Jazz composer Russell dead at 86

Categories: Obituary

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Miles Davis once told George Russell that he wanted to "learn all the changes."

It was 1945 when the jazz great made this cryptic and prophetic declaration to the fledgling Russell, then just 22, who was turning stints in the drums with Benny Carter's band, listening with wonder to Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight."

But Davis' quip puzzled Russell. Davis was already the most technically adept trumpeter working jazz, who had a more complex knowledge of rhythm and composition than anyone Russell knew. What furhter change could David be meaning?

Russell guessed that Davis envisioned a new way for chords to relate to one another, and Russell lost no time getting to work.


A performance of Russell's on "The Subject is Jazz."

He called it Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. Explaining it would only make you go cross-eyed and reveal our own lack of familiarity with music theory. But you can hear its fruits well beyond the genres of jazz, and, within it, the theory is most acutely audible in such monumental works as Kind of Blue.

Russell's compositions found their way to jazz greats like Dizzy Gillespie. His multi-instrumental talents found him keeping company with Bill Evans and Art Farmer It found him winning genius grants from the MacArthur foundation, the NEA, and two Guggenheim fellowships.

You don't need a PhD to know that this guy was drowning in bronze stars for a life spent attempting to codify and understand a genre of music marked by its ravenous appetite for exploration. A cartographer of the great American sound, analyst of the most complex music, virtuoso of numerous instruments, George Russell died yesterday at the age of 86 from complications of Alzheimer's.


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