Friday, May 6, 2016

"Grit" and George Russell - The Dom Cerulli Interview

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“George Russell would have “killed" Bird.”
- Miles Davis

In her new book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance [Scribner, 333 pages, $28], Angela Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, defines “grit” as a combination of passion and perseverance in the pursuit of a long-term goal.

The author, has spent the past decade studying why some people have extraordinary success and others do not.

Ms. Duckworth first realized the importance of grit as a teacher. Before she became an academic, she worked as a seventh-grade math teacher at a public school in New York. Some of her students were more inherently gifted with numbers than others. But not all of these capable students, to her surprise, got the best grades. Those who did weren’t always “math people”: For the most part, they were those who consistently invested more time and effort in their work.

Ms. Duckworth decided to become a research psychologist to figure out what explained their success. One of her first studies was of West Point cadets. Every year, West Point enrolls more than 1,000 students, but 20% of cadets drop out before graduation. Many quit in their first two months, during an intense training program known as Beast Barracks, or Beast. The most important factor in West Point admissions is the Whole Candidate Score, a composite measure of test scores, high-school rank, leadership potential and physical fitness.

But Ms. Duckworth found that this score, which is essentially a measure of innate ability, did not predict who dropped out during Beast. She created her own “Grit Scale,” scored using cadets’ responses to statements like “I finish whatever I begin” or “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.” Those who scored highest on the Grit Scale were the most likely to make it to the end of Beast.

It’s a similar story among the other groups that Ms. Duckworth writes about here, including spelling-bee champions and sales associates: Grit predicts their success more robustly than innate ability. And there is no positive correlation between ability and grit. A study of Ivy League undergraduates even showed that the smarter the students were, as measured by SAT scores, the less gritty they were.

Grit may be defined by strenuous effort, but what drives that work, Ms. Duckworth finds, is passion, and a great service of Ms. Duckworth’s book is her down-to-earth definition of passion. To be gritty, an individual doesn’t need to have an obsessive infatuation with a goal. Rather, he/she needs to show “consistency over time.” The grittiest people have developed long-term goals and are constantly working toward them. “Enthusiasm is common,” she writes. “Endurance is rare.”

As you read the following Dom Cerulli interview with composer-arranger George Russell, I think that you’ll agree that passion coupled with perseverance were critically important elements in his life’s work.

Despite years of adversity, George learned how to follow through in pursuit of his long-term goal. Without such enthusiasm and dedication, I doubt that The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization would ever have been realized.

This interview of George Russell was conducted by Dom Cerulli in 1958. To his credit, Dom was one of the first Jazz writers to understand the significance of George’s breakthrough theory as explained in The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization.

“A sleek, low Mercedes rocketed down Manhattan's West Side highway about 3 a.m. recently. At the wheel was Miles Davis, taking a break from work to check out his car. Beside him were two musicians who eyed the speedometer as it approached 75 miles an hour.

One of them said to Davis, “I don’t want to be a canned vegetable, you know.”
Davis' expression didn't change as he answered, “I’m in here, too.”

“I’m in here, too” is the tranquilizer that the composer, arranger, and music theorist George Russell uses to indoctrinate some of jazz' most gifted but skeptical musicians when they start to study the Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization with him.

“The jazz musician has a natural aversion to having a concept or theory imposed on him due, among other things, to the awkward struggle he has encountered in shaping the traditional European explanation of tonality to fit the needs of jazz,” Russell said.

“The jazz musician, to some degree, has had to learn traditional music theory only to break many of its rules in practice. Other theories have come along, but the jazz musician has made only a fractional use, if any, of them. Perhaps because they weren't a natural evolvement from the chord basis that underlies jazz and all traditional Western music.

“A theory of any kind demands obedience at first in order to master it. However, a really useful theory doesn't enslave one without making the period of servitude interesting and worthwhile and without eventually freeing its subscribers through its own built-in liberation apparatus.

“The theory which forces you to rebel against its concepts in order to find freedom is obviously not fulfilling the needs required of it.”

Russell, who will become 35 next month, was earning his living as a jazz drummer in a Cincinnati night spot at the age of 15. An early influence on his career was neighbor Jimmy Munday, who was arranging for Benny Goodman's band.

