Courtesy of George Russel

Fantasy Jazz


George Russell should be in any hall of fame that has to do with improvised music. Why he isn't is a question I cannot answer, but I am certain it has a great deal to do with ignorance and arrogance, two things "jazz" has to spare. So to educate those who don't have a clue, I give to you Mr. George Russell, unedited and in his own words (and it was an honor for me that he would grace me with his time).

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

GEORGE RUSSELL: Well, Fred, I grew up in a typical Ken Burns neighborhood. He talks about, you're familiar with what his main subject is. His documentary is about the history of jazz and I grew up with the history. My next-door neighbor was Jimmy Mundy who wrote for Benny Goodman and became the first, one of the first black arrangers to make it big time. He wrote the Traveling Light that Billie Holiday did. We had, in Cincinnati, a very discriminating audience that actually got angry if they didn't hear new music coming out of the band, some potentially new music. I used to, as a child, in my backyard, I'd play and hear this wonderful music because the pianist, Art Tatum. One of my boyhood friends, his uncle was Art Tatum and Art Tatum is probably the greatest jazz pianist that ever lived. Jack White, one of the early bandleaders, also lived in the neighborhood. Lena Horne, I would see her in the neighborhood and see her little boy there and further more, I had the black church. So the black church was already a hundred years ahead of its time, in its music and I don't mean the sophisticated black churches, I mean the hole in the wall black churches and what we call the hallow. Nightclubs were everywhere and I also got a scholarship too. When I was in high school, which I actually got kicked out of high school and quit being some kind of radical in dress, I got a scholarship and played with the Wilberforce Collegians. Wilberforce Collegians was one of the black college bands that really has a rostrum of musicians, who were just amazing, Ben Webster, Fletcher Henderson, Frank Foster, Ernie Wilkins, just incredible and I am only naming a few of them right now. So I played drums with the Wilberforce Collegians and we traveled, but we met other college bands. We traveled with the football team and the football team would have a game and that college band would have a game with the Wilberforce Collegians or it could be the Alabama State Collegians. Lucky Thompson was in the band. Junior Cook, later, joined Ellington. Those bands were formal institutions for the black jazz musicians.

FJ: As a young man, you were hospitalized with tuberculosis, aside from the physical challenges, how did it shape your musical outlook?

GEORGE RUSSELL: It really actually didn't change my views because when I was nineteen or even before that I had made a vow to follow music wherever it took me. The way the tuberculosis was found was in the military. I got called up to take a physical test, which, if I had passed, I would have been able, or at least maybe, not able to tell you about the wonderful parties they had at Iwo Jima and the other incredible battles that they had. It saved my life because I went into a single room, single bedroom with a veranda in a Cincinnati branch hospital, which was in a woodsy area, beautiful woodsy area and furthermore, learned music in the hospital from a very talented man, young man, my age, who didn't make it, so I've been very fortunate. I have had a guardian angel.

FJ: When did you resolve to place your focus away from playing and to composing and arranging?

GEORGE RUSSELL: After I heard Max (Max Roach) play. I joined Benny Carter's band during the war and the band played. We played the Apollo in New York. J.J. Johnson was in that band and a lot of very famous guys were in Benny's band. Of course, Benny is amazing playing trumpet and alto or anything else and I got the opportunity during a break to go to Fifty-Second Street and hear this new music that was going on and the band I saw was Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. I believe Curly Russell, who had played with Benny Carter on bass, Bud Powell, piano, and Max Roach, drums. I heard Max and I knew that I would never come close to playing drums that well and I didn't like lugging drums around. Actually, Fred, drums were a burden in a way and I was just aware of what my position was. Ellington asked me to join. I shouldn't have ever been at the downtown theater in Chicago. I sat in for Sonny Greer and came in at the wrong tempo because Ellington didn't count-off. He just gave a downbeat and the band came in at one tempo on Mary Lou Williams' "Blue Skies." A wonderful arrangement, went very fast, but I came in at a different tempo because I wasn't that savvy actually. Still Duke asked me to join him. I think it was more that Duke was ahead. I think, he cared about how things looked and he may have liked that maybe he thought he could get me in the band and I'd help the band look better too.

