I first encountered George Russell’s music when I was researching an article on Chuck Israels. Chuck Israels taught a music appreciation class that I took while attending Brooklyn College in 1975. At that time I was a devoted Frank Zappa fan but had never heard of Bill Evens or George Russell so I was unaware that Chuck had played bass with both of these musical giants. The class was memorable for at least three reasons which I discussed in the article on Chuck (Panache Experience Volume 17 Issue 3). Having not heard from me in 29 years Professor Israels agreed to help me with an article I wanted to write on his career in jazz and jazz education.
I was doing research on Chuck’s website and following leads for my article. George Russell was one of those leads. George and his wife, Alice Russell, were extremely gracious in answering questions about Chuck. Chuck plays bass on the very memorable and heavily commented upon recording, George Russell Sextet at the Five Spot, as well as several other George Russell Sextet albums. I asked George how he met Chuck, and he replied, "The New York Jazz scene in those days was a small community, and even if one didn’t actually know a particular musician, one knew of him and his reputation; introductions were a formality. I asked Chuck to join the group because he was a hell of a bass player-I chose all those young players for that sextet because of their energy and willingness to take it wherever it needed to go." Those "young players" grew up to be some very important Jazz artists including David Baker, Joe Hunt, Al Kiger and Dave Young.
Chuck told me "George has been important to my career, and I will always be grateful for the fact that he plucked me from relative obscurity and brought me to New York to play with his band." This of course demonstrates one of George Russell’s unparalleled skills, his ability to see the potential in young performers and to help them reach their full potential.
A Little History of a Very Big Talent
George Russell was born on June 23, 1923 in Cincinnati, Ohio. George was raised by his father, Joseph Russell, who like our own chef Phillip Hoffman, was a chef on the Railroad and his mother Bessie Sledge Russell, one of the first black Nurses to graduate from Meharry Medical College. George says "I probably got my yen for a good porterhouse steak from riding with him [Joseph Russell] in the kitchen car." Joseph Russell didn’t cook at home but he was fond of playing the piano at home. My father, Joseph Russell played chords on the piano with his right hand which had no relation to what he was doing with his left hand. It sounded oddly correct to me. Joseph’s fondness and unique style for music became a passion in his son.
George began his career in music playing the drums; however, his real calling was in writing music. George thinking back on the beginning of his career remembers he was turned down for the school band by the music director of Withrow High school who said George would never be a musician. Regarding this band George said "Harold Gaston played the bass, this was a high school band they played dances and that sort of event. I can’t recall if they ever had a name or who the other players were and they never recorded anything." George received a good deal of his musical education listening to the bands that traveled through Cincinnati which was a hot bed of jazz and home of a very sophisticated and demanding audience.
The importance of the Harold Gaston Band was Harold’s George’s meeting Harold. George recalls, "When I was 19 I was drafted, but while I was having my physical it was discovered that I had contracted TB. Harold had also contracted TB and was sent to the same hospital as I was. Harold knew I was interested in music, so this was where he became my instructor in harmony. In fact at this time you could say I was hungry to learn all I could about how to compose and how music works."
George continued, "The instruction in harmony was accomplished informally. We would use a piano in the solarium to do this work; I would simply play the chords I was learning over and over. It must have driven some of the other patients crazy. During this time I wrote the first piece of music that I sold, which was "New World," I sold it to Benny Carter."
George recovered after about 6 months and went back to work as a drummer with Benny Carter's Band. However, he was replaced by Max Roach; it is said "after Russell heard Roach, he decided to give up drumming." I asked George about this and he said "I suppose I was on a quest for my musical direction in those early days, but certainly after hearing Max, I knew I could not be the best drummer in the world." I believe that sums up George Russell’s philosophy of music and life; Do what you are going to do with the passion and clear intention of being the best in the world at what you do.
A Little History of a Very Free Sex(Sep)tet
George’s life to date is worthy of a book and to cover his career from its beginning until now would fill many hundreds of pages. In fact a British biographer is at work on an authorized biography of Mr. Russell which I eagerly await. Therefore, I focused instead on a very brief period of his recording with the sextet and septet. I have drawn on many different sources but among the best are the actual members of that groundbreaking group. The Sextet’s recordings are from 1959 through 1962 however, if you listen to them they are as fresh as if they were written today.
The early 1960s was the beginning of the end of the great era of Bebop and even the hip among us can be somewhat resistant to change. What the George Russell sextet brought was change and it was change in a sophisticated, beautiful and intellectually challenging mode. You might have to listen a little harder to this music. It didn’t go over all that well in the jazz clubs and the records didn’t sell that well. My feeling is that was the case because the music was about 40 years ahead of its time. Almost all of the music is available on CD and your jazz collection has a serious hole if you don’t have these recordings.
Joe Hunt, who played drums on five of the sextet recorded sessions told me about the evolution of this band from it’s inception on December 29, 1959 to the last recording made on August 27, 1962 "Between 1959 and 1962 the George Russell Sextet recorded six albums, two for the Decca Label and four for the Riverside Label."
