George Russell, 1923-2009

Thumbnail image for GeorgeRussell waves.jpgGeorge Russell died Monday night. Here are some of the facts of his life, outlined by the Associated Press.

BOSTON (AP) — Jazz composer George Russell, a MacArthur fellow whose theories influenced the modal music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, has died. His publicist says Russell, who taught at the New England Conservatory, died Monday in Boston at age 86 of complications from Alzheimer’s.

Russell was born in Cincinnati in 1923 and attended Wilberforce University. He played drums in Benny Carter’s band and later wrote ”Cubano Be/Cubano Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra. It premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1947 and was the first fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz. Russell developed the Lydian concept in 1953. It’s credited as the first theoretical contribution from jazz.
Russell is survived by his wife, his son and three grandchildren. A release says a memorial service will be planned.

The first sentence of that AP story barely suggests Russell’s importance. There will be much more written and spoken about him in the next few days by scholars and historians, as there should be. The work he did, particularly in the 1950s and ’60s, had major influence on the thinking and performance of musicians who were shaping new ways of approaching the music. On a radio program I did in the sixties, I devoted five weeks of broadcasts to Russell’s music. This was the introduction to that series on Jazz Review on WDSU-FM in New Orleans in September and October of 1966.

Over the next few programs we’re going to consider the recorded work of George Russell – not only because Russell’s music is interesting, absorbing listening, but also because of his influence of the development of jazz in the sixties, an influence, I believe, more profound and widespread than is generally recognized even by many musicians. It may well develop that Russell is having an impact on the course of jazz as great as, or greater than, 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 onThumbnail image for Russell at piano.jpg 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 write 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 reduction of George Russell’s theory, on which he worked for ten years. It’s all in Russell’s book, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Jazz Improvisation.

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. Some of their names: Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Don Ellis, Dave Baker, John Coltrane, Art Farmer, Steve Swallow, Eric Dolphy. Thumbnail image for Jazz in The Space Age.jpgEvans is featured soloist in Russell’s 1959 Decca recording, Jazz In The Space Age, the most thorough application of Russell’s theories to a large band. If you’re not familiar with Russell, 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, but it’s there. And, I should add, it’s more evident after several hearings.

For five Saturdays, engineer Charlie Flatt played and I talked about Russell’s music, reaching back to 1947 and his “Cubano Be-Cubano Bop” for Gillespie and up to his 1963 quintet album The Outer View. The survey included the classic “All About Rosie,” commissioned by Brandeis University in 1957, the smalltet recordings for RCA, Russell’s series of Riverside albums and the remarkable suite New York, New York, a 1959 work that brought together, among other players, Evans, Coltrane, Bob Brookmeyer, Art Farmer, and Phil Woods, all interesting young musicians who went on to be among the most influential in jazz.

For a sense of Russell and New York milieu in which he operated in the late 1950s, video of a 1958 edition of The Subject Is Jazz brings together several of the musicians who played his music. It includes a version of Rusell’s “Concerto For Billy The Kid,” with a Bill Evans solo not as electrifying as the one on this recording. Nonetheless, it presents Evans in the context of Russell’s work, and it is followed by critic Gilbert Seldes interviewing Russell about his concept. The program also has two pieces featuring Billy Taylor. If you stay with it for all 24 minutes, you’ll see credits for the musicians. And, yes the trumpeter identified as Carl Severinsen is Doc Severinsen. You may never have thought of him as a bebopper, but listen to those solos.

Was George Russell a force in opening jazz to greater freedom In the late fifties and early sixties, as I suggested 43 years ago, or did his Lydian Chromatic Concept synthesize ideas that were already in the air? Some of each, perhaps. Either way, he created some of the most stimulating music of his day, up to, including and beyond his collaboration with avant garde trumpeter Don Cherry. I am less enchanted with his later electronic works, but I’m going to dig them out and give myself another chance with them. After all, it’s George Russell; there may be more than met the ear the first time around.

Following that 1966 series of radio programs about Russell, I sent him a transcript, not knowing whether he would ever see it. I heard reports from New York that he was discouraged and had left the US to live in Europe. A few months later he sent me a letter from Stockholm.

It is like I have waited a lifetime to hear someone say the things which you did concerning my music (and if I never hear them again I will not feel that my efforts in jazz have gone unrewarded). I received the transcript at the right moment, too, for I was in one of those states of flux that I’ve come to accept as a necessary but painful part of artistic growth. It is very trying during these times to keep one’s self-confidence and I must admit that my morale was sagging more than a little bit. But your sensitive views of my music worked wonders.

