Home » Jazz Articles » In Memoriam: George Russell 1923-2009



In Memoriam: George Russell 1923-2009


Sign in to view read count
George was such an inspiration to all of us in his sextet. He encouraged us to go beyond our limitations by introducing and suggesting fresh new concepts. As band members (students) he gave us the encouragement we needed to go further and deeper into our musical improvisations.

Playing in his band was a turning point in my drumming because of his encouragement and trust in my ability. George was a good drummer himself so he knew what he wanted, but he always fostered my individuality rather than telling me to play this way or that. His piano work was so rhythmic, sometimes I felt as if I was playing with another drummer.

During the '60s, George was so passionate, he would sometimes call me in the middle of the night, excited about a pan-rhythmic idea. I would have a general notion of his concept, but not clearly. Later he showed me his idea, in writing. That was another of his gifts, that he could use traditional musical notation to communicate his not-so-traditional concepts.

Although known for his harmonic innovations, George's rhythmic concepts were extraordinary. It was truly an honor and a blessing for me to have worked with, and known George Russell as my mentor and my friend. His deep passion for music is a gift for us all to cherish and to study.

---Ivory Joe Hunter, Drummer

No words can express my caring and respect for George Russell. He was an unsung hero and a true genius. His music will live in my heart forever. I'm always turning young musicians on to his incredible recordings: New York, New York, Stratusphunk, The Outer View, just to name a few.

George is the reason I ever recorded. He heard me and believed in me. Sadly, George was never a name in most homes but he sure rates the highest in mine along with Bird. I'll miss him.

---Sheila Jordan, Vocalist

I called George Russell shortly after I arrived in New York in 1960 to suggest he hire me for his sextet. Miraculously, he invited me to his apartment, played with me and gave me the job. I am forever in his debt for this act of kindness. But I think his response to my call speaks of more than kindness. Despite his deeply methodical, well-reasoned approach to music, which produced the educational materials for which he is justly renowned, George lived thoroughly in the moment. He improvised life and the remarkable music he composed glorified the improvisers who played it.

During the time I played with George he was hospitalized in New York City with a life-threatening ulcer. He told me, when he was back home after a lengthy hospital stay, that what he saw from his window was the Time/Life building. All day and all night an immense, piercingly bright sign in the sky flashed "Time... Life... Time... Life... "

---Steve Swallow, Bassist

Jimmy Giuffre and George Russell... Two people with whom I worked closely during that productive time in the '50-60s. Both men had left the music business and I was able to bring them both back to doing what they did the best.

George made an interesting contribution, perhaps freeing up some of the orchestrators to be more adventurous. Art Farmer, Bill Evans, Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton, Osie Johnson and I found his music challenging and were happy to include him in recordings I was doing for RCA and later for Decca.

Our sympathies go to George's family and friends.

---Hal McKusick, Saxophonist

I met George in 1957 during rehearsals and performances of the first "Third Stream" concert organized by Gunther Schuller at Brandeis University where I was a student. Many of the composers and members of the orchestra at that event (including Bill Evans, Joe Benjamin, Barry Galbraith, Jimmy Knepper, Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, Charlie Mingus and George) became my friends and some my future employers.

George was the first to accept me in a professional role as a member of his sextet in 1960 and I remember the camaraderie and respect at the first rehearsals in Lenox and later in the West Village. The weeks of work at the original Five Spot were exciting for the interest George's music held for musicians and artists. It seemed as if all of New York turned out to hear what he had organized and I was among the beneficiaries of his creativity and the attention it attracted. I will always be grateful to him for allowing me to participate in that historic moment.

---Chuck Israels, Bassist

George Russell was really first called to my attention as a working bandleader by a man who was sort of my chief talent scout—Cannonball Adderley. He had pointed out to me that George had put together a band and was certainly someone I should start listening to. He was very intrigued by Russell as a working bandleader. That turned out to be a valuable recommendation.

George very deliberately wanted to have a functioning small band out there. As I recall, George's band had a gig at the Five Spot and my memory tells me that was the first time I got to hear him live. That would have been 1960, an interesting band with trombonist David Baker and a trumpet player who seemed promising at the time, then disappeared—Al Kiger.

The first recording I did of Russell's, in the fall of 1960 (Stratusphunk), was the band with bassist Chuck Israels and drummer Joe Hunt. Eventually I did four albums with Russell, including my only involvement with Eric Dolphy when he was a member of the Russell band on Ezz-Thetics. That had a couple of remarkable pieces in it, including an extremely unusual version of "'Round Midnight."

George was (and I think he would have appreciated this comment) never an easy person to work with. He was about as set in his ways as anyone I had worked with, which is saying a lot given the people and the temperaments I was dealing with at the time! Goddammit, he was going to do it his way.

Unlike a lot of instinctive and arbitrary performers in that period, you were positive that it was all laid out in his mind beforehand. He quite seriously informed me that he considered tape editing to be the final step in the creative process. He expected to be fooling around with the material after we finished recording—doing editing and making changes. I don't think he ever wanted to be finished with it. That's a characteristic of those I consider to be the most creative people I've worked with: the feeling of restlessness and dissatisfaction and never being ready to turn a project loose.

George Russell—along with such other free thinkers as Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans—was never prepared to be satisfied. He was never afraid to try new ideas, never willing to think of something as in its final shape. He knew where he wanted to be going and don't get in his way. I do go back and listen to the albums we did together from time to time, even though that's roughly a half-century ago. It hasn't lost its drama. It hasn't lost its impact. There isn't much music you can say that about.

