Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Jazz Literature on the Career of Composer-Arranger George Russell

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

This blog posting features a collection of six articles on George Russell, an American Jazz Composer and Arranger and orchestra leader, who lived from 1923 to 2009.

It is essentially an unedited compilation of selected writings, critiques and interviews which is intended to provide an overview of George's career and his approach to music for those who might be unfamiliar with his work as well as a starting point for those wishing to do further research about him.

Each article has previously appeared on the blog as a separate piece and, as is our wont from time to time, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles likes to collect these individual essays and make them available "all in one place."

The multi-reed player and composer-arranger Jimmy Giuffre, a contemporary of George's [1921-2008] caused a stir in Jazz circles in the 1950's when he moved from a traditional Jazz combo format of horns and rhythm section by featuring his music in a trio setting consisting of him, a guitarist and a bass player.

Initially, anyway, the group's instrumentation got more attention than did Giuffre's music in the new format.

Exasperated at the constant niggling from his critics, Jimmy declared: "It's just one way."

Similarly when George published The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization in 1953 jazz music theory book that subsequently became the founding text for his Lydian Chromatic Concept or Lydian Chromatic Theory, George explained that its just one approach as the basis for Jazz improvisation.

Of course, George was being far too modest because his theory has had far reaching effect especially in the realm of modal jazz. Art Farmer said that it "opens the door to countless means of melodic expression"and critic Joachim-Ernst Berendt described it as "the first work deriving a theory of jazz harmony from the immanent laws of jazz" and as "the pathbreaker for Miles Davis' and John Coltrane's 'modality'". Bill Evans and Miles Davis utilized the theory and used it to record modal jazz, such as the album Kind of Blue. John Coltrane's modal jazz is usually analyzed using Russell's method. In arguably his most famous piece, Giant Steps, Coltrane can be heard traveling through a succession of three parent Lydian Chromatic scales: C Lydian, A♭ Lydian, and E Lydian. 

New Jazz Conceptions - When George Russell Met Bill Evans

Clarinetist Tony Scott provided Bill Evans with much late-fifties club work in New York. Scott had also landed a recording contract with RCA and Bill was part of a quartet the contributed four tracks to Tony’s showcase album, The Touch of Tony Scott.

On these quartet tracks, Evans delivered his most fully formed work to date, displaying several facets of his rapidly developing talent. 'Round About Midnight was notable for its reticence, Scott and Evans taking a refined view far removed from the rough-hewn original. Bill's classical training helped him layer the tone, the opening melody warmly projected, the accompanying chords touched in ever so lightly underneath.

On two other tracks he employed that artful, double-handed technique known as "locked hands," which he had been pursuing since his college days, each note of the melody played and harmonized by the right hand whilst simultaneously doubled at the octave below in the left.

In this manner all the harmony notes became sandwiched between two parallel lines an octave apart. Derived from close saxophone-section voicings, the technique was pioneered at the keyboard by Milt Buckner in the Lionel Hampton band and popularized by George Shearing in his quintet recordings.

However, on Aeolian Drinking Song, the last of the four quartet tracks, the aim was entirely different: to create single lines, either solo or in counterpoint, in the Aeolian mode — a scale from A to A on the white notes of the piano — based in this case on the note F. There was hardly a chord to be heard in the piece. In the first of several similar excursions in his early career, Evans met the challenge head-on. He was stark, deadly, and intellectually daunting.

This track belonged to a separate strand in the pianist's makeup and will be better understood in the light of a radical session that had taken place in the same venue some three months earlier. On that occasion, the seminal figure in charge was the composer and arranger George Russell.

The whole idea behind Aeolian Drinking Song was revolutionary and lay entirely outside the scope of the average swing musician. The one pianist on the scene in the summer of 1956 who was most likely to assimilate the idea and come through with flying colors in the execution was Bill Evans. His first recorded leap into that particular void had already occurred at the end of March, in a sextet led by the composer George Russell.

Down Beat magazine had announced that Russell, who had not been active in jazz since 1951 — when he had done "Ezz-thetic" and "Odjenar" for a cool Lee Konitz sextet nominally led by Miles Davis — was now writing for several forthcoming Victor jazz albums. Kenny Dorham was projected (prematurely, as it turned out) as the trumpeter, and Bill Evans was advertised as the pianist.

One hot day the previous summer, while recording The Singing Reed, Lucy Reed, who was an old friend of George Russell and his wife Juanita, called to say that she would love to visit with a friend called Bill. George suggested they all take a ride on the Staten Island ferry. His first impression of Lucy's friend was not encouraging — "plain looking fella, very quiet, very withdrawn" — and Russell felt that he was in for a tough time socially. This is going to be like pulling teeth all day, he thought.

Eventually they returned to the Russells' place at the Beechwood Hotel, where the stove, bed, ironing board, and piano were crammed together into one room. George was paying his dues working behind a lunch counter while working on his theoretical magnum opus, the Lydian Concept. As it happened, some of his arrangements had already come Bill's way in a concert with Lucy. The ironing board was moved onto the bed so that Evans could play, while Russell, expecting the worst, hovered at the door ready to make an excuse. Instead, "It was one of those magic moments in your life when you expect a horror story," he now recalls, "and the doors of heaven open up — I knew then and there he wasn't going to get away."

George Allan Russell was born in Cincinnati in 1923. He remembers singing in the choir of his African Methodist Episcopal Church, and he grew up to the sounds of Fate Marable's Kentucky riverboat music. Art Tatum spent some time in the city, and Russell sometimes heard him practicing. As a teenager he was impressed by Tatum's sounds, but he was equally struck by his first experience of modern symphonic music, a record of Debussy's "Fetes" from the orchestral Nocturnes. He never let go of that sound, and the amalgamation of jazz with European forms was crucial to his musical philosophy. Like Tony Scott, he came under the influence of Stefan Wolpe for a while.

In 1941, after failing the draft because of spots on the lung, Russell entered the hospital for the first time with tuberculosis. It was during subsequent extended spells in the hospital, and between drumming with Benny Carter's band, that he formulated his theoretical work, fully entitled The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation (for all instruments).

The concept exposes an existing principle rather than inventing something new; Russell's revelation is based on the conviction that the Lydian scale on, for instance, C (C D E F-sharp G A B) is more compatible with the tonality of C major than is the familiar C major scale. The logic of this, as explained in the book, is irrefutable, and Russell's thesis convinces not only theoretically but in the compelling brilliance of his own creations. "George composes things which sound improvised," Evans said. "You have to be deeply involved in jazz and understand all the elements to be able to do that."

