George Russell


George Allen Russell (born June 23, 1923) is an American jazz pianist, composer and theorist. He is considered one of the first jazz musicians to contribute to general music theory with a theory of harmony based on Jazz rather than European music, in his 1953 book, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.


Russell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, the adopted only child of a nurse and a chef on the B & O Railroad, Bessie and Joseph Russell. Young Russell sang in the choir of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and listened to the Kentucky Riverboat music of Fate Marable. He made his stage debut at age seven, singing "Moon Over Miami" with Fats Waller.

Surrounded by the music of the black church and the big bands which played on the Ohio Riverboats, and with a father who was a music educator at Oberlin College, he started playing drums with the Boy Scouts, receiving a scholarship to Wilberforce University, where he joined the Collegians, a band noted as a breeding ground for great jazz musicians including Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, and Benny Carter. Russell served in that band at the same time as another noted jazz composer, Ernie Wilkins. When called up for the draft at the beginning of World War II, he was quickly hospitalized with tuberculosis, where he was taught the fundamentals of music theory by a fellow patient.

Early career

After his release from the hospital, he played drums with Benny Carter's band, but decided to give up drumming as a vocation after hearing Max Roach, who replaced him in the orchestra. Inspired by hearing Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight", Russell moved to New York in the early 1940s, where he became a member of a coterie of young innovators who frequented the 55th Street apartment of Gil Evans, a clique which included Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Gerry Mulligan, and John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

It was a remark made by Miles Davis in 1945 when Russell asked him his musical aim that led Russell on a quest which was to become his life's work. Davis answered that his musical aim was "to learn all the changes." Knowing that Davis already knew how to arpeggiate each chord, Russell reasoned that he really meant that he wanted to find a new and broader way to relate to chords.

In 1945-46, Russell was again hospitalized for tuberculosis for 16 months. Forced to turn down work as Charlie Parker's drummer, during that time he worked out the basic tenets of what was to become his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a theory encompassing all of equal-tempered music which has been influential well beyond the boundaries of jazz. The first edition of his book was published by Russell in 1953, while he worked as a salesclerk at Macy's. At that time, Russell's ideas were a crucial step into the modal music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis on his classic recording, Kind of Blue, and served as a beacon for other modernists such as Eric Dolphy and Art Farmer. His Lydian Concept has been described as making available resources rather than imposing constrictions on the musicians.

While working on the theory, Russell was also applying its principles to composition. His first famous composition was for the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, the two-part "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" (1947) and part of that band's pioneering experiments in fusing bebop and Cuban jazz elements; "A Bird in Igor's Yard" (a tribute to both Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky) was recorded in a session led by Buddy DeFranco the next year.

Russell began playing piano, leading a series of groups which included Bill Evans, Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton, Paul Motian, and others. Jazz Workshop was his first album as leader, and one where he played relatively little, as opposed to masterminding the events (rather like his colleague Gil Evans). He was to record a number of impressive albums over the next several years, sometimes as primary pianist.

In 1957, Russell was one of six jazz musicians commissioned by Brandeis University to write a piece for their Festival of the Creative Arts. He wrote a suite for orchestra, All About Rosie, which featured Bill Evans among other soloists, and has been cited as one of the few convincing examples of composed polyphony in jazz.

Members of the orchestra on his 1958 extended work, New York, New York, included Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Art Farmer, Milt Hinton, Bob Brookmeyer, Max Roach, among others, and featured wrap-around raps by singer/lyricist Jon Hendricks.

Jazz in the Space Age was an even more ambitious big band album, featuring the unusual dual piano voicings of Bill Evans and Paul Bley.

At the end of the decade, Russell formed his own sextet in which he played piano. Between 1960 and 1963, the Russell Sextet featured musicians like Dave Baker and Steve Swallow and memorable sessions with Eric Dolphy (on Ezz-thetics) and singer Sheila Jordan (their bleak version of "You Are My Sunshine" is highly regarded).