FJ: What was so convincing about Roach's styling?

GEORGE RUSSELL: The thing that was totally convincing that I should not come anywhere near drums again was that he played so effortlessly. His wrists hardly moved and he would be doing fantastic things. He is a powerful drummer and later on, I stayed at his house for nine months. I know Max real well and thank goodness I heard him when I did. I had an innate interest in harmony anyway. I was always interested in a beautiful chord and when I did get in the hospital, it was an opportunity for the young man I spoke about, he taught me the rudiments of music while I was in the hospital for six months so I was able to parlay all of that into going after being a composer. Hopefully, I've made it.

FJ: You have written perhaps the most important book on music theory, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, based upon the playing on scales rather than chord changes. The Lydian Concept went on to become the fundamental foundation of modal jazz.

GEORGE RUSSELL: Well, I don't think that there is any question that the Lydian Concept is the Bible of the modal approach. I won't say period because that's really a wrong thinking because modes are not a period. Modes are an intricate part of music. They always will be and what led me to that was a conversation I had. Miles and I used to have sessions. When I settled in New York, I had a close association with Miles and we liked each other's sense of harmony. He played a chord and I would say, "What is that?" and he'd try to explain it and I'd play a chord and he'd say, "What's that chord?" You know, Fred, that I asked him one day, I said, "What's your musical aim?" and he said, "My aim is to learn all the changes." Well, at that time, he was. That's what he was doing. His melody indicated the chord of the moment. He was playing to the chord of the moment. His melody was coloring the chord of the moment and that's vertical playing and those terms weren't used then. The Concept introduced vertical and horizontal melodies. It introduced that language and it set the pace and I wondered how he would, it seemed that in answering my question, he didn't really answer it because to me, he already knew the changes and to most people, he would now determine that Miles would be a vertical player. He liked to have a melody that indicated the chord, whether the bass player was there or not because the melody would indicate the chord. He knew changes that well. So it bounced off me and I had a long time to think about it because I was sick again in a hospital in New York and I came up with the idea that he was looking for a new way to play and that sent me on a path that had to do with chord scale unity instead of based on a theory that, my theory that a chord has a scale, that's closer to it than any other scale of music and the Lydian scale demonstrates that perfectly. It does it in a profound way because the Lydian scale is intervals of fifths from C, G, D, A, E, B, F sharp and that the Lydian scale in the fifth is the third partial in the overtones theory. The second partial is actually an octave of the first tone of the overtone series. The fifth comes in so octaves have the same tonic. If you strike C, the C above it is the second overtone of the series and that's the same note from the medley, but the next note is G. C to G is an interval of the fifth and anyone in the world, if you played that interval and asked them to sing that, the tone, either the upper or lower tone that sounded the most tone-ical and with the most strongest tone-ical authority, the whole world would sing the lower tone and an interval of fifths then forms the ladder of fifths, C, G, D, A, E, B, F sharp and that is the Lydian scale. Fifth being because the fifth coming in and creating the first tone-ically based interval in the overtone series. That means that one of the tones has more tone-ical authority than the other. The fifth doing that then becomes the strongest harmonic interval in the overtones series because it supports that whole fantastic series of major and you can't argue with that. The Lydian scale is a scale of unity. The major isn't because you go C, G, D, A, E, B and then you have to, the next note can't be a fifth. When I set out on this path I didn't know what I was dealing with. I know now, two months before the final edition will be coming out now. You know, Fred, we've been working for fifty-five years on what the Lydian Concept really is and finally that is about to be closed. In more then two months the book will be available.

FJ: Since most historians grievously fail to appreciate the significance of the Lydian Concept, how much historical weight do you place on the magnitude of modal jazz?

