George Russell (composer)

George Russell
Birth name George Allen Russell
Born (1923-06-23)June 23, 1923
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
Died July 27, 2009(2009-07-27) (aged 86)
Boston, Massachusetts
Genres Jazz
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, arranger
Instruments Piano

George Allen Russell (June 23, 1923 – July 27, 2009) was an American jazz pianist, composer, arranger and theorist. He is considered one of the first jazz musicians to contribute to general music theory with a theory of harmony based on jazz rather than European music, in his book Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization (1953).[1]

Early life

Russell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio to a white father and a black mother,[2] later the adopted only child of a nurse and a chef on the B & O Railroad, Bessie and Joseph Russell. Young Russell sang in the choir of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and listened to the Kentucky Riverboat music of Fate Marable.[3] He made his stage debut at age seven, singing "Moon Over Miami" with Fats Waller.

Surrounded by the music of the black church and the big bands which played on the Ohio Riverboats, and with a father who was a music educator at Oberlin College, he started playing drums with the Boy Scouts and Bugle Corps, receiving a scholarship to Wilberforce University, where he joined the Collegians, a band noted as a breeding ground for great jazz musicians including Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Freeman Lee, Frank Foster, and Benny Carter. Russell served in that band at the same time as another noted jazz composer, Ernie Wilkins. When called up for the draft at the beginning of World War II, he was quickly hospitalized with tuberculosis, where he was taught the fundamentals of music theory by a fellow patient.

Early career

After his release from the hospital, he played drums with Benny Carter's band, but decided to give up drumming as a vocation after hearing Max Roach, who replaced him in the orchestra. Inspired by hearing Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight", Russell moved to New York in the early 1940s, where he became a member of a coterie of young innovators who frequented the 55th Street apartment of Gil Evans, a clique which included Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, and John Lewis, later the music director of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

In 1945–46, Russell was again hospitalized for tuberculosis for 16 months. Forced to turn down work as Charlie Parker's drummer, during that time he worked out the basic tenets of what was to become his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a theory encompassing all of equal-tempered music which has been influential well beyond the boundaries of jazz. The first edition of his book was published by Russell in 1953, while he worked as a salesclerk at Macy's. At that time, Russell's ideas were a crucial step into the modal music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis[1] on his classic recording, Kind of Blue, and served as a beacon for other modernists such as Eric Dolphy and Art Farmer.

While working on the theory, Russell was also applying its principles to composition. His first famous composition was for the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, the two-part "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" (1947) and part of that band's pioneering experiments in fusing bebop and Cuban jazz elements;[4] "A Bird in Igor's Yard" (a tribute to both Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky) was recorded in a session led by Buddy DeFranco the next year.[5] Also, a lesser known but pivotal work of Russell's was recorded in January 1950 by Artie Shaw entitled "Similau"[6][7] that employed techniques of both the works done for Gillespie and DeFranco.

Russell began playing piano, leading a series of groups which included Bill Evans, Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton, Paul Motian, and others. Jazz Workshop was his first album as leader, and one where he played relatively little, as opposed to masterminding the events (rather like his colleague Gil Evans). He was to record a number of impressive albums over the next several years, sometimes as primary pianist.

In 1957, Russell was one of six jazz musicians commissioned by Brandeis University to write a piece for their Festival of the Creative Arts. He wrote a suite for orchestra, All About Rosie, which featured Bill Evans among other soloists, and has been cited as one of the few convincing examples of composed polyphony in jazz.[8]

Members of the orchestra on his 1958 extended work, New York, N.Y., included Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, Bob Brookmeyer, and Max Roach, among others, and featured wrap-around raps by singer/lyricist Jon Hendricks. Jazz in the Space Age (1960) was an even more ambitious big band album, featuring the unusual dual piano voicings of Bill Evans and Paul Bley. Russell formed his own sextet in which he played piano. Between 1960 and 1963, the Russell Sextet featured musicians like Dave Baker and Steve Swallow and memorable sessions with Eric Dolphy (on Ezz-thetics) and singer Sheila Jordan (their bleak version of "You Are My Sunshine" on The Outer View (1962) is highly regarded).


In 1964, Mr. Russell, who as a half black man was dismayed by race relations in the United States, moved to Scandinavia.[9] He toured Europe with his sextet and lived in Scandinavia for five years. Through the early 1970s, Russell did most of his work in Norway and Sweden. He played there with young musicians who would go on to international fame: guitarist Terje Rypdal, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and drummer Jon Christensen.

This Scandinavian period also provided opportunities to write for larger groupings, and Russell's larger-scale compositions of this time pursue his idea of "vertical form", which he described as "layers or strata of divergent modes of rhythmic behaviour". The Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature, commissioned by Bosse Broberg of Swedish Radio for the Radio Orchestra, was first recorded in 1968, as an extended work recorded with electronic tape. It continued Russell's continuing exploration of new approaches and new instrumentation.

Russell returned to America in 1969, when Gunther Schuller assumed the presidency of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and appointed Russell to teach the Lydian Concept in the newly created jazz studies department, a position he held for many years. As Russell toured with his own groups, he was persistent in developing the Lydian Concept. He played the Bottom Line, Newport, Wolftrap, The Village Vanguard, Carnegie Hall, Sweet Basil and more with his 14-member orchestra.[10]

Later works

In the 1970s Russell was commissioned to write and record 3 major works: Listen to the Silence, a mass for orchestra and chorus for the Norwegian Cultural Fund; Living Time, commissioned by Bill Evans for Columbia Records; and Vertical Form VI for the Swedish Radio.

