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George Russell: The Story of an American Composer

Duncan Heining By

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This article, adapted by the author, appears in Chapter 4 of George Russell: The Story of an American Composer, by Duncan Heining (Scarecrow Press, 2010).

New York, NY

It was May 1945, the war was still on, Bebop was at its height in New York and George Russell and his two friends, Little Bird and Little Diz, had just arrived in the city. With fifteen dollars in their collective pocket, they faced a simple choice. Two of them could get a room but the third was out on the streets. So, they moved into the Hotel Barada, right behind the Apollo at 125th and 7th Ave. and Russell would sneak in after dark to share the room. After a week the money had run down to five dollars and, to make it last, they moved into a cheaper room at the Braddock Hotel, on 134th St, one without windows. It was high summer, which in New York is about as humid and sticky as it gets in the Northern hemisphere, and Russell decided he would be more comfortable sleeping in nearby Gracie Park.

It all sounds quite jolly, one of those experiences that was hell at the time but looking back was character-forming or something. The trio would eat at a local Catholic Mission for fifty cents but even that got too expensive.

"In the days I would go to one of Mrs. Kramer.... There was a woman, who owned several hotels in New York and she featured the Big Bands you know. She had nice washrooms. I'd go there to wash up."


And,

"Mrs. Kramer was a lady who owned some big hotels in town, and what she must have thought of people like me, down-and-outers, who would use those lovely lush bathrooms. So, you could stay clean, scrape a little here and there and eat at the automat. About the third night, I began to realise that I wasn't up for this kind of adventure for too long."


Back in Ohio, it must have been late 1942 or more likely 1943, Russell had gone to Dayton to see the Ellington Band. Several of the musicians could not find a hotel, due to 'colour bar' problems, and so Russell invited Ray Nance, Betty Roche, Al Hibbler and Skippy Williams to stay at his home with the redoubtable and always welcoming Bessie.

"And Skippy said, 'If you're ever down and out in New York, give me a call.' That's what I did. He said, 'George, I remember you, come on over.' I stayed with him, and took my arrangement of New World over to Dizzy. He said, 'I'm glad to get this because I'm starting a big band now, I'll try this.' They tried it and Dizzy gave me like $25 or $30. I sold this arrangement to just about everybody!"


In fact, Russell has telescoped events slightly here. By other accounts that he has given, to Ian Carr and this author for example, he had by that point met up with Max Roach. The drummer seems to have 'adopted' Russell as a protégé and introduced him to Bird, Diz and everyone on 'The Street.' As he once said, "When I was in New York with Skippy, I don't know what got into Max because, he didn't have to do but he introduced me to everybody as an arranger." It was Roach's introduction and the credibility that went with the title that provided Russell with the opportunity to sell Gillespie New World and, as Russell remembers, "it was kind of my passport into the group of musicians that were doing this fantastic.... that were part of this incredible revolution."

What strikes about Russell's account, and that of others such as Gil Evans and Gerry Mulligan, is the openness of that group. Bebop was a virtuoso music, rhythmically and harmonically adventurous and often played at breakneck tempos that discouraged all but the most confident and able. Yet, despite the cool, the hip vernacular, the drugs, the clothes and the attitude, all meant to exclude the straight world, genuine talent, black or white, was welcomed. As Russell said to this author, "The one entrée to the group was talent. So, people who later on were talented were welcomed." And musicians shared their ideas and knowledge, which was great for someone like the twenty-two year old mid-Westerner, as Russell told Ian Carr, "It didn't last but it was the prevailing feeling at the time, a feeling of great openness, you know."

Much of that spirit Russell attributes to Charlie Parker.

"I don't know what the cause of that was particularly but, one thing, it was like Charlie Parker was the centre of that. And I think it was his spirit, and generous spirit, that encouraged very much this community feeling around what was happening mainly because of him."

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