• Jennifer Barnick

George Russell: Humble Genius

Photo Source: The Jazz Record

I would say the most striking thing about George Russell was how his brilliance shone as brightly as his modesty. It is a funny idea that modesty can shine—especially in our current culture that barely values it as a virtue. However, in the Taoist philosophy, modesty is considered the very highest of virtues—a virtue that is only achieved by the very wisest of humans. The idea is that Heaven empties what is too full and fills what is too empty. Consequently, to be modest is the golden way. While one piles up achievements—yet remains modest then they will find their works lasting. Likewise, if one is learning all sorts of hard lessons handed out from the universe, then sooner or later, greatness will arrive (as long as the achiever remains modest—otherwise the Tao will empty what is too full). George Russell was a man of the very highest of Taoist achievement, “Though he largely operated behind the scenes and was never well known to the general public, Mr. Russell was a major figure in one of the most important developments in post-World War II jazz: the emergence of modal jazz, the first major harmonic change in the music after bebop.” (George Russell’s obituary, nytimes.com, July 30, 2009)

George Russell was born in Cincinnati in 1923. He was placed in foster care and adopted by a registered nurse and a chef on the B & O Railroad. (georgerussell.com). He received a scholarship and attended Wilberforce University. In trying to enlist in the Marines in 1941, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and spent six months in the hospital. It was at that time that he learned about harmony in music from a fellow patient. He sold his first composition from his hospital bed, and when he was released, he moved to New York, NY. (georgerussell.com). It is very telling by his reception in New York that his genius, though never fully recognized by the masses, was instantly recognized by the greats. “The circle included Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Johnny Carisi and on occasion, Charlie Parker.” (georgerussell.com)

George Russell was always very modest about his abilities as a musician. He also balked at the idea of being a soloist, “Russell is by no means a forbidding figure personally, and neither, if approached openly, is his music. Referring to his predominately ‘in-group’ reputation, he points out (with a small smile) that: ‘It’s a good position to be in. It allows you to be discovered and rediscovered all the time.’” (Joe Goldberg, album notes from The Stratus Seekers: George Russell Septet, 1962) What George Russell (at least in his mind) saw as important was not his individual genius standing out as a player rather as a revolutionary composer that sought to give jazz musicians more freedom to play and experiment without losing the earthy, blues roots in jazz. He called this concept the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization and published a book with the same title in 1953. In the fifties and sixties, George Russell would not realize fame or fortune; in fact, he worked in many humble side jobs to meet needs. However, it was during this period that his revolutionary compositions and ideas were exploding and transforming jazz forever, and greats such as Miles Davis and Johnny Coltrane were adopting his theories into their work.

Modesty does have its agonies, and eventually Russell, out of frustration of not getting recognition in America, moved to Sweden in the middle sixties. In Sweden, he was broadly received and celebrated. In 1969, he was asked to teach jazz at the New England Conservatory where he would teach until 2004. (George Russell Obituary, nytimes.com, July 30, 2009) From his New England Conservatory years, George Russell would increasingly gain recognition for his work as a musician and his contributions to jazz; however, never would his fame reach popular culture. He was a genius that was recognized primarily by his peers. A student of his, Fred Hersch (a great American jazz pianist), wrote lovingly about him an obituary for Jazztimes.com. In a funny line, he reiterates a theme when people write about George Russell in that he was not a bombastic personality (and it’s important to note that his compositions are wild) (!), “His teaching method was, to me, rather dry and unyielding, and somewhat lacking in enthusiasm. George’s real strength was as a composer and arranger—where he was most himself. I remember getting goosebumps listening to Sheila Jordan singing “You Are My Sunshine” in his strangely beautiful arrangement.” (Hersch, jazztimes.com, 3-1-2010)

I actually own an album for which he does play the piano (The Stratus Seekers by the George Russell Septet). It is safe to say that while George Russell claimed he was not a very good musician—he was. He was a brilliant musician as well as composer. However, he kept his brilliance to his transformative compositions and ideas, and when he did play, it was always as one of the group and never as a solo star. He died in 2009 in Boston. He was 86.