Evans became exposed to this world soon after he settled in New York in 1955, and he quickly absorbed its language. (Like the French genius, Olivier Messiaen, George Russell stakes out his own vernacular.) Evans's active participation began the following year, soon after RCA began a new series of recordings called Jazz Workshop. One of the recordings, led by the alto saxophonist Hal McKusick, included a piece by Russell. Encouraged by McKusick, Jack Lewis, the artists and repertory man for RCA Victor, offered the composer his own record date in the series. Russell already wanted Evans, and Hal McKusick recruited the other musicians, including trumpeter Art Farmer, guitarist Barry Galbraith, and bass player Milt Hinton.

Three recording dates were set up and a series of intensive Sunday rehearsals, usually at Hinton's house in Queens, took place before each session. The bassist played his part as written, but Art Farmer told me that the other musicians "took the parts home from the rehearsals and tried to come to terms with them. All George Russell's music was taken very seriously by the musicians. That Victor album took a year to do."

There was a calm and quiet confidence about George Russell that inspired trust in his players. RCA Victor sessions did not come easily, but Farmer remembers that the composer never panicked or raised his voice — and everyone knew there would be no overtime pay. Afterward Miles Davis told Farmer, "Man, that was very nice work. It can't have been easy." Called The Jazz Workshop, it was George Russell's first big-break album as leader, and for the first time he could swap a penurious lifestyle for the relative comfort of a small apartment on Bank Street in the Village. Russell and Evans became good friends, George and his wife nicknaming Bill "the minister," he looked so unlike a jazz musician.

The melodic and harmonic world created (or discovered) by Russell was hauntingly original. Hal McKusick, who sounded thoroughly at home in the sessions, nevertheless declared that it was like learning another language. The album should be assessed in terms of music history, for though undoubtedly a jazz record, it is also a twentieth-century classic, to be considered alongside the wind chamber works of Stravinsky or Varese.

At the first session at Webster Hall in March, Evans turned in some solid work, firm of tone and with a spring in the fingers. Russell's most-played piece at the time was Ezz-thetic, a tortuous bop line on the restructured chords of Love for Sale. Bill's solo on it here gleaned from Bud Powell and Horace Silver but had a direction and purpose all its own.

Evans was not blessed with natural self-assurance, but by the time of the second session in October he had just completed his first trio album, New Jazz Conceptions, and his confidence was boosted as well by the presence of Paul Motian on Round Johnny Rondo, Witch Hunt, and, most of all, Concerto for Billy the Kid. The "Concerto" was his real opportunity, designed especially by Russell "to supply a frame to match the vigor and vitality in the playing of pianist Bill Evans."

At the start, in the two-handed octave passage over bucking-bronco rhythm, Evans played from the written score, but soon stretched out, fully exposed, on the chords of I'll Remember April. The precision of the fingerwork controlled the backing band, abetted by the alert Russell on the podium. This was one of the pianist's early tours de force, on a par with the more notorious All About Rosie, composed by Russell about a year later.

The musicians knew that they had a sensational performance of "Concerto" in the can, but Art Farmer recalls that either Evans or Russell was dissatisfied with some element, and it was decided to have another crack at it during the final December session. On that take Evans incorporated a quote from Thelonious Monk's Well, You Needn't. He had come under the wing of Monk, staying at his place once, just when he needed friends and contacts in New York City. He had no doubts about the quality of that eccentric genius's playing, and his favorite recording was the Prestige album from the early 1950s, mostly Monk originals in definitive versions. Evans particularly liked the humor in the playing. Later, in the sleeve note to the 1964 Columbia album Monk, he wrote: "Monk approaches the piano and... music as well, from an 'angle' that, although unprecedented, is just the right 'angle' for him."

The Jazz Workshop was the first of a handful of stunning collaborations between Russell and Evans. The pieces were superbly structured, at once compositions and settings. Evans himself always stressed the importance of form and structure in his own work, whether it be the overall framework of a number or the shape of a solo. He was in his element participating, and one wonders what other pianist working in this context could have accomplished what Evans did: creating such assertive right-hand lines unaided by left-hand comping, integrating the invention stylistically, and reading the written parts with such skill.

Art Farmer said, "The more difficult the music was, the more he made of it. He could deal with the weirdest chord changes and really respond to a challenge.”

The work of the pianist Lennie Tristano, with his cool approach to a line, permeated Evans's contribution to this music.

The influence of the older pianist on the younger is clearly audible: Tristano, the sonic architect and ascetic, argued for soundness of construction but shied away from romantic inflection. Evans, the passionate romantic, nevertheless identified immediately with Tristano's logical approach. Thus a satisfying amalgam was achieved as Evans pursued Tristano's long, snaking, but rhythmically bland lines, injecting them with cross-rhythms and oblique accents of his own, the execution controlled with tightness and panache.

Evans needed good tone and independent fingers, among other qualities, to meet the challenge of his next group of engagements. In 1957 Brandeis University appointed the composer Gunther Schuller as artistic director to its Festival of the Arts. While lecturing there, Schuller coined the term "third-stream" for the fusion of the European musical tradition with jazz. In this context the university commissioned one composition from each of six composers, three from jazz (George Russell, Charles Mingus, and Jimmy Giuffre) and three from the classical world (Schuller, Harold Shapero, and Milton Babbitt). Bill Evans, as a well-rounded musician, was engaged as pianist for the event.

George Russell's contribution, a suite in three movements called All About Rosie, was previewed on NBC-TV's Tonight Show a week before the festival. For the core of his fourteen-piece lineup Russell drew on the talents of four musicians who had been at the heart of The Jazz Workshop LP: Evans, Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, and Barry Galbraith. The piece went well, Evans in particular rising to its considerable challenge; the power of television led to hallowed references in jazz circles to a "legendary" performance by an unknown pianist called Bill Evans.

All six works were played outdoors on the campus on June 6; Schuller conducted, and Nat Hentoff introduced the composers and their pieces. It was cold and damp, the audience was restless, and the performance of this demanding music reflected the inhospitable conditions. Listening closely was a twenty-year-old Brandeis student, Chuck Israels. Afterward he played bass in a trio at a reception; his colleagues were an even younger pianist, Steve Kuhn, and the drummer Arnold Wise. Evans liked what he heard from the trio and chatted with the players, little suspecting that both bassist and drummer would feature in his own group within the next few years.

The concert program was repeated more successfully indoors the following morning, and it was soon recorded as Brandeis Jazz Festival for Columbia. In the third movement of All About Rosie, Russell spotlighted the pianist as he had in Concerto for Billy the Kid: in both pieces tempo and feel were the same, "Rosie" taken perhaps a notch up from "Billy." Again the band dropped out on cue to leave Evans's coruscating right hand exposed in solo, his choice of notes uncanny, the rhythmic verve bracing, his fingerwork relentlessly muscular. 

