first tour of the U.K. in early 1986. He was a 1989 MacArthur Fellow; he was named a 1990 Jazz Master by the NE A and a 1996 Jazz Master by the New England Foundation for the Arts. He has received six fellowships from the NEA, two Guggenheim Fellowships (including the first one ever received by a jazz artist, in 1969), and two Grammy nominations. He wrote the three hour “Time Line,” for orch., jazz musicians, choirs, rock groups and dancers for the NEC in 1992.

Russell’s method is based around the priority of the Lydian mode over the major (or Aeolian), which he contends is proven by the harmonic overtone series; it encourages musicians to find alternate scales to use over chords, and even to superimpose one scale on another to create polytonality or what he calls pantonality. Many musicians, including Coltrane, Dolphy, Bill Evans, and Miles Davis have learned about modes from him. Art Farmer, David Baker, Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Palle Mikkelborg, and Carla Bley studied directly with him.


George Russell Octets (1955); N.Y., N.Y. (1958); Stratusphunk (1960); Jazz in the Space Age (1960); George Russell at the Five Spot (1960); George Russell in Kansas City (1961); Ezz-Thetic (1961); Stratus Seekers (1962); Outer View (1962); Sextet at Beethoven Hall (1965); Listen to the Silence (1971); Vertical Form VI (1977); N.Y. Big Band (1978); Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (1979); American Time Spiral (1980); Live in an American Time Spiral (1982); So What (1983); African Game (1983); London Concert, Vols. 1 & 2 (1989). D. Gillespie: “Cubana Be,” “Cubana Bop” (1947). L. Tristano: “Crosscurrents” (1949). L. Konitz: Odjenar (1951); Ezz-thetic (1951). T. Charles: The Teddy Charles Tentet (1956). H. McKusick: Jazz Workshop (1956); Brandeis Jazz Festival: Modern Jazz Concert (1957). B. Evans: Living Time (1972).


The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation (N.Y., 1953).

—Lewis Porter

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Russell, George (Allan)

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