© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles has made a concerted effort to post as much of the Jazz literature on composer-arranger George Russell that is available in print as its way of archiving published works on this significant but often overlooked figure in the development of the music.
Much of what has previously posted were writings about Russell’s early career with a particular emphasis on the evolution of his seminal Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization and how it was applied to various compositions in the Third Stream movement of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and on George’s own sextet recordings from this period which appeared primarily on the Decca and Riverside Records labels.
The following piece by the distinguished, award winning author Bob Blumenthal first appeared in The Boston Phoenix on April 24, 1973. It contains the most detailed interview with George Russell available in print in terms of a career overview, Russell’s own explanation of his approach to Jazz and how he views himself in relation to the music.
After you’ve read Bob’s article, I think you’ll agree with my assessment that it is the most comprehensive essay ever written about George Russell and his approach to Jazz.
What’s more, we are very lucky to have this piece for as Bob explains in the note that accompanied it:
“My old copy was so faded that I realized I had to retype it, which I have done, leaving everything as it originally appeared save for a few typos ….
My questions have been omitted, but it's pretty easy to get the gist. I obviously had a negative reaction when George referred to his approach as a "technology," which set him off. He also refers to my earlier review of "Living Time,' which, if I'm not mistaken, stated that several of Bill Evans' portions seemed out of place against the orchestrations.
In any case, I hope I'm not too late with this for your purposes. I think it's as good as any interview with George that I recall seeing.”
© -Bob Blumenthal, copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the permission of the author.
The man who writes for the band is usually the last to receive his proper share of recognition. George Russell is woefully ignored if only considered as one of the finest composers and arrangers Afro-American music (he dislikes the word “jazz”) has produced, but George is much more than a great composer. In 1953, he published The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization, the first theoretical-philosophical approach to the music and, 20 years later, still the most important work of its kind. The book places great stress on the use of scales (modes) in place of the traditional chord-change harmonic framework, and particular emphasis to the Lydian Mode (FGABCDEF). The entire approach anticipates by almost a decade the radical changes that were to take place in the music, and had an important impact of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and other innovators more famous than Russell.
A brief biography/discography might be in order. Born in Cincinnati in 1923, Russell started as a drummer with the Benny Carter band but gained his first notoriety by writing “Cubano Be” and “Cubano Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra in 1947. The next several years were spent on the book, which appeared in 1953. About 1955, Russell began to work full-time on the writing of music. His “All About Rosie,” written in 1957 for a Brandeis concert series, is one of the major extended compositions of that decade, and he followed “Rosie” with two extended albums for Decca featuring such luminaries as Coltrane, Bill Evans and Paul Bley. By 1960, he decided to put “the concept” to work in a combo setting. The combo eked out an existence through four years and half a dozen albums for Decca and Riverside; participants included Eric Dolphy and Don Ellis. George left for Europe early in 1964, where he spend several years under far more encouraging circumstances, and completed three major works: “Othello Ballet Suite,” “Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature” and “Listen to the Silence.” By 1970 he was back in the United States and spending much of his time in Boston teaching at the New England Conservatory. Living Time, his collaboration with old friend Bill Evans, was a highlight of 1972; currently, he is preparing Volume Two of The Lydian Chromatic Concept and continues to teach at NEC.
Finding Russell’s music can be difficult, since much of his best work is out of print. His pieces for the Gillespie band can now be had cheap at places like Harvard Square these days, and a couple of the Riverside packages still surface in the cutout bins. Otherwise there is “A Bird in Igor’s Yard,” one of his finest charts from the forties on the flip side of Lennie Tristano’s Capitol reissue; Othello and the combo version of Electronic Sonata, recorded in Europe and released here on Flying Dutchman, and the Living Time album on Columbia. JCOA has just made a European double album available, The Essence of George Russell, which contains the orchestral “Electronic Sonata” and two other extended pieces. Available from JCOA Record Distribution Service, 1841 Broadway, New York City 10023, it is Russell’s finest collection from his European stay. The word from Decca is that the important New York, N.Y. and Jazz in the Space Age are being prepared for double-album re-release; Milestone’s reissue series of the old Riverside label has not, however, seen fit to provide us with any George Russell.