Aside from the brilliance of the playing, the most notable element was the assured integration of improvised and written material, credit due in equal parts to composer and performer."

Peter Pettinger

Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings

Concerto for Billy The Kid

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

“One of the musical tracks I often use in lectures is the 1956 recording “Concerto for Billy the Kid” by the composer and orchestra leader George Russell, who died this summer. Most people – even those who love jazz – have never heard it, yet it is an amazing performance, not five minutes long, which adapts piano concerto format to a sextet. The arrangement is based on a series of congruous scales or modes, rather than the usual harmonies, with the result that the band radiates a rattling dissonance while sounding far larger than it is. Most of the melodic figures are short, pulsing fragments, and they swing like mad. The highlight is an exhilarating piano cadenza created to introduce the as-yet-unknown Bill Evans (the eponymous Billy the Kid). In this section, Russell had Evans improvise on the chords of an old standard, and he hammers the keys as though his fingers were dancing mallets.
This recording invariably dazzles audiences, partly because it doesn’t sound a day older than tomorrow.”
- Gary Giddins, Jazz author and critic

“The challenge which is presented to the composer of modern music who has been traditionally educated is that of either refining and reshaping his traditionally learned techniques, or constructing new techniques that will enable him to capture and enhance the vital improvisational forces so abundantly inherent in much of the good music of today. To impose old orders and old techniques upon vigorous and willful young music is to burden and stifle it rather than to channel and lead it and be led by it.”
- George Russell, Jazz Composer, Arranger and Theorist

Every so often, I enjoy developing and sharing a piece about what’s going on in the music; a kind of follow along using the timings that accompany videos as the basis for keying your ears into what I’m hearing.

I mean, at some point, words become a poor substitute for describing what’s occurring in the music, but less so perhaps if what they are describing is actually linked to the music as it is playing.

Recently I came across a segment in a book about Jazz by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux which is designed to serve as a textbook on the subject that did my work for me. Incidentally, the title of the book on the subject of Jazz is just that - Jazz - and its publisher W.W. Norton has made it available both as a trade edition and in a format with online interactive features.

The specific recording that they’ve annotated is Concerto for Billy the Kid which was composed by George Russell and appears his 1956 RCA The Jazz Workshop LP.

I have position the video below their timings and breakdowns and you can use the pause feature on the video and scroll their written explanation of the actual music under discussion.

“Among the major jazz figures in the bop and postbop eras, George Russell [1923-2009] is singular on two counts. First, he worked exclusively as a composer-bandleader, not as an instrumentalist; second, he devoted much of his life to formulating an intricate musical theory, published in 1953 and revised in 2001 as George Russell's Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, Volume One: The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity.” …

Russell was held in great esteem by the most advanced jazz musicians of the 1950s, and he surrounded himself with many of them, including John Coltrane and Max Roach. But he also had a good ear for raw talent. His most influential discovery was the pianist Bill Evans, whom he eventually introduced to Davis. Evans had appeared on a few record sessions yet was virtually unknown when Russell recruited him for Jazz Workshop. To showcase his immense talent, Russell conceived "Concerto for Billy the Kid." Evans's rigorous solo, coming to a head in his whirling stop-time cadenza, is far removed from the more meditative approach that later became his signature, but it remains one of his most compelling performances.

Working with only six musicians in this piece, Russell creates tremendous harmonic density. His clashing scales give the performance a dramatically modernistic edge, though he also uses a standard chord progression (from the 1942 Raye-DePaul standard "I’ll Remember April," an enduring favorite among jazz musicians) for the Evans sequence. In creating a capacious harmonic landscape that obliterates the usual tonal centers, Russell makes his sextet sound like a much larger ensemble. For all the dissonances, rhythmic change-ups, and fragmented melodies, the piece swings with a pure-jazz elan. The inventiveness of the composer and his soloists never wavers. After more than half a century, "Concerto for Billy the Kid" sounds not only fresh but avant-garde, in the truest sense of the term. It would sound modern if it were written and recorded today.

By George Russell

Art Farmer, trumpet; Hal McKusick, alto saxophone; Bill Evans, piano; Barry Galbraith, electric guitar; Milt Hinton, bass; Paul Motian, drums
LABEL: Victor LPM 1372; The Complete Bluebird Recordings (Lone Hill Jazz LHJ 10177)

DATE: 1956

STYLE: modernist small-group composition

FORM: original, including 32-bar AA' and 48-bar ABA

0:00 - The drums begin by playing a Latin groove: a syncopated rhythm on the cymbals alternates with the bass drum on the main beats and the snare drum on the backbeat.

0:05 - Above the groove, two horns (muted trumpet and alto saxophone) play
two independent lines in dissonant counterpoint. The rhythms are disjointed and unpredictable.

0:09 - The horns become stuck on a dissonant interval—the major second, or
whole step. They move this interval up and down.

0:11 - Hinton enters on bass, doubled by piano, repeating two notes a
half step apart. (This bass line will remain in place for most of the introduction.)
0:15 - The horns play a descending riff that ends, once again, on a major second. This riff repeats at unpredictable intervals.

0:18 - The texture is thickened by a new line, played by the electric guitar.

0:24 - The horns switch to a new key and begin a new ostinato that clashes, polyrhythmically, with the meter. Evans (piano) and Galbraith (guitar) improvise countermelodies.

0:34 - The horns begin a new ostinato in call and response with the guitar.

0:44 - The ostinato changes slightly, fitting more securely into the measure. Evans adds complicated responses.

0:58 - Farmer (trumpet) removes his mute. The ostinato becomes a more engaging Latin riff, forming a four-bar pattern. Underneath it, Hinton plays a syncopated bass line.

1:11 - In a dramatic cadence, the harmony finally reaches the tonic.

1:13 - The drums improvise during a short two-bar break.

Chorus 1 (32 bars, AA')

1:15   A    The rhythm section sets up a new Latin groove, with an unexpected syncopation on one beat. Evans plays a peculiar twisting line in octaves on piano, moving dissonantly through the chord structure.

1:22 - Over one chord, the piano line is more strikingly dissonant.

1:28   A’   As the chord progression begins over again, Evans's melody continues to dance above the harmonies.

Chorus 2

1:42   A    The horns repeat Evans's line note for note. Underneath, Evans plays a
montuno—a syncopated chordal pattern typically found in Latin accompaniments, locking into the asymmetrical bass line.

1:56   A’


2:11 - The walking-bass line rises and falls chromatically, while melodic
themes are tossed between the instruments.