GEORGE RUSSELL: Well, it's a semantic thing, Fred. What Miles was really looking for was more freedom. The mode gives him more freedom, more time and it, it's a beautiful way to think and he needed it because he needed to get away from typical bebop changes. He needed time to express those beautiful melodies that he felt within him. It's impossible to be without modal jazz because modes are an intricate part of music. They are an integral part of music. If you have a scale, a mode is simply that scale begun and ended on one of those tones, while keeping the order of the scale intact, so you can't deviate from modes. So if you have Lydian mode on C, D, E, F sharp, G, A, B, you have a mode of that then on the second degree, D, E, F sharp, G, A, B, C, and E, then E, F sharp, and so forth. Each note is the modal tonic, in other words, if there are seven notes in the scale, there are going to be seven modes of that scale and that's a fact.

FJ: The late Art Farmer was a member of your Smalltet and appears on the advanced Jazz Workshop (recently reissued by KOCH).

GEORGE RUSSELL: What's your impression of Art?

FJ: Underestimated and worse, unheralded.

GEORGE RUSSELL: Yeah, well, Art studied with the Concept and he always was very liberal with acknowledging the Lydian Concept as being the most important steps he had taken in life. He was a beautiful player, very, very thoughtful and he was a total professional. He could read. He could come in and read anything. He could play anything, so he was a consummate player.

FJ: And your thoughts on another consummate player, Eric Dolphy, who is featured on the classic Ezz-Thetics (Riverside/Original Jazz Classics).

GEORGE RUSSELL: I had a few sessions with Dolphy and I have a card from him in Paris a few months before he died thanking me. The card said, "I'm trying to get with the new concept."

FJ: Why did you leave US shores for European soil?

GEORGE RUSSELL: I didn't like what was happening in America. I had to get away. I didn't like the racial conflict. I didn't like the Vietnam conflict and you know, Fred, I didn't like the musical atmosphere in particular and I had to leave. It was a good move.

FJ: Since your return, has anything changed?

GEORGE RUSSELL: Yeah, maybe for the worst. It's hard. It's really hard to be in this era at this time to be in America. It's a bit hard to say that it's really improved or that it's dedicated to improving.

FJ: Free jazz has been around since the Sixties. That was forty years ago and I don't see anything else new on the horizon.

GEORGE RUSSELL: You will, Fred. You'll see that in about two months because the Concept, grew and grew and grew to the point where it does embrace all music and it is a definitive language that fits all kinds of music and there is not just Coltrane's solo on "Manhattan" (off the New York, New York release on Impulse!), which he did with my band, but the Bach's Fantasia and Fugue done with the Concept and Scriabin (Alexander Scriabin) analyzed. No book has ever done that. There is not a book out there that has ever and it's all gravity and it proves that gravity is, tonal gravity is the unseen power behind music and it forms the organization. Actually, Fred, that's what is so important to get over to people and I think the book will do that and I think the book can. There is so much in the book that will enrich music and that's why it's coming out. There is so much in it. I may have told too much because I don't want to step on people's innate ability to develop and formulate comfortable ways to produce new music and I do think that Lincoln Center put a big hurting on the music. Not that Wynton or Stanley Crouch have done a crime that they could be put in jail for, but they have hurt music.

FJ: If you took the Lydian Concept out of the equation, where would jazz be?

GEORGE RUSSELL: That there is no one idol, that all ended with Ornette and the reason it ended with Ornette is because of an alto saxophone player from the Mid-West coming to New York on the bus with a shoebox full of chicken and an alto saxophone and turning New York on its ears. That's all over. That's not happening because one reason is what Ornette did was amazing. He broke off. He gave jazz new forms, which separated jazz forever from the Broadway tunes. Much of bebop is simply Broadway tunes re-melodized: "Hot House," "What is This Thing Called Love?" And you can go right down the line. The reason the players could measure their progress was that they all had a common force to deal from. They had Broadway music and setting the pace, if not setting the form and create their own harmonies and melodies. But Ornette broke that. He broke all that up.

FJ: So where is the next dominant player?

GEORGE RUSSELL: One is enough. His contribution is so definitive and he's so very much himself that you can't do what he does and get away with it. You're never going to be able to. All you're going to have there are clones of Ornette. You're not going to have a movement that the whole history can use because whatever the link between Broadway and jazz was, it was a strong link and that provided forms, ready-made forms for anyone. It made it easier to come in and be known, but as you say, Fred, it did tie people to those fixed forms, many times beautiful Broadway tunes. But that means that the next person who comes through has to do with what Ornette did and to break away from all of that and do much more than Ornette had come up with his own new forms.