George toured to New York with Benny Carter when he was 20 and heard Max Roach with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford on 52nd St. “After hearing Max,” Russell said, “I decided that writing was it. I went back to Cincy and began to learn as much as I could about writing from the jazz writers around town. I learned a lot through trial and error with the house band at the old Cotton club.”

Benny Carter came through town, heard a thing Russell had done, and asked George to write it for his big band. “It took me five months and a trip to Chicago,” Russell recalled, “but I finally caught the band at a downtown theater, and they rehearsed it. Benny was very happy with it, and on top of that he paid me for it. I literally floated to the station with J. J. (Johnson) and Max that night, and I was launched on a writing career.”

Russell said he then wrote for a show and also did some writing for Earl Hines who was at the El Grotto in Chicago. This all was good experience.

“About this time,” he continued, “Robert Gay started talking Dizzy to me. I can't honestly say that I heard Diz at first, but someone played Monk's 'Round About Midnight, and it really jarred me. Little Diz (Gay), the late Henry Prior, and I left for New York almost immediately,

“Dizzy was about to form his first big band, and all the arrangers were trying out things. I was pretty shaky, so I took them my tried-and-true Benny Carter composition -

Diz liked it. But the next day, I became critically ill.”

Russell's illness kept him hospitalized for 16 months. The first five were strict bed rest. During this period of inactivity, he said he thought about music all his waking hours.

“I knew I had to make use of this time to educate myself,” Russell said. “From the scraps of advanced harmony I had gathered, I knew that my answer didn't lie in traditional theory. I had experimented scantily with polytonality before, but on the piano in the library of the hospital, I really began an intensive research into tonality. For its therapeutic value alone, it was great.”

Russell's search consumed 11 months. Toward the end of that period, the logic of the Lydian scale began to emerge. He left the hospital and accepted Roach's invitation to recuperate in his Brooklyn home, where Charlie Parker, Gillespie, Miles Davis, and John Lewis were frequent guests.

“Thanks to Max's piano and Mrs. Roach's monumental endurance, I continued to work on the research project for nine months,” he said.

Russell did no composing while working on the theory, but he detected a trend and decided to compose only what the theory could explain.

“I'd usually compose for a short period,” he said, “then run into a problem that couldn't be explained, and I’d have to retreat into research again for the answer. It was frustrating, but I'd always find the answer. And following each of these revolutions, I'd find that the theory was more manipulative and easier to handle. And it placed more resources at my disposal.”

During one of his composing periods, Russell collaborated with Gillespie on Cubano Be, Cubano Bop, and became tabbed a Latin jazz writer. He admits, however, that he's never believed much will come of the marriage of the two influences. During another cycle in 1949, his Bird in Igor’s Yard was recorded for Capitol by Buddy DeFranco's big band. The record became a sort of legend through Symphony Sid's constant playing of an acetate and through another test pressing owned by Gerry Mulligan. But Capitol never released it.

Russell also arranged Ezzthetic for Bird and strings, and although Parker played it many times in personal appearances, he never was allowed to record it. “Things were getting dreadfully commercial at that time,” Russell recalled.

He wrote some things for Charlie Ventura and then dropped out of circulation for about five years.

“I felt that there was no place for me in music at that time,” he explained.. “I devoted the years from 1950-53 to the production of a thesis, The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization. I did practically no composing at this time. The theory had become an organic part of my life. It was a live, growing thing with a constantly expanding logical life of its own. It was demanding to be born as an organized, ordered method.

“I think for the first time I had some inkling of what I was going after: a concept with a soul, born out of jazz and its needs, yet embracing all music created in the equal temperament system. I finished the thesis in 1953.” Russell explained the system thusly:

It deals with the relationship between chords and scales. Its basic principle is that a major scale in its natural sequence, is composed of two tetrachords. The first of these tetrachords C - D - E - F in the C Major scale for example, resolves to the tonality of F; the E being the leading tone of this resolution. The second tetrachord, G - A - B - C, resolves to the tonality of C.

The Major scale thus possesses two tonics: the tonic on its fourth degree and the one on its tonic above (F and C, in that order). Viewed vertically as a harmonic structure, the C Major scale thus would tend to favor the tonality of F because its bottom tetrachord resolves to the tonic F.

