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."


"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."

The money from selling New World was enough to get Russell his own room. "With the money, I moved to my own place on 48th near 6th Avenue, just one room. There's all these guys working the Street, nobody had thought to rent a room or anything. I had Bird in my room, well, a lot of other people too. The landlady was going crazy. She said, 'I don't like all of those strange people coming in here.' I said, 'They're just like me.' [Laughs] I think she didn't know I was black or something."

Although he had only been 'on the Street' a few months, Russell had by now met Miles Davis as well and by his account had been invited to join Charlie Parker's quintet on drums. That room on 48th was used by just about everyone playing the clubs around 52nd.

"Bird used to ask me, 'George, do you want some of this?' I said, 'Bird, I don't think I can take it.' He said, 'Okay.' I knew that people like Fats Navarro talented people losing 100 pounds in weight and just getting eaten up from the inside with these drugs and Bird himself. Dizzy stayed pretty free of that, though. I just knew that I didn't have the stamina to take that. Something wanted more of me than to just come have a nice time, an interesting time for half a life and die."

Russell did, however, drink quite heavily during the forties and fifties. He was never an alcoholic but attitudes to drink were somewhat different back then. According to Russell's wife Alice, he told her that he would open a fifth of scotch in the morning and drink his way through it during the day. In the evening, he would go to a club and drink some more. He also smoked a pipe despite his having had TB. Again, the association between tobacco and health problems was less accepted then. And Russell also enjoyed smoking 'pot.' Dwight McPheeters remembers a car ride up to Harlem with Russell and some other guys.

"I remember when I was going to Photo School in New York, George asked me if I wanted to go up Minton's Playhouse and, so, I said, 'yes.' So, I jumped in this car with George and about three or four other guys and it was really cold and they had all the windows shut. Even with all these guys in the car and the car would heat up with all these bodies in it but they wanted the windows shut. The reason why they wanted the windows shut was because they didn't want the smell of pot to get out onto the street. George asked me, 'You coppin'?' I said, 'Uh, uh!' I got a big headache out of it, that's all, so I never got into pot. I smoked a lot of cigarettes in my life but I tried smoking pot once but it did nothing for me."

Russell seems to have hit it off particularly well with Miles, although the trumpeter was three years his junior and, though still a student at Juilliard, was playing in Charlie Parker's quintet at night. "Miles and I hit it off really good. He'd invite me to get a one room apartment, in the West 90's or something, and we'd sit down and play chords. He liked my harmonic sense and I loved his harmonic sense and we tried to see what kind of chords we'd come up." It was in the course of one visit to Miles' apartment and one such conversation that Russell discovered his course in life. Russell has told this story so many times over the years. It has become one of those little legends or myths, true though it may be, that life and Jazz thrives upon, almost acquiring a Zen-like truth, a story that encapsulates something universal.

"We were having a session, you know, where musicians trade off ideas. He'd play a chord, 'How do you like that?' 'I like that' I played some chords and he, I think, he liked my harmonic sense and, of course, he was extraordinary you know. But I said, 'What's your aim musically, what do you really wanna do?' And he said, 'I wanna learn all the changes.'"

Knowing that Miles was already a highly gifted melodic improviser, whose grasp of the changes was second to no-one, the trumpeter had presented Russell with a paradox. "I think everybody then who knew about Miles knew he knew how to play the changes. So, it occurred to me to look for a new way to relate to chords."

For some reason, Russell was unable to keep the apartment on 48th, probably because he could not make the rent. So, he moved in with a couple of other musicians who had a place over on the West side of Manhattan around the seventies. "We lived on cream of wheat every morning. We lived on Riverside Drive in a huge apartment but we didn't have any money. I remember laying out in the sun one day on Riverside Drive and this big [gurgling] in my chest started."

Russell had already been to the doctor with a nagging cough that had been diagnosed as a 'bad cold.' It was, however, his un-cured tuberculosis flaring up and that gurgling sensation was 'a haemorrhage coming on.' By now it was late summer of 1945. In just a few months, Russell had established himself within that group of musicians who were shaping the new Jazz but now he was really in a bad way. He was admitted to St. Joseph's Catholic Hospital in the Bronx and that was to be his home for the next 15 months. This time there was no private room and this time the nurses, mainly elderly nuns, reserved their hands for more strictly medical procedures. With fifteen chronically and critically ill men on the ward, Russell would turn over in his corner bed, face the wall and go deep inside his own thoughts. And that puzzle that Miles had set for him kept coming back to him.