---ORRIN KEEPNEWS, Record Producer

Thank you for your vision. Your music was truly unique and transcendent. Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge. Your thoughts on the fundamental principals of music-making were my first encounter with musical theory and has been of invaluable inspiration to me. You gave me the tools. Thank you for being the shaman who "saw" me and led me—at 17—through the initiation rites of becoming a musician. You´ll always be here.

---Jan Garbarek, Saxophonist

I saw him as the genius of all geniuses... beyond compare... way ahead of his time... even today. I loved him and his music.

---George Garzone, Saxophonist

A highlight of my young life was four summers in the Berkshires at the Lenox School of Jazz. This fantastic school helped shape my life. Many of the faculty became mentors and I had an exciting six-week stint at Atlantic Records with Tom Dowd. There were often many guest lectures and a highlight of the 1957 summer was an appearance by a king of the New York underground, George Russell. He stood up, made one of his customary bows to the audience, smiled—he was immaculately groomed with an Italian suit on—and proceeded to tell us about the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Although George was an appreciator of harmonic innovation, he also often felt harmony inflicted tyranny on solo artists. He felt that a lot of his writing might inspire young improvisers to explore modal directions.

As important as his theoretical studies are, I primarily consider George's most important contribution in music as that of a composer. There are sounds that he gets from the orchestra and small group that no one else achieves. His music is as identifiable as that of Messiaen and Strayhorn. When hearing him six nights in a row at Birdland during the '60s and then 25 years later at Scullers, one could hear these orchestral sounds on keyboard.

George never considered himself a keyboard virtuoso but I believe he had a thoroughly formulated improvisational style, as well as the acknowledgement of this in his composition.

---Ran Blake, Pianist

As I listened to the two-day musical tribute to George on WKCR, I was drawn again into its rich ethos. After all the linear, contrapuntal intricacy of his music in the '50s, George loosened the fabric in the '60s and '70s, layering worlds on worlds, jutting worlds together in, to use his word, a pan-stylistic way. But that doesn't seem the right word to me. Style always seems clearly defined. The long melodies, the killer tempos, both slower than and faster than, the charged use of electronic and extended acoustic textures, the varied forms and, as always, the deep blues elements, point not to someone playing with style, but to some other place of creating we all strive for.

George points out in the last edition of Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization that all the artists he worked with when he was developing his theoretical ideas had their own theory systems, which for the most part they guarded and did not articulate or share. He did the opposite. With this, he ran the risk, knowingly for sure, that some critics and listeners would look to the music as a demonstration of the theory, turning creativity and meaning on its head. Theory is a foundation, but only a beginning.

I don't know how to quantify the journey that leads from any theory to what I hear in George's music. Playing in his orchestra was surely one of the great challenges of my musical life, technically, conceptually and emotionally.

---Marty Ehrlich, Saxophonist

A tribute to George from me seems to require more ego than I possess today—I realize more every year that he gave a word that I am still chasing—"chromatic." It wasn't until the recording of New York, New York that I understood what happened to me when I played his music. Things were never quite the same after that.

We shared a long and delightful friendship, with much laughter and warmth—we genuinely loved one another, although real grownups didn't talk like that then. He was (and is) our Schoenberg and our Stravinsky—leaving us a way to organize musical language that was unimaginable until George decided it needed to be done. He doesn't need a tribute from me—he gets my thanks every time I write or play a note. I miss him more than I thought I would—we had some good times still a'waitin' for us. Rest well, my dear.

---Bob Brookmeyer, Trombonist

George Russell opened an enormous door for me in 1965 when I was 19 years old. I was already a huge fan of George's music and his theories and was playing with a protege of his, Brian Trentham (trombonist and composer) at Columbia University. David Baker had been in an auto accident and had to give up the trombone. Brian, also a protege of David's, was going to Europe to join George. He talked George into bringing me over. I found myself at the Molde festival playing with George's sextet, Donald Byrd and Booker Ervin. You had to go by hydrofoil at that time and there was only one bass at the festival. It belonged to the other bassist, another 19-year-old—Danish guy named Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen. Can you imagine?

I made my first recording with George in Stuttgart that September (1965). It's still in print. Later, I worked a summer with a version of the big band that produced the New York, New York recording. George featured me in a concert at Carnegie Hall—the trio was Tony Williams, Stanley Cowell and myself playing "Living Time"—the suite George wrote for the Bill Evans trio with big band.

I last saw George at Max Roach's funeral at Riverside Church. He recognized me and we reminisced a little about my year in Scandinavia with him. George Russell was among the most important composers, arrangers and theoreticians in modern jazz—it's hard to imagine what the music would be like or what my life would have been like without him. He was a key link, maybe THE key link in the chain of events which formed my artistic and professional story—without him I wouldn't have met Don Cherry and on and on. Thank you, George, for your unique and invaluable contributions!

---Cameron Brown, Bassist

Having the opportunity to work with and learn from George Russell has been one of the great fortunes of my musical life. His expressive, provocative, exploratory compositions are profound as all masterworks are; they continue to resonate with listeners. His insights about the inner structure of music, as articulated in his theoretical work, inspire growth in those musicians who make the effort to check them out.

His life as a creative artist—rooted in the breadth and depth of African-American traditions and committed to honoring our collectively shared humanity—has long been influential: from the late '50s circle of colleagues in New York and at The Music Inn in Stockbridge, Massachusetts to his sojourn in Scandinavia in the '60s-70s to his decades of teaching at Boston's New England Conservatory and his leading of bands throughout all this time. I continue to derive sustenance from his work and his example.

---Jerome Harris, Bassist

Post a comment

Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.


View events near New York City
Jazz Near New York City
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Local Businesses | More...



Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.