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.
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.
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.
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).
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.