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In Memoriam: George Russell 1923-2009

AAJ Staff By

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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.


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