2:21 - The band returns to the Latin groove and the melodic ideas previously
heard in the introduction.

Chorus 3 (48-bar ABA, each section 16 bars)

2:28   A    This new chord progression—based on "I'll Remember April"—begins
with an extended passage of stop-time. Evans improvises for four bars in a single melodic line.

2:31 - The band signals the next chord with a single sharp gesture while Evans continues to improvise.

2:35 - The band enters every two bars, with Hinton filling in on bass.

2:42   B    The band's chords are irregular, often syncopated.

2:56   A    Evans's improvisations are so rhythmically slippery that the band mis-plays its next stop-time entrance.

3:08 - A walking bass reestablishes a more conventional groove.

Chorus 4

3:09    A     Evans plays a full chorus solo, featuring his right hand only.

3:23    B     He distorts the meter by relentlessly repeating a polyrhythmic triplet

3:37    A     He switches to a series of bluesy gestures.


3:50 - The chorus is interrupted when the bass (doubled by piano) suddenly
establishes a new triple meter. Against this, the horns play a dissonant line, harmonized in fourths (quartal chords).

Chorus 5

3:55    A    We return to the piano solo, a full five bars into this chorus.

3:58 - Evans joins with the drummer in playing sharp accents (or "kicks") on
harshly dissonant chords.

4:05    B     Farmer takes a trumpet solo.

4:12 - Underneath, McCusick (alto saxophone) adds a background line, harmonizing with the guitar's chords.

4:19    A    McCusick plays a melody previously heard in the introduction (at 0:34).

4:26 - The trumpet suddenly joins the saxophone in quartal harmonies, fitting
obliquely over the harmonic progression.


4:31 - As the bass drops out, the instruments revisit ideas from the beginning
of the introduction.
4:36 - The guitar begins a final upward flurry.
4:39- Evans plays the final gesture on piano.

The Jazz Workshop album which contains Concerto for Billy The Kid among its 12 tracks, received glowing reviews.

Critic Leonard Feather wrote of Russell, "Such men must be guarded with care and watched with great expectations."

George Russell and New York, New York

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

“Think you can lick it?  Get to the wicket.
Buy you a ticket.   Go!

Go by bus, by plane, by car, by train...
New York, N.Y..

What they call a somethin' else town.
A city of more than eight million people,
with a million people passin'
through every day. Some come just to visit
and some come to say. If you scuffle hard enough
and you ain't no dunce, you can always get by
in New York City. I heard somebody say once. Yeah...if you can't make it
in New York City, man, you can't make
it nowhere.

So where do people come to scuffle? Right here.
Think you can lick it?  Get to the wicket. Buy you a ticket.  Go! New York, N.Y., a city so nice. They had to name it twice. It may seem like a cold town,
but man. let me tell you, it's a soul town.

It ain't a bit hard to find someone who's lonesome or forlorn here...
But it's like findin' a needle in a haystack to find somebody who was born here.

New York, N.Y., a somethin' else town, all right!
East side, west side, uptown, downtown.

There's one thing all New York City has and that's Jazz.

A while ago, there were cats readin' while cats played jazz behind them, but wasn't nothin' happening, so the musicians cooked right on like they didn't even mind them.

I wrote the shortest jazz poem ever heard.
Nothin' about lovin' and kissin'...
One word...LISTEN!!”
- Jon Hendricks, vocalese introduction to Manhattan

With Milt Hinton’s string bass and Charlie Persip playing brushes on snare drum in the background, Jon speaks these poem-like lyrics on Manhattan, the opening track of George Russell’s album New York, New York [Decca DL 9116].

Each time I listen to Jon’s vocalese, the orchestral arrangement and the individual solos on this track, I am enthralled anew by the way all of these “moving parts” fit together so smoothly.

It is a magnificent piece of Jazz scoring.

Manhattan runs over 10 minutes and George uses the space well allowing for generous solos by trombonists Bob Brookmeyer and Frank Rehak, pianist Bill Evans, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and trumpeter Art Farmer to be interspersed throughout his consistently swinging arrangement.

George’s chart is constructed in segments which serve to launch each soloist. The band then drops out leaving the soloist accompanied only by the Milt Hinton’s walking bass line for a chorus. The drummer joins in playing double time for the second chorus with the band returning to provide a background until the next solo is propelled forward.

Recorded in 1958, the arrangements on New York, New York were the first extensive showcasing of George system of voicing instruments which he termed – “The Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization.”

In his Visions of Jazz: The First Century, Gary Giddins provides the following background to, and description of, George Russell’s Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization:

“Cycles and cycles within cycles are the meat of the matter. One could argue that jazz is a music based on cyclical motion, a strictly defined chorus, usually twelve or thirty-two measures, repeated until a musical statement has been made. Cycles are fomented by radical evolutionary movements, each of which contains the seeds of its own destruction. One example: during the ferment of jazz activity in the '40s, when modern jazz, or bebop, was born, the intoxicating harmonic ingenuity of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie blinded sympathetic fans from recognizing the anti-harmonic implications of George Russell's modal composition, Cubana Be/Cubana Bop written for Gillespie's orchestra. In a day when Thelonious Monk's clattering minor seconds and rhythmic dis­placements were dismissed as the fumblings of a charlatan, Russell's work was appreciated as something of a sui generis novelty.

Russell codified the modal approach to harmony (using scales instead of chords) in a theoretical treatise that he says was inspired by a casual remark the eighteen-year-old Miles Davis made to him in 1944: “Miles said that he wanted to learn all the changes and I reasoned that he might try to find the closest scale for every chord.’ His concept, published as the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, is based on a perfect cycle of fifths generated by the Lydian mode, which sounds more com­plicated than it is. Russell was exploring relationships between chords and scales that would foster a fresh approach to harmony. Davis pop­ularized those liberating ideas in recordings like Kind of Blue, undermin­ing the entire harmonic foundation of bop that had inspired him and Russell in the first place.” [pp.5-6]

Richard Cook and Brian Morton explain Russell’s achievement this way in their Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

However important Russell's theories are, they are even now not securely understood. Sometimes falsely identified with the original Greek Lydian mode, The Lydian Chromatic Concept is not the same at all. In diatonic terms, it represents the progression F to F on the piano's white keys; it also confronts the diabolic tritone, the diabolus in musica, which had haunted Western composers from Bach to Beethoven.

Russell's conception assimilated modal writing to the extreme chromaticism of modern music. By converting chords into scales and overlaying one scale on another, it allowed improvisers to work in the hard-to-define area between non-tonality and polytonality. Like all great theoreticians, Russell worked analytically rather than synthetically, basing his ideas on how jazz actually was, not on how it could be made to conform with traditional principles of Western harmony. Working from within jazz's often tacit organizational principles, Russell's fundamental concern was the relationship between formal scoring and improvisation, giving the first the freedom of the second and, freeing the second from being literally esoteric, 'outside' some supposed norm. [pp 1282-83].

