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Book Excerpts

George Russell: The Story of an American Composer

By Published: October 27, 2011
The rest of the time in the hospital was spent examining the modes of the Lydian scale and finding out what I call were their principal chords, what were the most highly evolved harmonic chords that they produced within the context of the Lydian scale and so the D7 chord—D-F#-A-C-E-G-B is the highest evolved principal chord so in my thinking the seven chord is not the dominant five it's the two chord of the Lydian scale. Each mode produces its own principal scale. Beside the Lydian, there is the 'Lydian augmented' that gives us all of the augmented chords, C-D-E-F#-G#-A-B, which gave the scale its name. Then the 'Lydian diminished' C-D-E flat-F#-G-A-B which furnishes the diminished chords with the Lydian itself producing major on I, seventh on II, minor on VI, and that scale being a complete unity with those chords."

Grand theories, that is theories that make claims for comprehensiveness within a whole area such as Marx in Economics or Freud in Psychology, invite criticism. We will see later that Russell and his ideas have their critics. However, it suffices to note here that Russell was hearing something different in music, as well as hearing music differently. This led him to question the relationship, as traditionally understood, between chords and scales, between scales and their tonic, between different scales and how a musician or composer might move between these different scales in ways that challenged accepted notions of the antagonistic relationship between tonality and atonality.

As an aside, one of the other patients on the ward Russell befriended was Eddie Roane, the trumpeter who had played with Louis Jordan. Roane died of tuberculosis in Russell's arms. Russell was truly fortunate to survive. In fact, at one point, he recalls a priest coming to give him the last rites and shouting at him that he (Russell) was an atheist and to get lost.

We have already noted Campbell's identification of the 'Refusal of the Call' as an element within the Hero myth. Here it may be added that other aspects that he refers to are near death experiences, the inward journey and seeking of knowledge. (32) Once again, that does not make Russell's account inaccurate or mythical in itself. It may, however, mean that the construction or form of the tale has certain mythologized features to it. A more prosaic telling is actually no less remarkable. Had Russell not survived we would simply not have the Lydian Concept, Jazz would have missed out on his contribution to its development, music like All About Rosie and The African Game would have been denied to us and this book would not be written! Circumstances were such that Russell did survive and his achievements speak both of his efforts, then and later, and of our good fortune.

Russell came out of hospital around Xmas 1946 and went to stay with Max Roach and his family. Keeping track of Russell's living arrangements from the late forties into the early fifties is a demanding activity in itself. However, for much of the next period he lived variously with Roach or at one point with Roach's mother. Living conditions were quite squalid according to Russell but he is still grateful for Roach's support and generosity. He was in all respects treated as a member of the family.

"Well, when I got out of the hospital, Max invited me to stay in Brooklyn with him and I stayed at his house on Monroe Street for about nine months. And it was back there, when you got out of hospital, there was a programme in place run by the New York Welfare Department where you got subsidised and they even sent you to school or something. It's through that programme that I started to study with Stefan Wolpe in New York. But they took care of the.... you know paying Mrs. Roach for my lodging and food. And so when I hear people put down the welfare system, you know, I think that's ridiculous because I know I'm a product of that."

Stefan Wolpe was a German socialist composer who had worked with Hans Eisler in the workers music movement and who fled his homeland in 1933 to escape Nazi persecution both as a socialist and a Jew. Having studied with Webern in Vienna, he went first to Palestine and then in 1938 to New York. As a teacher, friend or colleague, Wolpe was a huge influence on the whole post-war generation of American composers, including Elliott Carter, John Cage
John Cage
John Cage
1912 - 1992
(who was president of the Stefan Wolpe society at one point), Morton Feldman and Milton Babitt. Saxophonist Johnny Carisi
Johnny Carisi
, arranger Eddie Sauter
Eddie Sauter
, clarinetist Tony Scott
Tony Scott
Tony Scott
1921 - 2007
and Elmer Bernstein also studied with him. What Russell drew from him was both the older man's life experience and his knowledge of contemporary music theory.

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