Closing a long letter, Russell wrote that he hoped we would meet one day. We never did.
(For an obituary containing insights into Russell’s methods see the article by Brian Marquard and Michael Bailey in today’s Boston Globe)

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Reddit


  1. says

    George Russell was a heavy. I spent an hour on Cubano Be/Cubano Bop
    in my graduate jazz history seminar last semester.
    I can relate to the sentiments expressed in his letter. You should be proud that you were able to bolster his spirits with your recognition of his brilliance and influence.
    Do you have copies of the radio shows? It would be wonderful if you did, and could share them online…
    (Mr. Goode is a prominent music educator who can; he is also a first-rate jazz trumpeter. Somewhere, there may exist a reel-to-reel tape of at least one of those programs. I’ll have the Rifftides staff look for it. — DR)

  2. Dale Katz says

    I clipped the obit. on Mr. Russell from the L.A. Times this morning to share with my Music Appreciation students. Then I read your column (as I do faithfully) and was glad to have additional information to bring to my classes on this influential musician. Thanks, Doug.

  3. says

    Dear George,
    I’m sure you will be continuing your work in the stratosphere and are the gatekeeper in Lydian Heaven.
    Your music and The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization theory will continue to be a guide and a challenge to all musicians, jazz and classical.
    I was a privileged member of his NY Band for a 1982 summer European tour and a subsequent gig/recording at the Vanguard. Being part of his music and this all star band was equivalent to 8 PH.D’s; and it lasted only 3 weeks!
    In 1961 I took 6 lessons with George studying the Concept (when it was in manuscript form,) and when he resided at the Bank Street apartment, NYC. It took 18 months to complete the course because I needed 3 months in between each lesson just practice and absorb what he taught me!
    The LCCOTO has now become my life time pursuit. It challenges the mind, heart and soul of the creative musician and demands one’s full attention and understanding. It certainly is not meant for the weak and those looking for an easy way to playing “licks”!
    Thank you George. I appreciate, understand and am grateful for your genius.

  4. Brian Priestly says

    I just wanted to add that, as well as other obituaries, there was a surprisingly excellent 3-4 minute slot on the UK’s Channel 4 news this evening. Spoken contributions from Arild Andersen (by phone), Scott Stroman (explaining the Lydian Concept in about 30 seconds at the piano!) and George himself from the 1958 “The Subject Is Jazz” series with Gilbert Seldes, plus a bit of “Stratusphunk” from the same show, “Cubana Be-Cubana Bop” from disc and a bit of “So What” from the Robert Herridge Theater show. Whoever put this together certainly raised the bar for television news coverage of our subject.

  5. Dick McGarvin says

    What a wonderful remembrance and tribute. It’s unfortunate that you and George never met.
    If I were still on the radio, I would try and persuade you to go into the Rifftides vaults, find those transcripts and then join me on the air to re-create all or part of those George Russell shows. I would love to have heard them.
    Being a diehard Tony Scott fan, I was thrilled to see him in the video. You’re right, Doc Severinsen’s solos are really something, at times reminding me a little of Conte Candoli. And, although he wasn’t credited, the announcer at the beginning and end of the program sounds like Symphony Sid.
    George Russell’s arrangement of his ALL ABOUT ROSIE for the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band is one of my favorite tracks by that group. And I still have my LPs of “New York, N.Y.” and “Jazz In The Space Age”. That’s the music I’m listening to today.

  6. Red Colm O'Sullivan says

    Here’s a link for the Channel 4 TV obituary for Russell (including the rather small embedded video player) as described by the estimable Brian Priestly:
    …and what a shock it is to encounter this serious and substantial appreciation on mainstream prime-time television. For those in the UK, Channel 4’s News is an extremely prominent, popular and important news authority. I guess it’s editorial decisions like this one which keep it that way.

  7. Joe Giardullo says

    I found George Russell’s book on the Lydian Chromatic Concept in 1975, walking past a bookshop in Boston. It cost $25 and I was broke. I told my to-be wife that I would get that book whenever I could afford it.
    She insisted that I get it then and there.
    Reading that book was like turning on a light in the dark.
    Thank goodness that she made me buy it!
    Thanks, George Russell and play on!