"I went to the hospital at 143rd and Brook Avenue, St. Joseph's, and it was a very dreary Catholic hospital. At the first opportunity I got a chance, it was a room with fifteen patients, I got a chance to get a bed in a corner where I had no one next to me, at least on one side and made a little cosy pad for myself, and then focused on what Miles had said—he'd wanted to learn all the changes. So, I had a lot of time in bed to think about it. In the meantime, they are coming and visiting me, Dizzy, Miles, Max, which was nice, and J. J. I reasoned that if there just could be a scale that sounded, projected the sound of a chord and not in the way the major scale projects the sound of a C major chord. The scale of an almost harmonic unity. This idea just stayed with me, it wouldn't go away, that there was a scale that was closer to the sound of the chord than any other scale."

The first six months involved complete bed rest, but as Russell told Ian Carr,

"Traditional music (theory) gave us the key signature and from this arbitrary key signature it build chords up from the tonic. I had a feeling that there must be another way to approach playing chordally, that's all. And the first impression, I got was that for every chord there had to be a scale that sounded [ ] a unity with that chord and that more so than any other scale it projected the sound of that chord."

After those six months, Russell was able to get up and at first he used the piano in the solarium to test his ideas. Unfortunately, for the other patients who had nowhere else to go, those experiments involved fairly interminable explorations of the C Major Chord, the C Major Scale and the latter with a raised fourth. After a couple of days of this, the patients revolted and started hurling the remains of the lunchtime meal and their loved ones' gifts of grapes and other fruit in Russell's direction. Fortunately, one of the sisters of mercy came to his, or rather his fellow patients' aid and moved him into the library where he could experiment to his heart's desire.

In repeatedly playing these scales, it as if Russell was engaged in a scientific experiment, weighing notes against each other, examining sounds and tones in the most minute detail and testing their correspondence to each other. As he told Ian Carr, "And I finally decided that the major scale just doesn't cut it. It doesn't make it, you know. It doesn't sound a unity with its major chord. And then I began to look for reasons why it didn't. And then I found it wasn't a ladder of fifths. It wasn't a ladder of perfect fifths like the Lydian on the tonic because the Lydian did sound a unity. But the major scale always sounded this effortful feeling of striving for the tonic, striving to become a unity."

Russell then relates this to himself and his own sense of the world.

"And that had something to do with, in a way, this feeling that had always bothered me about life, you know, is that I was having to adopt a way of being and a way of thinking that was put on me by the church, by education, you know that didn't conform to my essence."

Obviously, we all reinterpret and re-articulate our experiences in the light of a changing understanding. As Russell acknowledges, "I didn't make any philosophical associations with it early on but I was very curious that the Lydian Scale was a ladder of fifths and the major scale wasn't." It is a human quality that 'knowledge,' in particular those things we discover for ourselves, seems to resonate continually and acquire new and deeper meanings for us over time through the process of reflection.

Apart from the diversion of occasional visits from Miles, Dizzy, Max and J.J. Johnson, Russell had little to do but continue his experiments with chords and scales. The only satisfactory way of describing Russell's breakthrough discovery is to allow him to tell it in his owns words, as he explained to Vivian Perlis.

"Finally, I realized that because of the first four tones of the C major scale, the C major scale could in no way be in unity with that C major chord because of the Do-Re-Mi and Fa, Fa itself was a Do. That doesn't sound Do, a 'C' Do, that sounds the Fa Do. But what led me to play the G major scale was that the second tetra chord of C major scale is G-A-B-C, and that does sound C. The following tetra chord in G is D-E-F#-G, and that at least resolves to a tone that is in the C major chord. So, it led me to say well, let's try the G major scale. As I said, I began to accept the G major scale as actually sounding closer to the tonality of a C major chord than the C major scale. The problem, thinking practically, how can I tell musicians if you see a C major chord, play a G major scale. So, then I began to understand that the first mode of the G major scale the Ionian, playing that with the chord presented this problem of having musicians playing a G major scale. Then the Dorian, the same problem, kind of. Then the Phrygian, finally the Lydian—C-D-E-F#-G-A-B. I said, I don't care what anybody says, this isn't just the Lydian mode of the G major scale, this is the C Lydian scale, the closest scale to the C major chord."

