190

George Russell: The Story of an American Composer

Duncan Heining By

Sign in to view read count
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."

Shop

More Articles

Read The Royal Roost: Birthplace of Bop Book Excerpts The Royal Roost: Birthplace of Bop
by Richard Carlin
Published: March 30, 2016
Read Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion Book Excerpts Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion
by Jason Bivins
Published: September 24, 2015
Read Zappa and Jazz: Did it Really Smell Funny, Frank? Book Excerpts Zappa and Jazz: Did it Really Smell Funny, Frank?
by Geoffrey Wills
Published: September 15, 2015
Read Mingus Speaks Book Excerpts Mingus Speaks
by John Goodman
Published: July 22, 2015
Read Jive-Colored Glasses Book Excerpts Jive-Colored Glasses
by John Goodman
Published: July 16, 2015
Read "The Royal Roost: Birthplace of Bop" Book Excerpts The Royal Roost: Birthplace of Bop
by Richard Carlin
Published: March 30, 2016
Read "Way Down Inside: Songs of Willie Dixon" Extended Analysis Way Down Inside: Songs of Willie Dixon
by Doug Collette
Published: February 18, 2017
Read "Take Five with Tom Harrison" Take Five With... Take Five with Tom Harrison
by Tom Harrison
Published: December 19, 2016
Read "The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi" DVD/Film Reviews The Anatomy of Vince Guaraldi
by Marc Davis
Published: December 16, 2016
Read "Jazz From Around the World: Europe" Building a Jazz Library Jazz From Around the World: Europe
by Hrayr Attarian
Published: June 29, 2016
Read "Heard It In A Love Song: Ted Gioia & James Gavin" Bailey's Bundles Heard It In A Love Song: Ted Gioia & James Gavin
by C. Michael Bailey
Published: May 20, 2016
Read "2016 Hope College Jazz Organ Summit" Live Reviews 2016 Hope College Jazz Organ Summit
by C. Andrew Hovan
Published: September 28, 2016

Post a comment

comments powered by Disqus

Sponsor: ECM Records | BUY NOW  

Support our sponsor

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!

Buy it!