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George Russell

Matt Schudel

George Russell, who died this week, was an immensely important figure in music history who is totally unknown to the general public. Russell was a jazz composer, occasional bandleader and theoretician. I'm not surprised if you've never heard of him, but if you're aware of any musical expression deeper than "American Idol," then you know his influence.

Russell created the intellectual framework underlying Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue," which is often called the greatest jazz album ever made. He was a huge influence on John Coltrane, who used modal jazz ideas in "My Favorite Things," "A Love Supreme" and other landmark recordings. Russell's ideas spread quickly throughout jazz and are still taught at university jazz programs throughout the world.

In 1953, Russell wrote a book called "The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization," which outlined a new organizing principle for music. Previously, jazz musicians relied on the progression of chords through a song as the underlying structure for their solos.

Russell devised a series of "modes," which are related to the key or tonal center of a musical scale. Under this system, a soloist was liberated to develop more free-flowing solos that were based on his interlinked scales, rather than on one particular scale or key. It allowed for polytonality (something Dave Brubeck was already experimenting with by the 1950s, by the way) and for a somewhat drifting, ethereal -- and clearly more intellectual -- approach to music than had previously been the norm.

I realize all this sounds sort of technical and "inside," but it's simpler in practice than it seems. Check out this video of Russell's sextet from the early 1960s -- that's Thad Jones on trumpet, Albert "Tootie" Heath on drums -- applying his musical ideas to the outwardly simple-sounding "You Are My Sunshine."

On this video, singer Sheila Jordan tells an endearing story about that very song and how her grandmother scooted him off the piano bench, saying he wasn't playing it right.

For a general look at Russell's career, with some fascinating anecdotes from the great jazz record producer Orrin Keepnews, check out this excellent video. Keepnews confesses that "I was pretty g--damned negative about anything you could possibly call avant-garde," but he came to appreciate Russell's music, especially when played by the great saxophonist Eric Dolphy.

Finally, for a glimpse of Russell in his early prime, when his ideas were beginning to percolate through the jazz world, here's a remarkable video document from 1958. (That was the year, by the way, that Miles Davis recorded "Milestones," which contained his first modal efforts).

Russell appeared on the television show "The Subject Is Jazz," a series on jazz that was produced by an educational television station in New York in conjunction with NBC. (In 1958, ABC also broadcast a short-lived jazz series, called "Stars of Jazz. I wish some network, anywhere, would have the gumption to have a jazz program today.)

The show's musical director was pianist Billy Taylor, who grew up in D.C. and is, to this day, the jazz impresario of the Kennedy Center. By the way, the trumpeter in his band was Doc Severinsen, who later became famous as the leader of Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" band. (The guitarist is Mundell Lowe, and the great Tony Scott is on clarinet and bari sax; Jimmy Cleveland plays trombone, Eddie Safranski is on bass, and Osie Johnson is on drums.)

At 5 minutes, 45 seconds into the program, an extended segment on Russell's begins. Host Gilbert Seldes interviews Russell at length about his ideas, and a sensational band -- including Bill Evans on piano, Barry Galbraith on guitar and Art Farmer on trumpet -- performs his music. It doesn't seem that outlandish today, but it's still fresh, interesting, elegant and exuding deep intelligence. The segment on Russell lasts until 18:38.

Stay tuned until the end of the video, when Taylor's and Russell's bands both hook up for a grand jam on an original tune by Billy, "Double Exposure." This is wonderful, rare archival footage to be treasured by anyone with an interest in jazz. Seldes is a terrifically erudite host, and I tell you, this program makes you wonder about the devolution of television and our culture in general.

By Matt Schudel  |  July 29, 2009; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  Matt Schudel , Musicians  
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