George Russell is a hugely influential, innovative figure in the evolution of modern jazz, the music's only major theorist, one of its most profound composers, and a trail blazer whose ideas have transformed and inspired some of the greatest musicians of our time.
During a career that began as a jazz drummer around 1944, Russell put together some of the most audacious music for jazz lineups – and later for mixed classical and improvising ensembles – to be heard in the 20th century, and continued it into the 21st. There were the delightful twisted-bop melodies and cruising grooves of Russell classics like Stratusphunk; the jostling lines and urgent pulse of his famous All About Rosie; and the hypnotically mantra-like ostinatos and minimalisms of Vertical Form VI, which Russell viewed as an investigation of layers or stratum of varying rhythms.
Yet within all these upheavals to the conventional jazz practices of song-forms and chord patterns, an evergreen like Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell's You Are My Sunshine of 1937 might still plaintively call across squalling, dissonant chords and thrashing drums. Or Miles Davis's famous improvised trumpet break on the iconic track So What? – from the bestselling 1959 Kind of Blue – might be reinvented in Russell's hands as a song-theme in its own right with its own set of Russell variations.
Russell spent the early part of his life in Ohio. The son of an Oberlin College music professor, he was born in Cincinnati and started his professional musical life as a drummer with the Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps before winning a scholarship to Wilberforce University. In his late teens Russell began a long struggle with tuberculosis, and the illness, which confined him to hospital beds for two extended periods in the 1940s, was to transform his life.
The first long layoff was when he was 19, and he used the period of inactivity to study arrangement. When he recovered, he was hired as the drummer with Benny Carter's Chicago band – soon to be replaced by the dazzling Max Roach. In 1945-46, during a further 16 months of hospitalization, he began to develop a musical theory, based on his notion of the "gravitational pull" exerted by tonal centres on notes near or far from them. The development of his "Lydian concept" would be the undercurrent of Russell's work for the rest of his life. He was to say it was "a more serious and less egotistical pursuit" than being a bandleader.
Following his convalescence, in 1946 he moved to New York and joined that progressive circle of young musicians (including Davis, Gerry Mulligan and the Canadian arranger Gil Evans) who were working on the subtle revolution that was to become the Birth of the Cool – an exploration of bebop phraseology against textures drawn from classical music. Russell also began collaborating with Dizzy Gillespie, particularly attracted by the trumpeter's enthusiasm for idioms tapping the same African root, particularly Cuban and North American dance music.
A year later, the 25-year-old wrote ‘Cubana Be, Cubana Bop’ for Gillespie, and the success of the piece sparked a series of composing opportunities, including A Bird in Igor's Yard for the clarinetist Buddy DeFranco – jointly celebrating the work of two creators of 20th-century music, Charlie "Yardbird" Parker and Igor Stravinsky.
Russell was by now studying structure with the composer Stefan Wolpe. In 1950 he began pulling his theories of the previous five years into a book, published in 1953 as The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organisation, the Lydian mode being the white-note scale starting on F, and thus equivalent to a major scale with a sharpened fourth. The critic JE Berendt wrote: "Russell's concept of improvisation, Lydian in terms of medieval church scales, yet chromatic in the modern sense, was the great pathbreaker for Miles Davis and John Coltrane's modality."
Crucially, Russell was contributing to the release of jazz improvisation from a dependence on the chord-patterns of the Broadway song-form. His ideas drew jazz musicians into considering the scales suggested by particular chords as improvisational raw material, and encouraged the superimposition of scales upon each other, conveying the impression of a piece being in more than one key, yet still having a rooted tonal centre. Davis, usually economical with a compliment, said Russell taught him most of what he knew about composition on the strength of the Lydian concept.
Russell spent much of the 1950’s exploring the practical applications of the Lydian concept with groups under his own direction. Frequent early partners were the trumpeter Art Farmer and Bill Evans – the latter a vital force in the making of Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. In 1956, the George Russell Smalltet recorded Jazz Workshop, a landmark session, imposing both for its compositional boldness and the inventiveness of its improvisation – among 12 scintillating pieces, breakthroughs in jazz writing like Round Johnny Rondo and Concerto for Billy the Kid secured Russell's growing reputation. The following year, he began teaching at the School of Jazz at Lenox, Massachusetts, where Ornette Coleman was briefly one of his students.
In the 1960s, he toured and recorded extensively. His 1961 album Ezz-thetics, which included bassist Steve Swallow and Eric Dolphy on saxophones, was perhaps the most successful of the recordings of this period, featuring an astonishing account of Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight that stirs free-music, Monk's hypnotic theme and Dolphy's emotional alto sax into the mix.
But in 1964 the uncompromising composer took a self-imposed exile from the commercial pressures of the American scene. In Sweden he taught at Lund University, and was extensively commissioned by Swedish Radio – producing a mass, a score for Othello as a ballet, and the orchestral suite with tapes and jazz soloing called Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved By Nature, both featuring the young Garbarek. He worked with the pick of the younger Scandinavian musicians of the time, with occasional interventions from passing American stars such as Don Cherry, but in 1969 Russell returned home after he was offered a regular teaching role at the New England Conservatory, Boston.
Through the 1970s, Russell took time out from his desk to appear at such high-profile New York jazz haunts as the Village Vanguard and the Bottom Line, and in 1986 he visited Britain to work with a mixed European-American band – the Living Time Orchestra – at the invitation of the Arts Council's Contemporary Music Network. He also wrote a number of extended works including Uncommon Ground, An American Trilogy, and, in 1992, the gigantic three-hour Time Line for symphony orchestra, jazz ensembles, choirs, rock groups and dancers, for the 125th anniversary of the New England Conservatory.
In his later years, interviewers would often try to draw Russell into elucidating his theories. But though transfixed by this wire-haired, lived-in individual with the light, amiable voice, they found his matter-of-factness with such terms as "supra-vertical tonal gravity" was rarely as illuminating as the musical results. Russell would always make clear, though, that he never saw one way of making music as dominant. He identified his investigations with the musical soul-searching of the medieval monasteries, the endless search for laws of proportion and symmetry that reflected social laws, astronomy, mechanics, morality – and the focus of Gregorian chants and plainsong on vital resolving tones, nucleus-notes around which everything else elegantly orbited.
Though as a radical musical theorist and an innovative writer and bandleader Russell eventually became accepted as one of the greatest living American composers – acknowledged by prestigious awards including two Guggenheim fellowships, a National Music Award, the lucrative Macarthur prize and a professorship at the New England Conservatory – he was never to believe that he inhabited a climate truly open to musical progress. He felt that the influence on cultural institutions of sponsorship by the big entertainment corporations exerted a manipulative effect on what people saw as worthwhile. The record companies' discovery of the potential profits in reissuing old music ("even old music that didn't sell much in the first place," Russell wryly observed to the Guardian) also changed perceptions of jazz evolution.
In the same interview, Russell said that he saw the Lydian concept "as important outside the purely technical realm – especially needed now to help people who are prepared to make the fight for their own essence. Preserving the essence of innovators who won't be toeing the line and submitting, but prepared to suffer a little to create something new. At the same time I always thought of jazz music as being a possible classical music. It had its own parameters to become a classical music without losing its vitality or its roots."