In his Jazz Retrospect, Max Harrison offers the following insights into Russell’s accomplishment:

Simply, he examined the entire harmonic resources of Western music, saw and systematized an entirely fresh set of relationships that had always been present within the traditional framework and which, as it were, only awaited discovery. Far from being a constricting set of regulations, Russell's precepts made available resources whose full possibilities, in the composer John Benson Brooks's words, ‘may take as much as a century to work out’. And according to Art Farmer, trumpeter on many of these discs, the Lydian Concept ‘opens the doors 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.’ Of course, it is necessary to remember Schoenberg's words, ‘ideas can only be honored by one who has some of his own.’ [emphasis, mine]

That is to say Russell offers no magic formula to transform mediocre soloists into good ones. But the gifted improviser is not the only one to benefit. These investigations led Russell to produce music that has strong individuality yet which is very subtle, that teems with invention but is absolutely consistent stylistically. And in the sheer variety of his thematic materials he surpasses all Jazz composers except Duke Ellington. [pp. 58-59; paragraphing modified].

In Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some Of Its Makers, Doug Ramsey offers this essay on George’s work which he originally prepared in 1966 to air on Jazz Review, a program that Doug wrote, produced and broadcast on WDSU-FM and WDSU-AM in New Orleans:

“Over the next few programs we're going to consider the recorded work of George Russell, not only because his music is interesting, absorbing, listening, but because of his influence on the develop­ment of jazz in the sixties. Russell's impact, I believe, is more pro­found and widespread than is generally recognized, even by many musicians. It may well develop that he is having as great an effect on the course of jazz as any composer or arranger at work today, as important as that of such imitated innovators as John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman.

Russell believes that jazz must develop on its own terms, from within. He believes that to borrow the concepts of classical music and force jazz into the mold of the classical tradition results in something perhaps interesting, perhaps Third Stream music, but not jazz. Faced with this conviction that jazz musicians must look to jazz for their means of growth, Russell set about creating a framework within which to work. In 1953 he completed his Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization. The system is built on what he calls pan-tonality, bypassing the atonal ground covered by modern clas­sical composers and making great use of chromaticism. Russell explains that pan-tonality allows the writer and the improviser to re­tain the scale-based nature of the folk music in which jazz has its roots, yet have the freedom of being in a number of tonalities at once. Hence, pan-tonality.

That's a brief and far from complete summary of Russell's theory, on which he worked for ten years. It's all in his book, The Lydian Chromatic Concept for Jazz Improvisation, published by Concept Publishing Company.

Freedom within restrictions, however broad.


Improvising Russell's way demands great technical skill. Listen­ing to his recordings, one is struck by the virtuoso nature of the players. …. All that talk about concepts and theories and pan-tonality and chromaticism may have led you to expect something dry and formidable. On the contrary, there's a sense of fun and airiness in the music. The humor is subtle and, I should add, more evident after several hearings. …

In 1959 there was a good deal of thought being given to the directions jazz would take and strong indications that one important departure would be along the path of freedom.

Russell was an invaluable guide along that path, providing the player a means of achieving greater freedom of expression without falling into licentiousness. The means was his Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization. It gave the improviser a theoretical base from which to play with fewer harmonic restrictions than in be bop. Even musicians who have never studied the theory have been influenced by it because it is a spirit that has moved through the music. In the close community of jazz musicians, new ideas spread rapidly. So, in a tangible sense, this was one of the first recordings of the so-called New Thing. It is a good demonstration of Russell's theory. But, the­ories aside, it is delightful music.” [pp. 266-267 and 269].

Particularly germane to New York, New York is the following commentary by Burt Korall which served as the liner notes to the original LP:

New York, N. Y.... the most fascinating address.

New York, N. Y. is a world unto itself, a world of tumult and silence, love and hate, towering buildings and tenements, big people and small... and the gradations between.

New York, N. Y. is a look up and live town, or a sigh, cry, die town; the big juicy apple that tempts and magnetizes, nourishes or consumes, but is never forgotten.

New York, N. Y. has a face of concrete that menaces those who have not found the key to her heart. And she is a woman—fickle, sometimes cold, warm to those who know her ways. It takes time to know and love her. She is not easy.

New York, N. Y. is always on the move; motion is native to her torso, and whether good or bad, profitable or not, it's there, day and night, like the beat of a tom-tom or a heart — faster by day, slower by night; pushing, easing time along.

New York, N. Y. has many moods. She broods and all her glitter is but a well spring for sadness. She is just as frequently happy, even frivolous, fresh and new, depending on your view.

New York, N. Y. is a blues/dues town. She can take and forsake ... and with­out conscience. In no time, her beauty can become unforgivable to those to whom she yields nothing.

New York, N. Y., a compound of all those that live within her arms, is liberal and bigoted, probing and disinterested. She is affected, phony, and unstintingly real. All these things and more ...

She is rich and poor—Sutton Place and Harlem, Madison Avenue and "The Village", Park Avenue and "Hell's Kitchen"; Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island, too; all the boroughs and sections, streets and avenues, in sum, are New York, N. Y. ... and contribute to her heart, body and soul.

In essence, New York, N. Y. is people; each one important, each one in need of the other.

*          *          *          *

New York, N. Y. is filled with the sounds of jazz.

Jazz musicians come pouring into New York, N. Y. ‘Let's go to the Apple, man, that's where it is,’ they cry, not realizing that the taste of it is reserved for only the equipped. Many return to their home hamlets disappointed; some, more than a little changed for being here.

New York, N. Y. is a cruel mistress. Bring her something new and she is torn between a desire to understand and an inclination to resist change. ‘Prove it!’ she tauntingly says to those who come to her bearing the future in their hands.

New York, N. Y. is a challenge,’ claims composer-arranger George Russell. ‘Youth comes here to accept the challenge.’

‘I've had a running love affair with this town since I first saw her as a child,’ he continued. "I'd rather sink here than swim anywhere else."

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 23, 1923, Russell's first manifestations of interest in music occurred in early adolescence. At 15, he was earning his living as a jazz drummer in a Cincinnati night club. At 17, on scholarship at Wilberforce University in Ohio, he was studying music and playing with The Collegians, the college dance/jazz band.

Shortly after his twentieth birthday, Russell left school, joined the Benny Carter band on drums, and came to New York.

‘I got to hear Max Roach. He was too much,’ Russell explained. ‘Max had it all on drums. I decided that writing was my field.’