What follows are George Russell’s words, responding to my questions about his life, his views, and most of all his concept. George is the most open of men and could speak on many subjects; for our first meeting, however, I asked him to speak about himself. The printed page often makes men appear too preoccupied with their own work, but remember that people are only responding to questions. And George Russell has much to say.
“I was always working on the book, but I wasn’t working in music, in terms of turning out compositions or performing, before 1955. After that, I found that you only need to do one or two projects a year to live in a state of genteel poverty. I formed my group in 1960, and we played when we could get work through 1964. After the ’64 Newport festival, where the band got one of its best receptions, I became deathly ill and needed three operations. By the time I recovered, George Wein asked me to be on his European tour. I left with every intention of staying there. There were things in Europe, like Penderecki, that I wanted to know about; and the groundwork of notating for orchestra had been done three years before.
Europe made me come to terms with myself as a person, and not with “making it.” The whole struggle of competing for work in those filty U.S. jazz clubs, for example, is beyond me. I finally came back because important things were happening in this country that weren’t happening anywhere else. It all started with [Martin Luther] King.
Now I’m working on a second book of the Lydian Chromatic Concept. I won’t write music and a book at the same time and this book will take quite a while. The idea for the first book was conceived in about 1945, and was worked on in such a way that I was always using music to test it out. It was on a level where it needed that; it’s not on that kind of level any more. Its theories are very set. I needed it in order to internalize the theory, and music helped me to do that; and the book needed it to see if the theories worked in practice. The fact that there had been no previous theoretical approach, and the ignorance surrounding that kind of approach, is what made the prospect so exciting. There were a lot of people who felt that if a black got involved in this kind of activity, he was either aping white technology…or being very stiff. But it’s my feeling that it should be possible to come up with an approach to music that’s as beautiful as music itself.
There was a very strong emotional reason why I had to do this, and that was to teach myself, because I couldn’t adapt to what the music schools were teaching – not that I had the opportunity to go to those music schools. I never did, but the little I knew about those schools gave me the feeling, like Ellington said, “It’s not for me.” Then the question became how to educate myself, and I found ways, but there were certain things in those ways I found important enough to try to communicate to other people. I seemed to infer that there was a lot of falseness in traditional theory, and I think by now that I’ve proved that.
Unless we’re talking about an art that’s totally primitive - and when I say “primitive” I don’t mean the so-called primitive societies, because they have highly sophisticated art – any art that’s sophisticated has a technology. Or any artist, like Charlie Parker, had a technology, has a way of dealing with the existing technology. A man has to have some knowledge about music, and either he accepts the existing knowledge or he takes it and works it his own way. I think it’s very primitive to say that art doesn’t have a technology; even the most subjective art is loaded with technology. The whole feeling that prevails, especially in this country, that art has come in tiger-skinned tights and swinging off the vines – I have to say that’s very primitive. All the artists I know have really worked out their technology. And I don’t use the word apologetically; I think Lester Young was totally into technology, very heavily. It’s a racist argument in fact, like saying that if you’re black you’re not supposed to have a technology. But I don’t blame you for suggesting that argument, in a way, for what technology has meant to the Western world has been a rather close-minded, single-minded way of life that hasn’t solved anything at all. It may have alleviated some suffering here and there, but it hasn’t really solved any problems, and it probably has created as many problems as it has solved, if not more. So I don’t blame you for having that fear of the word “technology.” I feel that I actually stumbled on something that’s technology but it’s more.
What the books are about doesn’t need explaining. On the most basic level, it initially had to do with musicians educating themselves, primarily jazz musicians. It’s a break with Western music theory, and it argues that Western music theory is only half right, and there’s a lot that it missed. It only works up to a certain point, then it doesn’t explain things at all. The music gets very chromatic, like the music at the latter part of the nineteenth century, before Schoenberg came along and broke the whole thing down. The book says that instead there is one concept that fits all equal-tempered music that has been produced in Western civilization – there is one view that fits the whole thing. It’s probably the first technical book ever to come out before the music was a fact. In 1953, when the book was published, it suggested that musicians could convert chords into modes that sounded closest to the chords. It proved that particular modes were closest to the sound of the chords, and that was about six years before anybody popularized that particular idea; Miles popularized it in ’59 [Kind of Blue LP]. Of course, you have to have Miles’ innate strength and talent as an artist to make something out of anything. But if a young Miles had gotten into that in 1953 he would have had to go through all that ridiculous computing to make it fit traditional theory.
