When Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were honing their skills as sidemen in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the composer-arranger George Russell was already changing the course of jazz with his music and the theory that grounds it. Yet while the cognoscenti may have heard about his Lydian Chromatic Concept and its influence, Russell remains a cipher to most jazz fans. This is surprising, for he has pioneered a fresh approach to playing jazz that inspired several legendary musicians to realize some of their finest work. Even today, though his hearing has diminished (Russell blames his many years on bandstands), his schedule
hasn’t; it encompasses teaching, touring, and the continual honing of his theory, which is at once scientific and spiritual.
Discussing his career in a Central Park West hotel last fall, he occasionally apologized for his careful deliberations: “I got a lot up here,” he explained, pointing to his brain. Many times he referred to a book on the table, a book he’s been writing and rewriting for over 50 years. The cover is illustrated with a jagged mountaintop against a cloudy sky. It’s the fourth edition of his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, an imposing 268-page volume made even more imposing by the subtitle: “Volume One: The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity.” Even when delving into his childhood, Russell returns to the book: “I always had an inner voice that I developed in the Concept.”
And so the Cincinnati native (born 80 years ago this month) began on his musical path. He started with drums, which took him from a Boy Scout band to nightclub gigs to a college band, before landing in Benny Carter’s group and moving to Manhattan. When Max Roach proved more versatile, Carter canned him in 1944. Russell took the dismissal in stride, and decided that he’d focus on composition instead.
Russell found himself at the center of a creative hot spot. With the post-war jazz movement in full bloom, he was soon rubbing elbows with everyone from Charlie Parker and Miles Davis to Bill Evans and John Coltrane. And what did these exalted figures discuss? “Mostly women! It was about music, too. The question was always, ‘Where do we go from here?’ There was no looking back. The whole atmosphere was wonderful.” He had a particularly significant conversation with Davis. When Russell asked him what his aim was, Davis said, “I want to learn all the chords.” Russell (who assumed that he already knew the chords) kept that in mind. It would ultimately provide the means for him to realize the Concept.
During this time, Russell wrote the groundbreaking Latin-jazz classic “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie’s big band (1947) and the jazz-classical pastiche “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” for a Buddy DeFranco ensemble (1949); the latter, Russell’s attempt to combine the influences of Parker and Stravinsky, was considered so daring that the label refused to release it for more than two decades.
Just when he was beginning to achieve recognition as a major young composer, tuberculosis sidelined Russell—at one point, he was hemorrhaging so bad he was given last rights. He spent 15 months recuperating in a Bronx hospital, but his determination never waned. “I said to myself, there’s a way out of this. I kept dwelling on what Miles said, how he wanted to learn all the chords, wondering how you’d go about that. So I started out with the major chords.” As Russell repeatedly ran through scales on the hospital’s solarium piano, other patients threw bananas at him. “It’d drive me nuts too!” he confessed. “But in the end, it saved my life.”
Out of his obsession came the Lydian Concept. Though spoken of reverently for its influence, many found it an intellectually rigorous, occasionally impenetrable theory—not unlike Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, many years later. Russell scrupulously examined centuries-old music theories, including church modes, which provided the basis for most early composition. A mode is basically a scale distinguished by its tonic and dominant notes; but whereas a scale is identified with one key, a mode denotes the characteristics of a particular scale transposed to any key. By the 15th century, the Ionian mode in the key of C (with its tonic C and dominant G) had been established as the primary scale for music in the Western world.
For Russell, the Lydian mode (with, in the key of C, its tonic F and dominant C) was a more logical candidate to become the primary scale because it suggests a greater degree of unity between chords and scales. Russell argues that a major scale, for example C, consists of two tetrachords that embody two tonalities, not one. But if you adapt the major scale to Lydian mode (in the key of C that would be a C major scale with F-sharp instead of F), it removes the duality of conflicting tonics, and more fully satisfies the tonality of the major chord. With one tonic used for each respective scale, Russell reasoned that a greater variety of chords could be stacked. This offered a new path for adventurous musicians: Standard chord progressions need not dictate the course of an improvisation, as each note is equidistant from a single tonic center. Notes could flow more freely beyond the strictures of a song’s chords.