Returning home to Cincinnati determined to learn all he could about writing, Russell culled as much as he could from jazz writers around town. Proceeding by the ‘trial and error’ method, the budding writer used the house band at the old Cotton Club as a laboratory for his work. The band would play his arrangements and compositions, allowing him to err and correct, to progress.

Benny Carter was the first person of significance to take an interest in Russell's writing. In the course of one of his tours through Ohio, Carter passed through Cincinnati, heard one of Russell's compositions, liked it. and made a request for an arrangement of it for his band.

‘It took me five months and a trip to Chicago,’ Russell recalled in an inter­view with Down Beat Magazine, ‘but I finally caught the band at a downtown theatre, and they rehearsed it. Benny was very happy with it, and on top of that he paid me for it.’

On recommendation, the young writer then wrote for Earl Hines and shows at the Rhumboogie and El Grotto clubs in Chicago.

In 1945, the height of the modern revolution in jazz, everybody was talking about Parker, Gillespie, Powell and Monk etc. and 52nd Street, the center of it all. All who could came to New York to see and hear. Some came to learn.

George Russell arrived in New York in 1945. He took a room on 48th Street and Sixth Avenue, four blocks from "Swing Street." He met and became closely associated with many of the key figures creating the upheaval. Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Max Roach, among others, were frequent visitors at his lodgings.

‘I began writing for Dizzy's big band,’ Russell reports. ‘I was learning. Just being on the scene and listening helped so much.’

Unexpectedly, illness interfered as the composer-arranger was getting his start with Dizzy's band, and he entered the hospital. Unfortunate as illnesses are, this one cannot be considered in a completely negative fashion. During the 16 months spent in a hospital in the Bronx, Russell evaluated his position, found himself in need of further education, and began an intensive research into tonality. This resulted in the coming into existence of elements of his Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization, a thesis that would eventually free him, lend the facility for full expression.

Upon discharge from the hospital, Russell accepted an invitation to live at the home of Max Roach. He continued his investigations, staying on nearly a year.

‘While working on my theory,’ says Russell, ‘I lived all 'round town—East Side, West Side. John Lewis and I roomed together for a time. He helped me to truly appreciate traditional classical music.’

Until the Lydian thesis was completed, Russell composed infrequently, and for short periods, at that. He would run into problems while working within his concept that had to be ironed out before he could proceed further. As progression was made toward his ultimate goal of freedom within his own set of disciplines, he became more and more the master of his materials.

Today, Russell is not bothered by composing problems for long; he is able to make any needed adjustments within his concept. Through extended study of music and himself, the composer has found his way into the open.

'My Lydian concept has changed my whole mode of life,’ Russell explained. "It took years, but I now feel that I function logically. At last, I'm organized and ready. I realize that music, like life, must have an inner logic. George Endrey, a scientist friend of mine, taught me how mathematics relates to life and music. With­out him, I would never have understood logic for what it is.’

‘There are many others to whom I owe a great deal. The Gil Evans composer conclave of 1949-50, composed of Gil, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, John Carisi and myself, opened my eyes to many things. Gil and John are special friends and have exercised more than their share of influence upon me. Composers Alban Berg, Bela Bartok, Igor Stravinsky and Stefan Wolpe are just a few of the others who have helped shape my thinking.’

Reviewing his output before completion of the Lydian Concept of Tonal Organization in 1953, we realize that the composer had a few fruitful periods. The results are memorable.

In 1947, he penned Cubano Be and Cubano Bop, a two part composition that successfully combined modern jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythms, for the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra. Bird In Igor's Yard came off his writing desk in 1949. It was performed and recorded by the Buddy DeFranco big band. Ezzthetic and Odjenar were created for Lee Konitz around the same time.

‘I was hardly prolific,’ commented the composer. ‘Four compositions and a few arrangements for dance bands — Shaw, Thornhill and Charlie Ventura — is not much to show for six years, but I felt that I had to finish my thesis before I could say what I wanted to.’

Keeping body and soul together by working a variety of jobs in New York, N. Y., an ever evolving knowledge of self and the importance of his work, coated his senses and dulled extraneous pressures and annoyances.

In 1955, after two years of experimental writing employing all the facilities of his concept, Russell felt ready to make a statement. Jack Lewis, a jazz adventurer, provided the recording circumstance. Reception for the composer's first statement of policy was tremendously encouraging. Ground, at last, had been broken.

A commission to write an original composition for the Brandeis Music Festi­val, which garnered kudos for its author, followed. Offers to score albums for important jazz artists began to trickle in. An invitation to teach at the School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts was extended and accepted.

George Russell's presence on the American musical scene is being felt; the avenues for his talent, only beginning to present themselves.

*          *          *          *

The extended musical statement herein is New York, N. Y. as George Russell sees, hears and feels it. In a sense, it is an expression of this composer's belief in the city, the city he feels is symbolic of life and culture.

The city is drawn in terms native to Russell's basic orientation. He is a jazz writer. His concept was born of jazz and its needs.

It was his intention to showcase many of the important jazz soloists on the New York scene in this program. He did so, pulling no punches in his writing, providing an intelligent, functional, dramatic frame for the soloists. The framework is not arbitrary, but a thematically controlled entity from beginning to end.

New York, N. Y. is important in that a statement of depth and scope is made. Never self conscious, though often quite impressionistic, it is challenging to the senses, yet has the feeling of emotional completeness.

A community project notable for the love and enthusiasm of all the partici­pants, New York, N. Y. moves from old jazz territories to new and back again, breaking the barriers of tonality, presenting the jazz orchestra in a truly modern, linear sense, yet retains the earthy taste basic to the idiom.

An American composer, only beginning to tap his resources, is revealed.”

"George Russell Finds Music's Missing Link" - Bob Blumenthal

© -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” [1947] 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.”


"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

George Russell - The 1986 JazzJournal Interview

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

As regular readers of the blog may have noticed, mine is not an interactive blog. Or, to put it another way, I don’t place a lot of emphasis on communications with readers, not that I don’t appreciate each and every one of them.

I take this approach for a lot of reasons: [1] the blogging platform that I use is not conducive to exchanging messages; [2] I am not a Jazz “authority” per se and what I write about reflects my personal interests and is not intended to sway opinions or establish preferences; [3] it takes a great deal of effort to research and prepare these profiles which leaves me very little discretionary time for exchanging communications with readers.

However, occasionally messages do reach me such as the one that follows from Andy Wasserman and they serve as reminders that there is work to be done on my part in terms of further investigation to develop more in-depth profiles about the music in general and certain of its makers in particular.