Joe said "I think George originally had his eyes on some of the NYC studio players who had recorded with him on his small group RCA sessions of the ‘50s. But time was money for these first call guys, so although they would have liked to have rehearsed his new music, most had other commitments. George probably couldn’t have gotten them all together at the same time anyway".
However, the musicians that George acquired couldn't have been better suited for his music. The players were young and very committed. Trumpeter Al Kiger, trombonist/arranger David Baker and Dave Young on tenor were the first horn section. They were all students of George Russell. The first gig at the Five Spot and the record sessions were in New York City, while the horn section- the two Davids, and Al, lived in Indiana. Joe Hunt, who had joined the sextet in Indiana, moved to NYC and stayed until 1971. Chuck Israels, who had been playing with Bud Powell in Europe, was then living in NYC too. The band then evolved through a series of personnel changes where the Indiana members were all eventually replaced by an almost-all New York band. It was too difficult to commute from Indiana to New York City on such a regular basis for the horn section.
The personnel changes created an alumni of at least fifteen extraordinary musicians. Don Ellis replaced Al Kiger, and played on four of the albums, Eric Dolphy played on "Ezz-thetics", and Steve Swallow who replaced Chuck Israels played on the last three record sessions. The list goes on as two new Indiana saxophonists, John Pierce and Paul Plummer arrived in the city to record "The Stratus Seekers". Joe Hunt was drafted into the army early in 1962 and was replaced by drummer, Pete LaRoca. David Baker suffered serious embouchure problems at the time, so that he was unable to continue playing with the sextet. So, finally even Dave Baker, who was like a co-leader of the sextet was replaced by NY trombonist, Garnett Brown for the last US session "The Outer View". Paul Plummer was the only remaining Hoosier. Shelia Jordan sang on that album. She was a true friend of the band -letting the homeless Indiana horn section stay in her apartment for their NY visits. She and George Russell share a symbiosis.
George contributed a large number original compositions to the sextet recordings, as well arrangements of music by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and especially Miles Davis. Band members contributed compositions and in some cases even arranged. David Baker contributed 121 Bank Street, Kentucky Oysters, Stereophrenic and Honesty. "121 Bank Street is homage to George - that was his address it was where we rehearsed. It seemed natural to write a piece of music about it and entitle that piece of music with something that would mean something to both of us," said Professor Baker by phone from Indiana. In addition Al Kiger contributed Kige’s Tune. Of further note is George’s use of several of innovative Modern jazz composer Carla Bley’s works including Zig Zag, Dance Class, Beast Blues and Bent Eagle.
A Beautiful Musical Mind
George has a little bit of jazz folklore about him that happens to be true. It has to do with George and Miles Davis. Miles said to George "I want to learn all the changes." George knew that Miles even at the age of 19 knew how to play what ever changes he needed. So George, with a keenly inquisitive, analytical and organized mind said, "I wonder how you would do that?" George proceeded to spend the next fifty or so years working on an answer to his question. The resulting musical theory is the musical masterwork entitled The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. I have a copy of this book and when I am feeling particularly brilliant I try to read it. Not being a musician it is a humbling cerebral experience, but to those who create jazz the LCC is the grail. And the grail leads to the power to play all the changes and make music that is without constraint, but always somehow sounds correct.
Regarding the discoverer of The Lydian Chromatic Concept, NEA Jazz Master David Baker has much to say. "George is not a straight ahead musician he has always been on the cutting edge. As a composer it is difficult to compare George to anyone based on style, however, if you are going to compare him in terms of importance I would compare him to Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorne or Gil Evens. George is broader then these composers, because he changed the way we looked at the music. George showed us what we were doing and showed us what would work. He gave us the tools."
Professor Baker continued, "George’s technique is to lead rather than codify. Classical theory creates codes which the player must work within or be wrong. I remember a verse ‘Hey little boy sitting on a fence put down your books they’re all in past tense.’ This summarized the whole point of the LCC the theory opens up the future for the musician and the composer."
David Baker and I talked about the scholarship George Russell awarded to him and several musicians enabling them to attend the Lenox School of Jazz, "The Lenox School of Jazz only lasted for three or four years. We were invited there by George after he heard the Big Band with Larry Riddley which I had been leading for about two years. The Big Band played at the Topper, a jazz hotspot on 34th Street in Indianapolis. George offered a scholarship to anyone in the band who was interested in participating. I took him up on his invitation as did David Young, Al Kiger, Joe Hunt, and Paul Plummer."
Speaking of his experience at the Lenox School David Baker said, "While we were at Lenox George taught us how to play, the Big Band had been playing covers of the music of such people as Horace Silva and Art Blakey, but we had no direction. George taught us how to find our own voices. George Russell is a magnificent communicator and showed us how to establish our own voices. He encouraged us to write."
I then asked Professor Baker, who is currently the head of the prestigious Jazz Studies Program at the Indiana School of Music if the LCC had application outside of music as a philosophical concept. Dr. Baker said "I never thought of it that way. However, George’s process is to think, organize and re-conceptualize, so it may be. I do believe it is impossible to overstate George’s contribution to music. He is a Colossus and that was emphatically demonstrated to the world with the release of Miles Davis Kind of Blue."
