George Russell

By: Brian Berger
June 23, 2015


One of jazz’s great visionaries, composer and theorist GEORGE RUSSELL (1923–2009) both wrote astonishing music and generously suggested how others might do likewise. Born out-of-wedlock to a white Oberlin College music professor and a wealthy, light-skinned black Kentucky woman, Russell was adopted by a black family from Cincinnati, where he sang in an AME Church choir, listened to Ohio River steamboat bands and began playing drums. Integrated high school “was the first time I realized I was colored, and there was one insult after another,” Russell recalled, thus he attended historically black Wilberforce University and, having recovered from tuberculosis, in 1943 he forsook Queen City racism for Chicago. Having joined Benny Carter’s band, Russell lost his job, graciously, to Max Roach. Fine: Russell’s primary interest was now composition — he could play functional ‘composer’s piano’ — so he moved to New York and befriended Bird, Dizzy, Miles. In 1945, the TB returned; fifteen months in a Bronx hospital, nine months in Max Roach’s mother’s house in Brooklyn, and much thinking followed. The results changed music: in 1947, Dizzy recorded Russell’s “Cubana-Be, Cubana-Bop,” and in 1953, Russell’s treatise, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, appeared. At its simplest, “The Concept” offered revelatory ways of relating chords to scales, a breakthrough that would directly inspire the modal jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, while also influencing rigorous experimentalists like Eric Dolphy and Bill Dixon.

Was Russell’s enfolding of music theory with philosophy, history, psychology and spirituality sometimes too much? “I asked Buckminster Fuller,” Russell once explained, “‘Mr. Fuller, don’t you think it’s the scientist’s responsibility to relate his discipline not only to that science but to everything?’ His answer was ‘Well, you have a dome, why don’t you use it?’”

The Day John Brown Was Hanged (1956)

Concerto for Billy The Kid (1958)

George Russell Big Band (1967)

“Cubano-Be, Cubano-Bop” (1978)


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Anna Akhmatova, Joss Whedon, Alan Turing, June Carter Cash, Nat Hiken.

READ MORE about men and women born on the cusp between the New God (1914-23) and Postmodernist (1924-33) Generations.


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What do you think?

  1. One of my heroes since I was a teenager. Brian, do you know Russell’s arrangement of “Caravan,” made for Charlie Ventura? It was to be part of a Ventura Plays Ellington album from 1949 or 1950, but it was too weird and didn’t get released until later.

  2. Listening to the original Ventura 78 RPM album now. I suspect that “Prelude to a Kiss” might also be a Russell arrangement – it’s more adventurous than any of the other originally-released charts. Can’t be sure, though. The discographies just list George Williams and George Russell as arrangers, with no further details on who wrote what.

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