Jazz drummer, composer and theorist dies 86 years old
Artist biography George Russell
George Allan Russell was born June 23, 1923 in Cincinnati. He was the adopted son of Joseph, a chef on the B&O Railroad, and Bessie, a nurse. Young George made his performing debut at age seven, singing onstage with pianist Fats Waller. He began drumming professionally before attending Wilberforce University in Ohio.
He played drums for a while with bandleader Benny Carter in 1944, before the 16-month hospitalization for tuberculosis.
While recovering from this disease, George Russell developed his "Lydian chromatic concept" in 1945 and 1946. This theoretical framework offered liberating and advanced ideas of harmony and improvisation, and led to landmark recordings such as Miles Davis's 'Kind of Blue' and John Coltrane's 'A Love Supreme'.
Briefly working as a jazz drummer after his release, Russell decided to explore other areas of music after hearing Max Roach play the drums, and wound up in New York City.
In the late 1940s, George Russell composed Cubano Be, Cubano Bop for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, marking the first successful blending of Afro-Cuban music and jazz. George also 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.
George 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."
He died on July 27 in Boston. George Russell was 86 years old. He was survived by his wife Alice, a son and three grandchildren.