Following this logic, the G Major scale, viewed vertically, would be more closely related to the tonality of C than the C Major scale. This is because the lower tetrachord of the G Major scale resolves to the tonic C while its upper tetrachord resolves to the tone (G) that is the dominant of a C Major chord. The Lydian mode of the G Major scale, (CD - E - FF - G - A - B), therefore can be called the C Lydian scale: the scale which in a vertical sense is most closely related to the C Major chord tonality.

This is proved to be true by proceeding from the tonic C upwards in fifths (the strongest harmonic interval of the overtone system) to the tone F4. The tones produced by this vertical structure will be those contained in the Lydian scale.
In order to obtain the tones of a major scale by this method, the sixth, fifth, (B natural - F sharp) would have to be altered a halftone, (B natural - F natural) thus interrupting the perfect symmetry of the fifths.

From this basic reasoning, an order of chords and scales and, finally, of all elements of tonality emerges that makes a very strong case for the Lydian scale being the more natural scale for modern music.

“From 1953-55, I composed experimentally with the theory,” Russell said. “Each insoluble new problem caused the concept to erupt. But following each eruption there came a new refinement of technique, a more secure grasp of more materials.

“The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization evolved into the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a 12-tone concept based on the grading of the intervals on the basis of their close-to-distant relationship to a central tone. Such terms as tonal gravity (the attraction of the overall tonality to a tonal center) are introduced into the musical language by this concept.

“My cycles of composing became longer and longer in duration, to the point where they are no longer interrupted by besieging problems, and I am free to grapple with the more subtle elements of music, such as taste.”

John Lewis, who once roomed with Russell, was a constant source of encouragement. Last year, Lewis invited Russell to lecture on the Lydian concept at the School of Jazz in Lenox, Mass. The reaction was enthusiastic and stimulating.

Lewis told the students during a question-and-answer period that it seemed possible that jazz might well overthrow its traditional European explanations and produce its own. Russell was invited to become a faculty member for this year's semester.

A growing number of established and young jazz musicians currently are making their way to Russell's Greenwich Village apartment to study with him. At first, this posed a problem, he said, explaining:

“A couple of months ago Art Farmer said he wanted to study. Our first lesson was pretty shaky because, although I was prepared to teach composers, I didn't realize until that lesson that I had to devise some quick, direct, simple method of communicating this thing to improvisors.

“The composition course is fast, considering the ground it covers, but the improvisors, particularly the pros, don't have the time or inclination to study a theory unless it's quick — and it works.”

With these objectives in mind, Russell devised a chart that contains the complex of melodic resources, including polymodal, that the equal temperament system affords, and he indicated also the simple techniques used in handling these resources.

For every definable chord, the improvisor is provided with the parent scale of the chord, other logical scale choices, and is given all the possible polymodal resources available for the chord.

“There is even a technique allowing the soloist to stretch out,” Russell said, “so that he does not have to adjust to each passing chord.

“Art learned the theory in about five lessons, and is now utilizing the material on the chart in his own way in improvisation. All my students have mastered the theory in about six or seven lessons.”

Farmer said the Lydian concept “opens the door to countless means of melodic expression. It also dispels many of the don’ts and can’ts that, to various degrees, have been imposed on the improviser through the study of traditional harmony."

Trombonist Jimmy Cleveland terms the Lydian concept “the best method ever devised for the purpose of training and insight leading to the ultimate in improvisation.”

Russell admits that his influences include Gil Evans, George Handy, Gerry Mulligan, and the composers Alban Berg, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky, and Stefan Wolpe, with whom he studied for six months. From a scientist friend, George Endrey, Russell learned that “even mathematics has a soul. Endrey gave me a scientific language without which I could not have begun to follow the logic of logic.”

What he terms his “most ambitious project so far," a work commissioned by Brandeis university, is due to be released shortly by Columbia Records [All About Rosie]. Russell also is working on several jazz albums, including one featuring Sonny Rollins, for Riverside.

One Sunday recently, Miles went to Russell's house for dinner. George explained some of his theory to Davis, and the trumpeter said, “George, if Bird were alive, this would kill him.”

Russell asked Davis how he meant that.

But Davis just grinned and sat down to dinner.”

Down Beat Magazine
May 29, 1958

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