I’m always enlightened by what people have done with the concept. People always ask, “You must have debated a long time before deciding to give that away?” because everybody had their own thing, and it was their secret. Like Duke never told anyone how he voiced those chords; the prevailing attitude was “never give anything away,” especially because whitey would pick up on it. But I sensed, with the concept, that just the few facts that I had in ’53 made it imperative that I present it. And I’ve never regretted it. But even today, some students [at the New England Conservatory] are coming up with facts that are enlightening me and will appear in the second volume…
When ‘Trane played with me [in 1959], I could sense what he was going through, and where he had to move if he would remain true to his music. I can’t say anything about the reaction between ‘Trane and myself, but I can say that we talked. I explained the concept to him in about ’59. He would play on two chords by substituting his own four chords to get to what he was doing, but he didn’t even have to think about chords, there was a whole universe of chords there. He did move in the modal direction, and further into the chromatic thing later on. But I’m not out to convert people; most students come to me, I don’t seek them.
The concept is, I hate to say it, so big that it doesn’t really create a style. You couldn’t detect that somebody had studied the concept by the way they played. A guy who studied with me might go out and play like Louis Armstrong, and still be playing the concept. Some people, like Jan Garbarek, the European tenor player, have studied nothing but the concept, but you can’t detect that either. The concept is about music, but it’s about a little more, too. Lately I’ve realized that it has a social content, it has a philosophical content. From a social standpoint what I think it represents is black technology. It’s a black man’s view of the science of music. This has always been a closed door in a black person’s mind, because he doesn’t think he has a technology. You ask, “Could it make a Charlie Parker?” but what made him Charlie Parker is that he had an advanced technology, he had a way of doing things that nobody else had. What made ‘Trane ‘Trane was that he had an advanced technology…I understand that he would hardly ever go to bed; he used to stay up reading mathematics. It’s ridiculous to pigeon-hole artists into a bag which would cut them off from technology, when they are expressing technology on an extremely high level, because art deals with levels of reality that people don’t know much about. My own effort, for the past twenty years, has been a black technology.
The second volume will devote quite a few chapters to showing where traditional music got off, and it got off because it couldn’t quite accept that fourth mode of the major scale. Starting on F, F, G, A, B, C, D, E, it couldn’t make that false fourth from F to B. That’s the Lydian mode of the major scale. I like to call it “the nigger mode,” because that mode was kind of forbidden – the Church didn’t encourage writing in that mode. But that mode had so much information, it had the information that would have enabled them, had they been open-minded, to link and come up with a real music theory.
When I say it’s the nigger mode, I mean that it paralleled life in a way. Any phenomenon that you subjugate, and mistreat, and make subordinate … I won’t say that it places that phenomenon close to truth, but that’s about as close as I can get to it. It picks up some strength and some power the oppressor doesn’t have, and one day it can overcome the oppressor, because it’s got a certain slant on life. I’m not saying that the Lydian mode is the mode of rebellion or any shit like that, but I am saying that there is good reason to call it the nigger mode. It did suffer a lot of prejudice, and at the same time it had within it the most profound meaning in music. People will say, “George Russell always writes in the Lydian mode;” hell, I hardly ever use it. But theoretically it’s the most important mode; it’s so latent with fantastic facts and it’s the missing link between tonality and so-called atonality.
The concept’s nearest relative is Pythagoras. It links directly to the way he was thinking, tuning in fifths. The origin of the term “octave” is in philosophy and mathematics, and then the term got applied to music. Pythagoras was already involved in linking music with the way the universe behaves. Now his cues must have also come from Egypt and the great African dynasties, because each person gets the knowledge he needs, and that knowledge existed before. I don’t want to make this a racist thing, but because of what they have had to endure, black people have a great technological talent that they could bring to every field. Because the way it is now, it’s going to kill all of us…
I did some albums for Riverside [1960-1963] which convinced me that there was a way of scoring for big band that would really free the music up. Whenever you hear a big band, whether you like the music or not, it always sounds like people are reading it; stiff, unless the band has played together for a long time, like Basie – I’m talking about the old Basie band. I thought there was a technique I had to learn to score this kind of music, and of course with my way of thinking, I had to dig in and get the technology out. So I came up with rhythmic modes, and how rhythm behaves, and then I found how to incorporate this and how to score it. The first project was Othello [Flying Dutchman 122] recorded in ’67, then the big band Electronic Sonata, then a work for choir and Afro-American music ensemble called Listen to the Silence which will also come out soon. It has culminated in Living Time [Columbia 31490], but all of them are scored the same.