Aside from Russell's explanation of the Concept, he makes two additional side-points. The first focuses on his understanding that the Concept challenged traditional thinking; it was, if not new knowledge, knowledge that had been lost. The second point, indicates his reluctance to tell the world of his discovery. In this context, he doubted, understandably, that a black man would be taken seriously in presenting such a challenge to Western musical theory and the institutions upon which it is based. Without questioning either the issues for a black man in a racist society in facing such a challenge, the reader may be interested to note that Joseph Campbell in his examination of the 'hero myth' (see The Hero With A Thousand Faces 1993) refers to this process at some length and calls it 'Refusal of the Call.'

In The Black Composer Speaks, Russell was asked what features of his music are uniquely 'black.' He replied these were the substitution of F# for F Natural and the conviction that the Lydian scale is "much more scientifically profound scale upon which to base a world of music." In relation to a question about the role of the black artist, he responded that it was to "show a new path to human evolution based upon his ancient high African Heritage." Russell had always been aware that what he was exploring was a different set of musical traditions that drew on Folk musics from around the world as opposed to the formalised musical structures of Western music. The point he is making above refers to his understanding of humanity's roots and origins in Africa, a point he would later make in interview with Ben Young of WKCR and even more eloquently in his work The African Game. What Russell is saying here is that the African-American brought with her/him a different set of musical ideas based on a different tradition and through Jazz and Blues gave those to America and the world. He is not making a political statement in any simplistic sense but is commenting on what he sees as the scientific basis of music and of his theories and their basis in natural world and the very origins of our species.

The scientific foundations of Russell's ideas are open to question. However, the approach he describes below and elsewhere of reading, studying and of experimenting musically, observing and reflecting is a scientific one. In terms of scientific research, this process would be described as inductive, that is observation leading to theorisation rather than deductive, which involves reasoning from a priori assumptions.

"So, I began reading a little bit, books, and I found that the interval of the fifth in the overtone series is the first biased interval. Strike the fundamental, the next overtone is the fundamental an octave above and the third partial is an interval of a fifth and the tonic of an interval of a fifth, if anyone, no-one in the world would agree that it wasn't the lower note. If you build a ladder of continual fifths you don't get C-G-D-A-E-B-F (natural), you get C-G-D-A-E-B-F#. You get the Pythagorean, the start of the Pythagorean twelve tone ladder of fifths. So, that was the day when I said, a ladder of fifths confirms the Lydian scale as the scale of unity for that tonic chord.

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 (who was president of the Stefan Wolpe society at one point), Morton Feldman and Milton Babitt. Saxophonist Johnny Carisi, arranger Eddie Sauter, clarinetist Tony Scott 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.

"He knew I was a kid who didn't know much about anything and didn't know a lot about life. My interest was in talking to him chiefly about life, but I wanted to know his principal concepts of music. The two things that impressed me, that caused me to think in a new way, were his theory of the rate of chromatic circulation as a means of destroying any tonical integrity and the principle of the thirdless sound."

In fact, Russell is quite specific in identifying the Jazz Workshop album, Lydian M-1 and All About Rosie as examples of compositions that used Wolpe's ideas and influence. Along with a host of other composers and musicians, Russell provided his comments for a centennial memorial publication for Wolpe. Even allowing for the fact that such remarks are invariably fulsome in their praise of the dear departed, Russell's final words are quite touching and seem to reflect very genuinely what the young man found in Wolpe at a more personal level.

"Wolpe's overall effect on me was immensely positive. I felt a living, breathing force in this man that was extremely life-positive. You couldn't be around him without that force entering you. To that extent Wolpe and the two principles that stuck with me and his forceful being are part of me now, and they always have been, and always will be. He's alive in those of us that he touched."

Despite being introduced by Roach to his peers as 'an arranger,' his only contribution to the city's music had been the piece he had written back in Cincinnati in hospital and had sold at least four or five times already. It was certainly too early for his Lydian Concept to have achieved anything other than 'work in progress' status. A pattern had already emerged where Russell would compose only when he had someone or something to write for. Otherwise his work would from this point on focus on the Concept. Now out of hospital, Russell was about to produce something that would cement his reputation even outside the Bebop inner circle.

"Dizzy approached me one day and he said, that he was getting very interested in Afro-Cuban drumming and music and there was this wonderful drummer in town, Chano Pozo, and he had a theme and maybe it would be possible for me to put a suite around it, you know, encompass it in a suite. And it was a beautiful theme. So, it didn't take long for me to get the idea of what to do with it and the whole introduction then was modal."

