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George Russell, 86; composer, theoretician led giants of jazz to fertile new lands

In addition to being a composer, George Russell taught at the New England Conservatory. In addition to being a composer, George Russell taught at the New England Conservatory. (File/ 1990)
By Bryan Marquard and Michael Bailey
Globe Staff / July 29, 2009

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Speaking of his jazz composition “New York, New York Suite,’’ George Russell stepped off the stage, metaphorically speaking, and plopped down into one of the paying seats.

Even when he led an ensemble of 20 musicians, he told the Globe in 1975, it was “as if I were sitting out in the audience listening, and I don’t want to listen to anything that bores me.’’

Boredom was possibly the furthest thing from the minds of those around him during Mr. Russell’s decades-long career as a performer, composer, teacher, and writer. One of his 1947 compositions helped launch the fusion of Latin rhythms and jazz, and his theoretical musings helped musicians such as trumpeter Miles Davis to stretch the boundaries of improvisation.

A distinguished artist-in-residence emeritus at New England Conservatory, where he came to teach 40 years ago, Mr. Russell had lived in Cambridge and for many years in Jamaica Plain. He died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease Monday at Sherrill House skilled nursing center, a short walk from his residence. Mr. Russell was 86.

Unlike most towering figures in jazz, Mr. Russell had a reputation that rested on compositions and intellect, rather than performing. He was a drummer early in his career, then a pianist, but he believed his greatest contribution was his 1953 book, formidably titled: “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.’’

“The thing I don’t like about being a composer is that if you ask yourself why you are a composer, basically it has to get down to your ego,’’ he told the Boston Phoenix in 1999. “That’s why I’m glad I have something that I feel, in a way, is more important than composing.’’

Conceived while Mr. Russell was recuperating from a bout with tuberculosis, the book he referred to simply as “the Concept’’ threw open doors for jazz soloists who felt boxed in by improvising in a single key as chord progressions formed a foundation below.

Abandoning Western music’s traditional use of major and minor keys, he argued for developing jazz around modes, or scales, that offered soloists more freedom to explore the melody of a piece. (Lydian refers to the ancient kingdom of Lydia in Anatolia and was derived from ancient Greek modals).

For Mr. Russell, it was more than just an intellectual and artistic exercise.

“In George’s mind, the ‘Lydian Chromatic Concept’ was not so much a theoretical system as it was an approach to life,’’ Hankus Netsky, who chairs the contemporary improvisation department at New England Conservatory, wrote in an e-mail. “It wasn’t in any way a jazz thing, but a way to appreciate the laws of tension and release, a way of understanding Bach, Ravel, and Stravinsky - and seeing Coltrane, Monk, and Miles Davis as musicians who were part of the same continuum.’’

A conversation with Davis, when the two were part of New York City’s jazz scene in the 1940s, planted the seed that would become “the Concept.’’

“Miles and I used to play together in this one-room apartment he had, a place uptown with a piano,’’ Mr. Russell told the Phoenix. “I asked him one time what his aim was in this music, and he said he wanted to learn all the changes. I thought: ‘He doesn’t realize it, but he already knows all the changes. He must mean that he wants to find a new way to relate to the chords.’ Later, when I showed him the work I’d done on modes, the lights went on inside. He took it and wrote ‘Milestones,’ his first modal piece.’’

On his album “Kind of Blue,’’ Davis kept exploring Mr. Russell’s theories, as did saxophonist John Coltrane in such albums as “A Love Supreme.’’

Modal jazz, Davis told jazz writer Nat Hentoff, “gives you a lot more freedom and space to hear things. When you go this way, you can go on forever. You don’t have to worry about changes and you can do more with the [melody] line. It becomes a challenge to see how melodically innovative you can be.’’

A decade ago, Globe critic Bob Blumenthal called Mr. Russell’s book “the most influential theoretical statement to emerge from the jazz world.’’

Yet, Mr. Russell believed he was merely the conduit for a theory that was floating out there, waiting to be grasped.

“The ‘Lydian Concept’ guided his life and the way he lived,’’ said Mr. Russell’s wife, Alice, “and he felt that it came from somewhere else, that he was just the messenger.’’

In his childhood days in Cincinnati, Mr. Russell first drew inspiration from the African-American music that floated out church windows each Sunday.

“I used to go and lie outside the sanctified church services and feel that little frame house where they were held just shake with the rhythm,’’ he told The New York Times in 1984.

He sang in the choir of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and dreamed of becoming a jazz drummer. After attending Wilberforce University in Ohio, he left in 1943 to play with jazz great Benny Carter, who eventually replaced Mr. Russell with the great drummer Max Roach.

That, in turn, “gave me a kick in the pants to do what I had been thinking about, which was writing music,’’ Mr. Russell told the Globe in 1999.

In New York City during the 1940s, he listened nightly to saxophonist Charlie Parker, the bebop pioneer. Mr. Russell also met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and a group of Cuban musicians whose work led him to compose “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop,’’ which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1947.

While Davis may have put Mr. Russell’s modal jazz on the musical map, the use of modals subsequently was expanded by musicians such as pianist Herbie Hancock and can be heard in settings as diverse as the theme to “The Simpsons’’ television show, songs by U2, and extended solos by Frank Zappa.

Mr. Russell took his own work into other musical arenas, such as electronica and ethnic traditions. After abandoning drumming, he learned to play the piano and led a series of groups in the 1950s whose musicians included Coltrane, trumpeter Art Farmer, and drummer Paul Motian. Several albums, including “Ezz-thetics,’’ “Stratusphunk,’’ and “Jazz in the Space Age’’ were influential in the early 1960s.

His music was often more appreciated far from home, however, and he moved to Scandinavia in the mid-1960s, only to return in 1969 at the invitation of his old friend Gunther Schuller, then president of New England Conservatory, who wanted Mr. Russell to teach in the newly formed jazz department.

Over the years, he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius’’ grant in 1989 and two Guggenheim fellowships, along with nearly every other jazz award. For years, he performed many of his pieces around the world with his Living Time Orchestra.

In the classroom and in his own compositions, meanwhile, he kept true to his adage never to be boring.

“What was really great about him was that as he got older, and the students were always young, he took back from them,’’ said Netsky, who was a student of Mr. Russell’s.

“His music was never stuck. Just like Miles Davis, he continued to update himself as times changed, so the students never felt like they were working with an old guy. When music got funky, he got funky. When music got electric, he got electric. He never closed himself down to the newest innovations.’’

In addition to his wife, Mr. Russell leaves a son, Jock Millgardh of Stockholm and Los Angeles, and three grandchildren.

A service will be announced.