The atmosphere on the Living Time date was like one big family. When the date was over, at the end of the fifth and final session, all of the musicians, from Snooky Young to Tony Williams, stood up and applauded. For the first half hour or so of the first session, it was hard for most of them to get with what they had to do; but once they got with it, they…I’ll bet they would all say that they had a lot more freedom than they had ever had on a big band date. They had to put themselves into the music.
You didn’t like Bill Evans on the record, but I think you’re forcing Bill into a category and being very rigid. I find it very enjoyable when he ends the events in his very romantic and very beautiful way. After all that has gone on, he sums it up. It was written there to say “Well, here we are, we’re back. We’ve gone on our trip, and we’re back.”
Generally in this country we have a tremendous problem with music. We’re so information-laden; I mean shit is pushed on us that’s incredibly bad. I don’t care what label you want to put on it, musically it’s just horrible. We get it on the radio, we get it when guys write in newspapers that something is great when it’s really horrible – we don’t know where we are any more, musically. We get the whole gamut of crap that the record companies throw out on us, so it’s very difficult for me to take criticism very seriously here. I’ll take it from people I know in Norway and Sweden, who are into some music. They’re a little more careful about letting their music get so polluted.
I’m not against rock. I like “Papa was a Rolling Stone”…I like the Temptations when they do that. I like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield. I love Sly. I have my favorites. But most of the music situation is quite polluted. There’s some excellent, beautiful music around, but you really have to look for it. This is not an era where there is no good music, but there’s so much crap and the crap is what’s making it. The value judgments are completely turned around.
I never thought I’d live to see the day when the music I heard in what we called “Black Bottom” in Cincinnati, the black-assed ghetto…when nice little bourgeois white kids from Scarsdale would be shakin’ their ass to that, and that’s what’s happening. That music got the white race to shakin’ its ass – they used to dance really corny. Some of the white music is very timely, especially the lyrics. What’s interesting is that the lyrics the people like Dylan write often have a depth that the music doesn’t have. I started dancing to rock in 1953; in fact, all my compositions from “Cubano Be” and “Cubano Bop”  on have bass lines. I could never get away from that. So I never felt distant from rock, because that was the kind of music I grew up around.
The accent today is more on the content of the lyrics than on the structure of the music. There are some slight innovations, but there isn’t much a musician can learn by listening. Unless you want to learn how to make some money. But once the lyrics are not so interesting, musically it doesn’t hold up at all. It had to be fed periodically, because there’s not enough substance to it. So a Miles comes along…to give it some life, some musical life. Otherwise, it’s just being held up by all those people who invested money in it…
There was a time when I had the boyhood notion that my dream come true would be to be a leader. I felt I had to do it, but now I’ve grown progressively more disenchanted with that. But I know Gil Evans loves to lead a band; he loves to hear his music played. For me, it’s gotten to the point where I feel that I don’t need to hear my music that much. The most important thing to me now is dealing with the laws of music, as they relate to higher laws, ethical and philosophical laws. There’s an electronic music studio in Stockholm where I could satisfy myself aesthetically for the rest of my life without having to deal with one musician. The book is another of my projects; I have a lot of “in” projects that aren’t dependent on anybody else. It’s okay to get together and have a band, but the highest aesthetic satisfaction for me doesn’t come from performing or hearing my music performed at a concert. It comes from the very private work that I’m doing.
I haven’t regretted my life, and I’m glad I survived it. I’m glad about the trip the concept has taken me on, and I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t think I belong to any specific period – wherever I am now, I feel that a few people in 1980 will be listening to it. I’m not my own connoisseur, but my older music will be available because I’m an educator. It simply isn’t famous because I won’t dance.”
COPYRIGHT by BOB BLUMENTHAL