George Russell, 86

George Russell, 86: Innovative, Influential Jazz Composer

George Russell's
George Russell's "Lydian chromatic concept" had a liberating influence. (1987 Photo By David Gahr)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

George Russell, 86, an innovative and influential jazz composer who created the theoretical framework that led to such landmark recordings of the 1950s and 1960s as Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" and John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme," died July 27 in Boston. He had Alzheimer's disease.

Mr. Russell developed the "Lydian chromatic concept," which offered liberating and advanced ideas of harmony and improvisation, and his greatest impact came in how other musicians used his ideas to forge a new style of jazz.

"Many of the advances and trends that have shaped jazz since the mid-1940s were first heard in music composed and arranged by George Russell," New York Times critic Robert Palmer wrote in 1985.

While recovering from a bout of tuberculosis in 1945 and 1946, Mr. Russell developed his Lydian concept, borrowing the name from one of musical modes of ancient Greece. He built his concept around the affinity of the fifth note of the musical scale with the base note of the chord.

"The Lydian scale is a ladder of fifths," Mr. Russell told the Boston Globe in 1999, "and the fifth is the strongest tone in an octave."

In the late 1940s, he composed "Cubano Be, Cubano Bop" for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, marking the first successful blending of Afro-Cuban music and jazz. He arranged music for other bandleaders, including Claude Thornhill and Artie Shaw, but he secured his lasting place in music with his 1953 book "The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization."

Suddenly, musicians were free to improvise according to a system of linear scales, rather than relying on a tune's chord structure. The new concept of scales allowed for different harmonic and tonal approaches, in which one key could be superimposed on another and improvisation would balance composition. Some critics scoffed at it as "space music," but such leading musicians as trumpeter Davis, saxophonist Coltrane and pianist Bill Evans used Mr. Russell's modal ideas to create landmark works of art.

Davis first adopted musical modes in his 1958 recording "Milestones." A year later, with Evans, Coltrane and saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Davis recorded "Kind of Blue," one of the most important jazz albums of all time, creating a bracingly fresh, even ethereal form of expression through the modal concept.

"Miles was fascinated by Russell's approach," critic Eric Nisenson wrote in " 'Round About Midnight: A Portrait of Miles Davis." "Here was a means for breaking free from tonal cliches while maintaining some amount of restraint."

Coltrane later extended Mr. Russell's ideas in a series of groundbreaking recordings in the early 1960s, including "My Favorite Things" (1960), "Africa/Brass" (1961), "Crescent" (1964) and "A Love Supreme" (1964).

Mr. Russell, meanwhile, recorded several albums as a pianist and bandleader such as "Jazz Workshop" (1956) and "Ezz-Thetics" (1961) that were well-received among musicians, if not always by critics.

In 1963, one bewildered New York Times reviewer wrote of a concert by Mr. Russell and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre: "If what they played is the jazz of the future, then jazz will have had the shortest life cycle of any art form.

"Both men's styles are based on 'free improvisation,' which is to music what free fall is to parachutists."

Mr. Russell moved to Europe for several years in the 1960s and returned to Boston in 1969 to teach at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he remained until 2004. His many honors included a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the so-called genius grant, in 1989. In 1990, the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master, and he was honored in 2007 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as one of 33 "living jazz legends."

By then, his place in history was secure as the creator of what the authoritative New Grove Dictionary of Jazz called "the first major contribution by a jazz musician to the field of music theory."

George Allan Russell was born June 23, 1923, in Cincinnati and made his performing debut at age 7, singing onstage with pianist Fats Waller. He began drumming professionally before attending Wilberforce University in Ohio. Survivors include his wife, Alice; a son; and three grandchildren.

He played drums briefly with bandleader Benny Carter in 1944, before the 16-month hospitalization for tuberculosis. After moving to New York, Mr. Russell studied with German composer Stefan Wolpe and became part of a circle of jazz musicians around composer Gil Evans, including Davis and saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz.

Asked in 1958 if jazz had a future, Mr. Russell said: "If America has a future, jazz has a future. The two are inseparable."

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