George Russell, R.I.P.
Russell was one of the great unsung heroes of modern jazz. In this summer when many are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, it is worth noting that there would have been no such album—the art of jazz might have languished in post-Parker malaise for a few years longer—had there been no George Russell.
Born in Cincinnati, a prodigy on piano and drums, he moved to New York in the late 1940s, wrote “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop” (the pioneering work of Afro-Cuban jazz) for Dizzy Gillespie, and joined a coterie of composers—most notably Gil Evans, John Lewis, and Gerry Mulligan—pushing the music in more inventive directions.
Soon after, Russell contracted pneumonia and spent over a year at St. Joseph’s Hospital in the Bronx, where a nurse showed him a piano in a library that almost nobody used. Friends brought him musical theory books, and every day he fiddled with new combinations of chords and scales. Finally, he hit upon a whole new way of playing jazz—improvising not on chord changes, as Gillespie and Charlie Parker had done in the bebop revolution of a decade earlier, but on scales, specifically church modes that hadn’t been explored by anyone in over a century.
The distinction might sound academic, but it was profound. When a bebop musician improvises, the chord changes serve as a compass; they point the directions to the next bar or the next phrase. The chords follow a particular pattern; you knew what the next chord would be. Playing blues, you also knew that this sequence of chord changes would be finished in 12 bars, and then you’d either end your solo or start over again. The best musicians took flighty excursions on these solos, but the chord structure determined or limited which notes they could play and for how long.
With Russell’s theory, the compass was thrown out the window, or its needle was sent spinning in multiple directions. You could play the notes of the chord, or any note along its scale, and you could play on that scale for as long as you wanted. As Russell put it in his book, The Lydian Chromatic concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation, “The concept provides the possibilities. It is for the musicians to sing his own song, really, without having to meet the deadline of a particular chord.”
Miles Davis was a friend of Russell’s and one of the first to grasp his theory’s implications. “When you go this way,” Davis explained in a 1958 interview with Nat Hentoff, “you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes, and you can do more with time. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically inventive you are… I think a movement in jazz is beginning, away from the conventional string of chords and a return to emphasis on melodic rather than harmonic variations. There will be fewer chords but infinite possibilities as to what to do with them.”
Kind of Blue, recorded in 1959, would be the perfect expression of this concept—and the exemplar for a new generation of jazz musicians seeking freer ways of playing music (sometimes for the better, sometimes not).
Russell led some great albums of his own: Jazz Workshop with Bill Evans (whom he introduced to Miles Davis—another prerequisite to the wondrous novelty of Kind of Blue), Ezz-thetic with Eric Dolphy, and New York, New York with Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, Max Roach, and John Coltrane. All are very much worth checking out.