The use of modes had been around in Jazz and in other musical forms for ages. However, what Russell did with Cubano Be, Cubano Bop was to use modes consciously and through this and his subsequent work, both as a theorist and as a composer, he made the Jazz community aware of modes and their potential in Jazz. Also, as he himself put it, "It was the first application of modality using the Concept. The Cubano Be, Cubano Bop thing sort of got the reputation rolling."

Premiered at Carnegie Hall at a concert promoted by British-born critic Leonard Feather on 29th September 1947, Russell conducted Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band in front of a sell-out crowd. Charlie Parker played with Gillespie in a quintet at the same gig but sat in the audience for Russell, Gillespie and Pozo's number, and also for John Lewis}' Toccata for Trumpet. Ella Fitzgerald also sang with Gillespie and as Down Beat's headline put it—"Despite Bad Acoustics, Gillespie Concert Offers Some Excellent Music." Its critic Michael Levin saw Cubano Be, Cubano Bop as a definite 'stand-out,' writing,

"The crowd unquestionably liked the Cubano Bop number with its added bongo and congo (sic) drum soloists the best, illustrating a point the Beat has often made that there is much Jazz can pick up on from the South American and Afro-Cuban rhythm styles."

After Carnegie Hall, the band took the show up to Boston Symphony Hall and Russell travelled with the band. He recalls that Chano Pozo was sitting at the back and began this African chanting. "I said, 'Dizzy, you know, you should open the whole middle section up, bring Chano out front, let him do this.' We built a whole thing out of it, you know."

The African-American contingent in the audience, however, were embarrassed by this. Looking back on the incident, Russell identifies this as a consequence of the way black people were taught to be ashamed of their culture and later in his conversation with Ian Carr, he relates this directly to a process of ethnocentricity that is 'literally messing up the planet.'

"The black people in the audience were very noticeable because they started to laugh when Chano came out on stage in his native costume. It's like Louis (Armstrong) when they sent him to Africa, you know. Louis said, 'Damn, these people really do climb trees like monkeys.'" [laughing]

Whilst it is hard to know how far Russell and Gillespie articulated to themselves at the time their purpose in including this section in the performance, it does seem that their intention was to celebrate African-ness and the origins of Jazz. In a way, and several decades before Afro-centrism emerged as an important element in American education, it was clearly an attempt to say to an audience, this is something special and something of which we should be proud. It was an early attempt to take a stereotype and transform it by framing it in a positive rather than negative context. In that sense, it links with Russell's disagreement with his friend Dwight over his playing Aunt Jemima in their school play Gone With The Wind.

Whatever the audience's reaction, Cubano Be Cubano Bop was Russell's first significant contribution to Jazz composition and it remains a marvellous piece and, as Gillespie has noted, a wonderful collaborative effort. "That was a collaboration. That was a collaboration of all three. I think that was the most successful collaboration I've ever seen with three people. I can see what I wrote. I can see what George wrote and I can see the contribution of Chano Pozo and then George Russell came back and spread out what I had written and what Chano had done." The fact that these three, potentially, disparate elements hang together so well, is a tribute to Russell, as Gillespie appears to acknowledge in that last sentence.

Recorded in the studio on 22nd December 1947, it remains a highly symphonic work, with 'harshly incantatory ensemble passages,' 'its juxtaposition of very different textures and types of motion' and the 'disconcertedly independent of convention' ways it used the 'Jazz orchestra's resources.' As Max Harrison has noted, "It is consistent but accords with laws then unfamiliar..." Ingrid Monson's detailed analysis of the piece in the International Dictionary Of Black Composers is also well worth reading by students of music. Her final paragraph, however, suffices for our purposes.

"Fifty years after its first performance, Cubano Be, Cubano Bop, remains a model of innovative writing for Big Band. Its collaborative genesis, a synthesis of Afro-Cuban rhythms and Bebop and its imaginative use of modes 12 years before the emergence of the term 'modal Jazz,' collectively explain why George Russell must be included in the first rank of composers writing for Jazz orchestra."

Anyone doubting the significant advance represented by this piece should hear it followed by Gillespie and Pozo's Manteca, written around that time and in a similar vein. However well this stands on its own, compared to Cubano Be, Cubano Bop it sounds frankly ordinary.

Learn more about George Russell: The Story of an American Composer. © 2010, Duncan Heining. All rights reserved by Scarecrow Press.

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