  8. Joe Giardullo says

    There’s alot more to be said about Russell.
    I spent a bit of time playing with great trumpeter Bill Dixon and hanging with him.
    He was a neighbor of Russell’s in the early days, before the book was published.
    Dixon told me about all the guys who came to Russell’s apartment to study with him. The list was very long and full of the who’s who in creative music.
    He stored Russell’s charts in his apartment for him, too, so Dixon saw it all.
    I have 2 versions of the book- the 70’s version in softcover and the last version in hardcover.
    The difference between the 2 is startling.
    The earlier version is the one, though, by far. More information, more clearly expressed.
    BTW/ I always thought that the book was written backwards- that the real information was in the back of the book and that the front supplemented the back, not the other way around. I’ve taught it to a few people over the years and always had them begin with the back of the book.
    Also, it was Russell who introduced me to the voice of Sheila Jordan. She told me about taking Russell into the coal mining area ( “Scoopytown” in WV or Pa) where she was born. It was then he heard her sing “You Are My Sunshine” for the first time in a beer garden on a Saturday night. She was asked by the miners and their families to please sing, as she had as a child there.
    The rest, as they say, is history- beautiful history.
    Thanks for the opportunity to speak about a monumental giant like Russell.

  9. Bill Crow says

    Thanks, Doug, for remembering George so succinctly, and for pointing me to that lovely clip of the Seldes program. It wasn’t until Bill’s solo on “Concerto for Billy the Kid” that I realized it was based on “I’ll Remember April.” That one-handed solo reminded me of the strong influence Lennie Tristano had on Bill (as well as Bird).
    It was a gift to see and hear all my old friends playing so well… Doc was very much on the bebop scene in those days, and this was some of Quill and Cleve and Tony at their best. Safranski was the only one of them I never played with.
    You could hear how much George Russell’s concept had affected Art Farmer’s playing. Only a couple of years earlier there was a lot of Dizzy in his playing. George gave him new scales on which he based a whole new world of his own melody.

  10. Red Colm O'Sullivan says

    If fact, I’ve read that Russell considered Art Farmer the musician to most have absorbed his theories.

  11. says

    I consider Don Ellis of being the “perfect” trumpet player for George Russell. Art Farmer did some of his best works at the “Jazz Workshop” LP. “The concept” fitted him greatly indeed.
    Trumpet is naturally a “chromatic” instrument. We have only three valves, not as many keys as the saxophone or the piano. We have to hear a particular sound inside before we play it. (Which doesn’t mean that saxophonists or pianists don’t have to hear what they want to play.) But we trumpeters are in fact more dependent on our inner ear. That’s why many trumpeters sing, if they are able or not 😉
    Don Ellis may have sounded “cool” to some, or too intellectual. Not so to me. That man was a thinker, and he did for the progress of trumpet-improvisation in particular what George Russell did for improvisation in general.

  12. Sugar Candelaria says

    “But we trumpeters are in fact more dependent on our inner ear. ”
    Absolute nonsense. Sorry, but it is.

  13. says

    Do you think so? — It’s easy to explain: A pianist could play just mechanically without having necessarily to hear anything at all. He has the 88 keys in front, and as long as he approaches the right key, he could play without “hearing” what he plays. Trumpeters have to hear each tone in advance for physically being able to adjust their embouchure for getting out the sound they heard before.
    Don Ellis’ quarter-tone-trumpet playing is therefore so amazing to me.
    Here we have four valves 😉

  14. CraigP says

    Very shortly after I started listening to jazz at the tender age of 13 the local record store owner gave me a copy of Live at Beethoven Hall with Don Cherry. I suppose he gave it away because he couldn’t sell it! Anyway, that set blew me away and it’s still one of my very favorite jazz records. I remember playing it one night and my Dad asking me what that noise was! It was like I was playing Black Sabbath or something.
    Anyway, Russell’s work is outstanding and even though I’m not a musician, I’ve been fascinated with the Lydian Concept.
    Here is a link to my blog post about his passing:

  15. says

    I knew and worked with George Russell. He liked my playing, but was was always on me to be a better reader and writer. It’s funny that I’m playing the Chicago Jazz Festival this September 6th with Archie Shepp and played there with George’s big band in the early 80’s. I have played it in between, but his passing this year and the fact that I haven’t been there in a while just made me remember some things about him.
    We lost Tom Harrell between the sound check and the performance that day. It was crazy. The whole band was scouring Chicago by foot, taxi and band bus looking for him. I think he had just changed meds and it inspired Tom to take off on his own. I should call and ask him if he remembers why. Anyway, we found him about an hour before the concert, on which he played his ass off!
    I also remember vividly how George directed the band out of a very hairy situation, it was one of his pieces with a multitude of time changes and at some point the entire band was on the other side of the beat. He gestured for us to look at his left hand which held the time, while his right counted out the odd meter and he shouted when and where we had to break to bring us back on the one. it was outstanding to say the least!
    Thought I would share just one of my GR stories.