With Living Time (1972), Russell reunited with Bill Evans to offer a suite of compositions which represent the stages of human life. His Live in an American Time Spiral featured many young New York players who would go on to greatness, including Tom Harrell and Ray Anderson. When he was able to form an orchestra for his 1985 work The African Game, he dubbed it the Living Time Orchestra. This 14-member ensemble toured Europe and the U.S., doing frequent weeks at the Village Vanguard, and was praised by New York magazine as "the most exciting orchestra to hit the city in years."

The work The African Game, a 45-minute opus for 25 musicians, was described by Robert Palmer of The New York Times as "one of the most important new releases of the past several decades" and earned Russell two Grammy nominations in 1985.

Russell wrote 9 extended pieces after 1984, among them: Timeline for symphonic orchestra, jazz orchestra, chorus, klezmer band and soloists, composed for the New England Conservatory's 125th anniversary; a re-orchestration of Living Time for Russell's orchestra and additional musicians, commissioned by the Cité de la Musique in Paris in 1994; and It's About Time, co-commissioned by The Arts Council of England and the Swedish Concert Bureau in 1995.

In 1986, Russell toured with a group of American and British musicians, resulting in The International Living Time Orchestra, a group who still tours and performs today. He played with Dave Bargeron, Steve Lodder, Tiger Okoshi, Brad Hatfield, and Andy Sheppard.[10]

Music theory

It was a remark made by Miles Davis in 1945 when Russell asked him his musical aim that led Russell on a quest which was to become his life's work. Davis answered that his musical aim was "to learn all the changes." Knowing that Davis already knew how to arpeggiate each chord, Russell reasoned that he really meant that he wanted to find a new and broader way to relate to chords. As music scholars Cooke and Horne wrote:

Russell codified the modal approach to harmony...inspired by a casual remark the eighteen-year-old Miles Davis made to him in 1944: Miles said he wanted to learn all the changes and I reasoned he might try to find the closest scale for every chord...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.[11]

Miles reportedly summarized the LCC succinctly by saying, "F should be where middle C is on the piano" [white notes: F-F = lydian, rather than major = C-C].[11]

Russell's theory proposes the concept of playing jazz based on scales or a series of scales (modes) rather than chords or harmonies. The Lydian Chromatic Concept explored the vertical relationship between chords and scales, and was the first codified original theory to come from jazz. Russell's ideas influenced the development of modal jazz, notably in the album Jazz Workshop (1957, with Bill Evans and featuring the "Concerto for Billy the Kid") as well as his writings; Evans later introduced the concepts to other members of Miles Davis's working band, which employed them in recordings beginning with the album Kind of Blue.

His Lydian Concept has been described as making available resources rather than imposing constraints on musicians.[12] According to the influential 20th century composer Toru Takemitsu, "The Lydian Chromatic Concept is one of the two most splendid books about music; the other is My Musical Language by Messiaen. Though I'm considered a contemporary music composer, if I dare categorize myself as an artist, I've been strongly influenced by the Lydian Concept, which is not simply a musical method—we might call it a philosophy of music, or we might call it poetry."[13]

The major scale probably emerged as the predominating scale of Western music, because within its seven tones lies the most fundamental harmonic progression of the classical era....thus, the major scale resolves to its tonic major chord. The Lydian scale is the sound of its tonic major chord.[14]

George Russell died of complications from Alzheimer's disease in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 27, 2009, according to his publicist.[15]


He received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1989. In his career, Russell also received the 1990 National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the British Jazz Award, among others. He has been elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Swedish Academy, won the Oscar du Disque de Jazz Award, the Guardian Award, the American Music Award, six NEA Music Fellowships and numerous others.[10] He taught throughout the world, and was a guest conductor for German, Italian, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish radio groups.



  1. 1 2 Berendt, Joachim (1976). The Jazz Book. Paladin. p. 357.
  2. "George Russell". Retrieved December 19, 2015.
  3. Pettinger, Peter (1998). Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings. Yale University Press. pp. 31–32. ISBN 0-300-07193-0.
  4. Ratliff, B. George Russell, Composer Whose Theories Sent Jazz in a New Direction, Dies at 86, NY Times, July 29, 2009
  5. Harrison, Max (March 1983). "George Russell – Rational Anthems: Phase One". The Wire. Retrieved June 21, 2011.
  6. Martin, Henry; Waters, Keith (2005). Jazz: the first 100 years. Wadsworth Publishing. p. 160. ISBN 0-534-62804-4.
  7. Artie Shaw: The Last Recordings, Volume II: The Big Band, MusicMasters Jazz BMG, CD (1990) OCLC 27649009, track No. 14, "Similau"
  8. Harrison, Max (1976). The Brandeis Festival LP in A Jazz Retrospect. Quartet. pp. 177–179. ISBN 0-7043-0144-X.
  9. "George Russell, Composer Whose Theories Sent Jazz in a New Direction, Dies at 86". Retrieved December 19, 2015.
  10. 1 2 3 "About George Russell". Retrieved January 15, 2015.
  11. 1 2 Mervyn Cooke, David Horn (2003) The Cambridge companion to jazz, p.191. ISBN 0-521-66388-1.
  12. Harrison, Max (1976). A Jazz Retrospect. Quartet. p. 58. ISBN 0-7043-0144-X.
  13. "Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization". Retrieved January 15, 2015.
  14. Cooke & Horn (2003), p.192.
  15. Jazz Composer George Russell Dies at 86 All About Jazz. Retrieved on July 28, 2009.
  16. Ron Wynn. "Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature - 1968 - George Russell - Songs, Reviews, Credits, Awards - AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved January 15, 2015.

Further reading

External links

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