In this case, the additional work in question concerns the arranger-composer and music theoretician George Russell whose pioneering work with modes as published in his Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization amplified their use in Jazz and in popular music as an alternative to musical scales and chords.

Although The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization work has been available since 1953, sadly, as Andy points out in his correspondence, George’s methodology is still too little used as a cornerstone to Jazz education.

In the coming weeks the blog will feature interviews with and articles about George Russell that have appeared in Down Beat, Jazz Journal and Jazz Review as conducted or written by such eminent Jazz scholars as Dom Cerulli, Burt Korall, Phil Wilson, Bob Blumenthal and Stan Wooley. Hopefully, these posting will help contribute to a greater awareness and understanding of his work.

I have also re-posted to the blog’s sidebar, an earlier piece that I prepared on George and Jon Hendricks’ tone poem New York, New York which is the piece that Andy refers to in the following message.

Dear Mr. Cerra, The article you wrote on George Russell and his "New York, N.Y." is the best article I've found on him and his music. I was his editorial assistant for 30 years, his substitute teacher at New England Conservatory from 1980-1982 when his Living Time Orchestra was on tour, had the honor of writing the foreword to the latest published edition (2001) of his "Lydian Chromatic Concept" and is one of only a handful of musicians he formally selected and certified to teach his work.

Everything you wrote is honest and true and much appreciated for its insight. I created a Tribute on my website to Mr. Russell that has recently been updated with the fact that I was first introduced to his music by a fellow Jazz musician who gave me the "New York, N.Y" album. Being a native New Yorker myself, I was changed from listening to that record. Out of respect for your copyright, I wanted to let you know that I put a credit to you and your Jazz Profiles site in a line of text on the page, with a link to your article on your Blog. Also wanted to make sure is OK with you that I also have a link within my site for the text only from your article copied/pasted into a PDF doc, with all copyright information intact. I did not alter a single word or make any edits. It appears alongside the link to your Blog for those people who might find that doc easier to read or more quick to access. If you feel that this additional version of your article is not in line with your copyright for this article, I'll remove it immediately.

Now that George Russell has been gone for almost 7 years, I'm still amazed at how little recognition he has received, and how almost every Jazz Department still ignores the importance of "The Concept." Your article is something I hope more people will read now that the links are on my site and it can help promote his legacy and your excellent writing. The link to the page I'm referring to is this: http://andywasserman.com/music-theory/george-russell-s-lydian-chromatic-concept Perhaps you and I can communicate further about George if you wish.

With respect, Andy Wasserman”

Let’s turn first to Stan Wooley’s JazzJournal International interview with George as it was written later in Russell’s career and contains a footnotes that cross-reference to his discography [JJI xxxix/10 (1986)].

You can locate more information about JazzJournal by going here.

“IT seems to me that the times now require going back. Much as how American music went back to discover its roots in gospel and country music, so too now, I feel, my music has to go back to the source. And Africa is that source.”

The speaker is George Russell who returned to the`source' in 1983 and wrote The African Game (1), a major work with which he made his Blue Note debut. The ambitious, nine-movement work also formed part of the concert programme on the composer's first ever UK tour earlier this year. The African Game is the latest work in a distinguished career which has spanned some four decades and extended the frontiers of modern jazz. An academic and theoretician, Russell published his Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organisation in 1953, a work which pointed jazz in new directions and revolutionised the thinking of many important jazz musicians.

Russell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 23, 1923 and became aware of jazz by listening to the bands on the riverboats as they passed through his hometown. He began playing drums while in the boy scouts and by the age of 15 had become proficient enough to perform in public. But during his late teens and early twenties, he was dogged by poor health and at 19 was admitted to a sanatorium with TB. It was while he was thus confined that he began to study arranging and during that same year wrote several charts for the local A. B. Townsend Orchestra.

In 1944, Russell joined Benny Carter's band on drums, only to be replaced soon by Max Roach. Carter continued to make use of Russell's talents to rehearse the orchestra and also encouraged his writing. This was typical of Carter who, during the forties, furthered the careers of many musicians who later went on to greater things.

`One arrangement I did for Benny,' Russell recalled, 'was New World which took me a long time to write. I rehearsed it with the band at the Downtown Theatre in Chicago and they all liked it but thought it was too advanced at that time. Anyway, Benny bought it from me. It was a strong band and a good one to write for.'

It is interesting to note that during the forties the Benny Carter orchestra nurtured two future musical theoreticians in its ranks - Russell and the enigmatic Bob Graettinger. Graettinger joined Carter on alto saxophone in 1946 and went on to achieve somewhat controversial fame later that same decade with compositions for the Stan Kenton orchestra fashioned from a system of colours and graphs.

Russell also arranged for Earl Hines' band during the mid-forties. `He was a very nice man,' Russell said. `Very encouraging and he liked my music. I wrote the numbers for Earl's opening show at the Eldorado Cafe in Chicago for which I got very good reviews in the Chicago Sun-Times. Earl was incredibly youthful and always smiling, right up to his last years.'

Impressed by what he had heard of the New York jazz scene, particularly the music of Thelonious Monk, Russell headed for the Big Apple. He was engaged to play drums with the Charlie Parker quintet when he was admitted to St Joseph's Hospital in the Bronx with a recurrence of TB and spent the next 15 months there. It was an event which could easily have ended a promising career, but it brought forth an idea which was to radically alter the course of jazz. His health restored, Russell developed the idea into his Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organisation. He immediately began applying its principles to his compositions, the most important of which at that time was Cubana Be, Cubana Bop (2), premiered at Carnegie Hall in December 1947 by Dizzy Gillespie and his Orchestra.

The original composition did not include Latin percussionist Chano Pozo's now familiar contribution, as Russell explains: `I was on the bus with the band shortly after that New York concert and heard Chano Pozo doing these chants, so I suggested to Dizzy that we should feature Chano in the middle of the piece. Dizzy agreed and so we did it like that for the first time in Boston and then recorded it that way. Pozo was a very strong and forceful guy, and it was hard to get to know much about him. because he didn't, speak English all that well. He insisted on his royalties for Cubana Be, Cubana Bop and let you know you'd better come up with them too.  He was as very serious and a pretty heavy fellow who was later killed in a vendetta.'

The Gillespie orchestra recorded Cubana Be, Cubana Bop in New York on December 22, 1947. It remains to this day a remarkable piece of music, with its menacing intro leading into those glorious ensembles over which the leader's magnificent trumpet soars, eventually giving way to Pozo's electrifying chanting and drumming. `This was a great creative period in our history,' Dizzy Gillespie once said, .and Cubana Be, Cubana Bop was one of utmost adventurous pieces. It was just perfect and it's still right now.'