In discussing the Lydian Concept, Russell cites players who exemplified different approaches to improvisation. “Coleman Hawkins played ‘vertically,’ using a systematic style of working through a chosen chord structure—there was instant unity formed between a chord and its melody. John Coltrane inherited what Hawkins did and ventured way out beyond it. Now, Lester Young was playing ‘horizontally,’ over the chords, using time, forward movement to determine his playing. Then you have supra-vertical players that embrace both styles, like Bill Evans.” It was Russell’s intention to offer, as he wrote in an early edition of The Lydian Chromatic Concept, “a view or philosophy of tonality in which the student . . . will find his own identity.”
Once his idea evolved, Russell realized, “This is not meant to be kept a secret. It proves that gravity exists in the universe as a force. I have to let this go.” In 1953, he published the first edition of the book. Miles and Coltrane in particular took his work to heart and helped bring modality to jazz’s center stage; it was soon taken up by ’60s rock bands, including the Grateful Dead, and jam bands. Russell was praised for the Concept’s far-reaching nature by Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Gil Evans, and the man who inspired it all: “Miles once introduced me, saying, ‘This is the motherfucker who taught me how to write!’ ”
By then Russell had shifted from composing and arranging for others to leading and recording his own bands. He did so with style and sophistication, hiring such distinguished players as Dolphy and Evans (then unknown) for his Smalltet. His most prodigious output of studio releases began in the mid ’50s and lasted through the early ’60s. In those years, he crafted a remarkable string of lyrical, emotional albums, including Jazz Workshop (1956), New York, New York (1958, featuring Coltrane), Jazz in the Space Age (1960), Ezz-Thetics (1961), and The Stratus Seekers (1962). Yet despite the admiration of musicians and critics, they were often overlooked in later years. To some, Russell himself was daunting—an intellectual theorist and composer at a time when the romantic figure of the soloist overshadowed every other aspect of jazz. No achievement in jazz is more deserving of rediscovery and reassessment than Russell’s.
Russell’s distinctive skills as a writer-arranger are evident in all his work; he conceives music as a play with well-defined scenes. Of 1957’s “All About Rosie” (based on a children’s song), he says, “The first part is fast and stern, while the second is soulful and then the third part is really cooking. I told the band to think about the tempo, the modes, the emotions there.” Although surface aspects of Russell’s approach changed when he began using electric instruments and musicians who were raised with the modalism he had reintroduced, little changed in terms of Russell’s meticulous methods. It’s About Time, from 1995, is no less carefully structured. “I wrote out the solo for saxophonist Andy Sheppard and told the drummer not to play on the 2-4 beat as it’s usually done. The first movement is all rhythm, the second is the band itself, and the third movement is one of the most beautiful things I’ve written. It goes from lyrical to thunder and develops into a Miles ending—it always brings the house down.”
In the early ’60s, Russell found himself in total disagreement with what he calls “the lawlessness” of the emerging free jazz scene: “I didn’t feel that I fit in to what was going on.”
He left for an extended stay in Europe in 1965, garnering extraordinary acclaim and support for his big-band concerts. Gratifying as that was, he returned home in 1969, when, as he puts it, “America seemed to be searching for its identity,” and jazz was out of favor. He took a teaching post at the New England Conservatory at Gunther Schuller’s invitation, a job that he still holds 34 years later. “It’s security for me, and I like working with such serious and committed students.”
Teaching didn’t stand in the way of his other activities. He never stopped composing or forming ensembles to play his ingenious music, including such ambitious genre-bending projects as Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature (1968), The African Game, which was nominated for a Grammy (1983), and An American Trilogy (1992). To help him realize those and other pieces, he formed the 14-piece Living Time Orchestra in 1978, which has performed at the Smithsonian, Newport Jazz Festival, and Carnegie Hall, as well as the Village Vanguard and other clubs. The group toured Europe last year, and triumphed at the Umbria Jazz Festival; it is now headed for London’s Barbican Centre. New York is another story. Russell was stung when Jazz at Lincoln Center canceled plans for a 70th birthday concert because he uses electric bass. Understandable maybe in 1952, but in 1992? “They’ve traveled back to the bad old days—they believe that they are in 1952,” laments Alice Russell, his wife of 26 years and assistant manager.
Though he’s received fellowships from the NEA, Guggenheim, and the MacArthur Foundation, he remains most proud of his Lydian Concept. The first volume of the greatly expanded new edition appeared in 2001; the second volume now awaits publication, and the third is nearing completion. “It still evolves. It’s ongoing, still in progress. If someone asked me what I have to show for my life, I’ve got this to show,” Russell says, pointing to the book. “I hope that the Concept will be remembered as my gift and that I was someone that brought music closer to unity.”
For more information about Russell’s work, see georgerussell.com.