FJ: Is there hope?

GEORGE RUSSELL: Yeah, well, there's not only hope. There is a fire that cannot be put out. I know that with students that come through school. There is in my class, this year, there is a Korean woman who sits down and she's scary. She plays new music immediately and it's very, very interesting. She is unbelievable.

FJ: Ornette is a seminal figure. Who else revolutionized the music on the same level?

GEORGE RUSSELL: Well, I have to include the Concept. The Concept has influenced a lot of people and I get emails all over the place from people saying, "When is that book coming out?" They are there, but in an environment like this, I think, they are going to have a harder time coming through because anything new now is intimidating. Society isn't thinking. It's going backwards. It's revisionist. A lot of that came from Lincoln Center.

FJ: How has Lincoln Center managed to rewrite history?

GEORGE RUSSELL: I don't think there is much to say about it. They are not breaking any laws, but what they are doing though is a crime. They are hurting music and I've said that before and I'm tired of saying it. You know, Fred, you can say something and no one pays attention to you. I wrote a letter. Keith Jarrett wrote a letter. Four years ago, I wrote a letter praising Keith Jarrett's letter and one magazine, I think, Jazziz, they were going to print my letter, but in the meantime, Stanley Crouch calls me and I had to tell him he's not a friend of mine and I did mention that I had written a letter to prove that to Jazziz and that it would come out and it never came out after that. I can imagine why it didn't, but the big problem is that their revisionism hurt music and set it back and made it harder.

FJ: Jazz has always reflected the time, from swing, to bebop, to free. But what is reflecting our time now?

GEORGE RUSSEL: Well, there is something out there that always reflects now. I think rap reflects now.

FJ: So should jazz be fusing with rap?

GEORGE RUSSELL: I wouldn't come near answering that.

FJ: It's a loaded question.

GEORGE RUSSELL: It's a loaded question and loaded is the right word. You know, Fred, I don't think that's the way to go. Whatever is out there is reflecting the time. It's just that it's not reflecting it. It's reflecting the negative, the negativity of the times. I wouldn't want to go in to a record store now. Like I live fairly near a Tower Records and I never go in there much because when I go in, I'm shocked because on the main floor, there is no jazz on the main floor. There is some kind of music that slams, bangs, twangs. It bops and it's loud and ugly and distressing. I like to think the ghetto has produced much more beautiful ideas and much more beautiful music than that, but I think to say it's reflecting our times is scary. I walk in a record store, I feel like I'm being assaulted or something. In Tower Records, it's another world.

FJ: How tragic jazz is relegated to the second floor?

GEORGE RUSSELL: Third floor.

FJ: It's on the third floor?

GEORGE RUSSELL: Yeah, what is it? Jazz sells three percent, right?

FJ: Less than one now.

GEORGE RUSSELL: Right, I can see it. I think you and I will have to be the people who stick our necks out and it's a shock when you say that all the music that has come has reflected the time that is coming. You know, Fred, it's a beautiful way to put it and so is it happening today, but it's ugly as the time. Last night, just on television, the whole idea of Survivor didn't come from America. It came from Holland. First of all, mediocrity is worshiped. I don't care where audiences are and who is performing, the audience is going to get up and scream their heads off and nothing really happens. So the audiences are being sucked in on all of this. They are just as guilty as these musicians who are assaulting them and we have to stop it somehow. We have to bring it back, but I think it all comes from an amazing boredom with life and a love, which embraces a kind of love for mediocrity. Mediocrity is the handmaiden of violence. You know, Fred, we're following the path of wrestling. We're not far away from the coliseum. We're going that way. We've got to have sensation. Everything has to be sensational and in an ugly way. I can tell from the emails that many young people out there and they are from all over the world and they said some wonderful things about the book and needing the book at this time and I feel that this time needs that book.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and is the guy selling oranges on the side of the freeway. Email Him.