Russell's work was rather sporadic during the late forties - presumably perfecting his Lydian Chromatic Theory occupied most of his time. Then, in April 1949, clarinettist Buddy DeFranco fronted a studio orchestra which recorded Russell's A Bird in Igor's Yard (3). The juxtaposition of Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky in the tle is most apt because the composer has yawn from both these controversial musical pioneers. Whether Stravinsky ever borrowed from Russell is an interesting point for speculation but Parker regularly featured Russell's Ezz-Thetic when working with his string combo. The piece is better known as a result of the Lee Konitz sextet's recording of March, 1951, which has Miles Davis in the line-up (4), and Russell's own Smalltet version which he cut for Victor in March, 1956 (5).

In the early fifties, Russell dropped out of the scene in order to finish his theory. The work was eventually completed and published in 1953, when Russell was working as a sales assistant at Macy's department store in New York. Although the concept represents some 10 years of Russell's life, he never referred to it on stage during his UK concert tour.

‘Well, I don't like to brag,' he said. `I think it made contemporary music, and I don't mean just jazz, conscious of modes. It introduced modal consciousness in terms which no one was thinking about, certainly not jazz musicians nor, as far as I know, symphonic musicians. The Concept simply codified the modes and introduced chord-scale unity. In other words, for every chord there's a scale of unity and this gives the jazz musician greater resources.'

By the mid-fifties, many of the more progressively minded musicians became aware of the constraints that improvising within the chord sequence imposed upon them. The boppers had developed and extended this to the limit of its potential and further advances lay in other directions, one of which was the exciting new freedom and harmonic vistas opened up by Russell's theory.

`Miles (Davis) picked up on the idea first and he popularised it,' said Russell. ‘He used it on the piece called Milestones (6) which proved very successful and then came the Kind Of Blue (7) album which really established it.' Russell has great regard for Davis and concluded many of his UK concerts with a quite remarkable version of Davis' trumpet solo from So What (7) scored for the entire orchestra. `It pays Miles due respect for what he has contributed to me and other musicians,' Russell said.

The early sixties were a busy period for Russell but the majority of his activities centred around a sextet, presumably for economic reasons. `Yes, how did you guess?' he said. `It was impossible to have a big band at that time but this didn't bother me too much. The small group is always the laboratory out of which the big band concepts come, so all my big band albums were really written with a small band in mind.' During the three year period of its existence, the sextet's personnel included at various times such musical pioneers as Don Ellis, Eric Dolphy, David Baker, Steve Swallow and vocalist Sheila Jordan. Carla Bley, a student of Russell's during this period, contributed the occasional chart but in the main all the writing was done by the leader who also played piano with the group.

As a rule, record companies tend to shy away from bands with advanced or experimental ideas but this wasn't so with the Russell sextet. In all, six albums were released between 1960 and 1963: At The Five Spot (8), In Kansas City (9), Stratusphunk (10), Ezz-Thetics (11), Stratus Seekers (12) and The Outer View (13). Live concert performances, however, were few and far between during this time.

In 1963, Russell emigrated to Europe where he achieved considerable success and critical acclaim with a European version of his sextet. The group broadcast regularly on Scandinavian radio and even recorded a further two albums during this period: At Beethoven Hall (14) in 1965 with Don Cherry and Othello Ballet Suite/Electric Sonata No 1 (15) three years later with Downbeat according the latter a five-star rating.

Russell returned to the United States in 1969 and joined the staff of the New England Conservatory of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he now resides. In the mid-seventies he stopped composing to work on a second volume of his Lydian Chromatic Concept which he completed in 1978. In the past many of Russell's compositions have been linear in construction with two, Ezz-Thetic (5) and Knights Of The Steamtable (5) almost Tristano-like in their concept. But over the last 15 years Russell has formulated a complex theory of polyrhythmic organisation for which he has this explanation:

'I can't imagine any piece based on African music that didn't reflect vertical form because the Africans were the innovators of this idea,' he explained. `In an African drum choir, one drummer is the rhythmic gravity while the others gradually layer sophisticated rhythms on top of this tonal centre. The whole isn't really evolving in a horizontal way, it's evolving in complexity and density. It's vertical energy, getting higher and higher, compounding.'

Russell uses vertical form extensively in The African Game, which he wrote over a period of six months in 1983. The nine movement tone poem formed the centrepiece on his UK concert tour with a 13 piece band billed as George Russell's Anglo-American Orchestra. In deference to the presence of the excellent Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. who was featured on the aforementioned So What, Euro-American might have been a more fitting title.

Originally commissioned by the Massachusetts Council On The Arts and the Swedish Broadcasting System, The African Game received its American debut on June 18, 1983 in Boston's Emmanuel Church by a 26-piece orchestra of local musicians and an African percussion ensemble called Olu Bata. It was this live performance that was recorded and now appears on Blue Note. The inspiration for the work is Africa where it is now generally accepted that the human race originated and evolved.

'Musically I think The African Game does reflect the earliest beginnings and might also project the ultimate outcome, as reflected in the rather dynamic crescendo at the end of the piece,' Russell said meaningfully. Like Cubana Be, Cubana Bop of some 40 years before, The African Game is a rhythmically strong work and, in addition to the five-man percussion ensemble, two bass players were also used on the date. Russell is particularly pleased with the outcome of the recording, too: `It was a live performance,' he said, `and it was flawless, absolutely flawless.'

Over the years, Russell's contribution to the development of 'jazz has never been fully recognised. During the forties and six¬ties he exerted great influence on the music and if The African Game is anything to go by, he looks like doing so again in the eighties and beyond.”

(1) Blue Note BST 85103
(2) Dizzy Gillespie: Vol 2 RCA 731068
(3) Crosscurrents: Capitol Jazz Classics Vol 14 Capitol 5C052 80853
(4) Ezz-Thetics Lee Konitz Sextet Xtra 5004
(5) Ezz-Thetics George Russell Smalltet RCA PL 42187
(6) Milestones Miles Davis CBS 62308
(7) CBS 62066
(8) Decca DL 9220
(9) Decca DL 4183
(10) Riverside RLP 341
(11) Riverside RLP 375
(12) Riverside RLP 412
(13) Fontana 688 705ZL
(14) MPS MC 25125
(15) Soul Note 1014
No known recordings exist of New World or Ezz-Thetic by Charlie Parker with strings.

1 comment:

  1. I believe Jon Hendricks, justifiably, considers himself the grandfather, if not the inventor, of rap, based on his work on the New York, New York album. I recall his appearance on one of the late night shows, Carson or Leno, making the claim and demonstrating with the "Think you can lick it..." sequence.

    Jim from Baltimore


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