Sojourn in Europe

In 1964, Russell toured Europe with his sextet and stayed on to live in Scandinavia for the next five years. Through the early 1970s, Russell did most of his work in Norway and Sweden. He played there with young musicians who would go on to international fame: guitarist Terje Rypdal, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and drummer Jon Christensen. This Scandinavian period also provided opportunities to write for larger groupings, and Russell's larger-scale compositions of this time pursue his idea of "vertical form", which he described as "layers or strata of divergent modes of rhythmic behaviour". The Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature, commissioned by Bosse Broberg of Swedish Radio to write for the Radio Orchestra, was first recorded in 1968, and was the first extended work to be recorded with electronic tape. It continued Russell's continuing exploration of new approaches and new instrumentation.


Russell returned to America in 1969, when Gunther Schuller assumed the presidency of the New England Conservatory of Music and appointed Russell to teach the Lydian Concept in the newly created jazz studies department, a position he held for decades.

Later works

In the 1970s Russell was commissioned to write and record 3 major works: Listen to the Silence, a mass for orchestra and chorus for the Norwegian Cultural Fund; Living Time, commissioned by Bill Evans for Columbia Records; and Vertical Form VI for the Swedish Radio.

With Living Time (1972), Russell reunited with Bill Evans to offer a suite of compositions which represent the stages of human life. His Live in an American Time Spiral featured many young New York players who would go on to greatness, including Tom Harrell and Ray Anderson. When he was able to form an orchestra for his 1985 work The African Game, he dubbed it the Living Time Orchestra. This 14-member ensemble toured Europe and the U.S., doing frequent weeks at the Village Vanguard, and was praised by New York magazine as "the most exciting orchestra to hit the city in years."

The work The African Game, a 45-minute opus for 25 musicians, was described by Robert Palmer of The New York Times as "one of the most important new releases of the past several decades" and earned Russell two Grammy nominations in 1985.

Russell wrote 9 extended pieces after 1984, among them: Timeline for symphonic orchestra, jazz orchestra, chorus, klezmer band and soloists, composed for the New England Conservatory's 125th anniversary; a re-orchestration of Living Time for Russell's orchestra and additional musicians, commissioned by the Cité de la Musique in Paris in 1994; and It's About Time, co-commissioned by The Arts Council of England and the Swedish Concert Bureau in 1995.


Russell's theory proposes the concept of playing jazz based on scales or a series of scales (modes) rather than chords or harmonies. The Lydian Chromatic Concept explored the vertical relationship between chords and scales, and was the first codified original theory to come from jazz. Russell's ideas influenced the development of modal jazz, notably in the album Jazz Workshop (1957, with Bill Evans and featuring the "Concerto for Billy the Kid") as well as his writings; Evans later introduced the concepts to other members of Miles Davis's working band, which employed them in recordings beginning with the album Kind of Blue.


He received a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1989. In his career, Russell also received the 1990 National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and the British Jazz Award, among others. He has taught throughout the world, and has been guest conductor for German, Italian, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish radio groups.


  • 1957: The RCA Victor Jazz Workshop
  • 1959: New York, NY
  • 1960: Jazz in the Space Age
  • 1960: Stratusphunk
  • 1961: Ezz-thetics
  • 1962: The Stratus Seekers
  • 1962: The Outer View
  • 1965: At Beethoven Hall
  • 1970: Trip To Prillarguri
  • 1973: Listen to the Silence
  • 1976: Vertical Form VI
  • 1980: Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature (Strata-East Records)
  • 1981: Othello Ballet Suite (1967) / Electronic Organ Sonata No 1 (1968)
  • 1982: Electronic Sonata For Souls Loved By Nature - 1968
  • 1982: Live in an American Time Spiral
  • 1983: The African Game
  • 1986: So What
  • 1989: The London Concert
  • 1996: It's About Time

See also


External links

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