The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization
I have heard experienced musicians say that they have heard of the LCC, but were unfamiliar with it and believed that it only applied to certain jazz improvisers. However, those who are familiar with the LCC and who do understand it think of it as "The Unified Field Theory of Music." In the field of Physics the "Unified Field Theory" is the theory that explains everything with no contradictions or left over pieces.
The misunderstanding regarding the concept falls into several main areas; one is that the LCC applies only to improvisational jazz. Another is that the theory is really just George’s music. Then there is the idea that George simply likes the Lydian scale and therefore arbitrarily based the concept on that scale. All of these are misconceptions and patently wrong. The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization is a way of thinking that is explained in relation to music but which can be applied to other fields of knowledge.
The Lydian Chromatic Concept can be and is used to analyze music from masters such as Bach, Debussy and Revell, as well as the music of Coltrane and Davis. Since the scale can be applied to music generally and regardless of the style or time period it is not simply George’s music. The Lydian scale is built on 12 perfect fifths, contains no dissonance and therefore does not seek resolution, this analysis is what brought George to the Lydian Scale.
Andy Wasserman is a composer, pianist and teacher working in New Jersey and he is also one of the three people in the U.S. who are certified by George Russell to teach the Lydian Concept. Mr. Wasserman has worked closely with George Russell since 1979 on this monumental philosophical concept. Andy wrote the introduction to the current edition of the Concept.
In his introduction to The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization Volume One: The Art and Science of Tonal Gravity, Mr. Wasserman writes: Throughout this course of study you will notice that terms like vertical, horizontal, and the relationship to states of tonal gravity signal an eloquent departure from the major-minor consonant-dissonant system that is commonly taught to students. This specific language, when integrated into your thinking, can bring about personal advancement that will convey insight and innovation to your craft. The ideas are interrelated for a unity like that of a mandala, rather than the compartmentalized, noncontiguous elements that form commonly accepted notions of musical behavior. By its very nature, the Lydian Chromatic Concept will give you a fresh outlook that can aid in bringing life to your musical understanding. This requires you to master a sense of independence and self-awareness. Try to "visualize" the relationships presented in this book by "hearing" its knowledge with an inner ear that is capable of formulating your own singular musical ideas through the experience of an internal focus. This focal point can help you decipher between the superficial, mechanical associations you may be accustomed to making in your compositions or improvisations and the quality of consciousness that allows many levels of subtlety to come into play. Simply to imitate what others have played and composed is not enough. It may be beneficial for you to consider adopting a reciprocal attitude to digesting the Concept whereby the energy you give while implementing its ideas will fuel your passage through unexpected doors of discovery. (Copyright 2004, 2002 Andy Wasserman)
Careful consideration of what Mr. Wasserman promises the student of the LCC demonstrates that George Russell’s exposition of the concept could be applied to science, painting or virtually any other discipline. Mr. Wasserman, who has been a student of musical theory since the age of seven, believes this to be a fundamental truth. In conversation he used the Lydian Chromatic Concept to analyze painting and cooking. Andy said, "The LCC is very powerful. It gives you the tools to learn what choices are out there. The concept doesn’t say what is right or wrong. It is helpful to think of the LCC like a road atlas that shows you all of the terrain, including mountains, cities, rivers roads, etc. Traditional Western music theory is more like a road map in that it tells you the route from one place to another place, but does not show you all the ways you could go."
Applied to painting the LCC teaches you shades so you can express what you want. It shows you harmonies as well dissonance, but most importantly it shows you what is in between the extremes and how all of the elements are related to each other. It then allows you to paint what you want to paint so that you can express yourself.
Mr. Wasserman said, "Food can be a symphony. Using vegetables and fruit the cook is able to create compositions with color, texture, harmony and balance. Truly great cooks create meals that are memorable and satisfying on a great many levels. In the movie the "Big Night" the cooks do this. They were like Dizzy and Byrd hanging out in the kitchen.
Andy Wasserman told me, "In terms of philosophy, thinking and organization George Russell is one of the most important people to ever be produced by the human race. His concept is as ground breaking as the theories of, the famous physicist and passionate violinist, Albert Einstein. Like Einstein, who said that his theoretical discoveries were influenced by his musical perceptions, George’s theories are based on the physical phenomena of gravity. Tonal gravity is a physical law and as a law is not subject to being disproved."
Wine Tasting and the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization
I told Andy that many wine makers today, both in Northern California and Europe are working on an inverse of the LCC, instead of looking for all the possibilities and choosing those that are most likely to get out their message, they are designing wines that appeal to a handful of wine critics. The critics personal taste has become like the council of Trent. Therefore a great many of the wines on the market today taste identical and remove the special qualities that are granted to them by their unique vineyards. Andy pointed out that this is very much like Western Music after the Council of Trent, wherein musicians and composers were told what notes they could and could not play, not based on musicality, but based on politics and doctrine." It’s what I call an environment of non-receptivity, it’s like you have a bowl to collect rain water but you turn it over so no water gets in, it all runs off.
Why We Need George Russell
George Russell lives a life that is without compromise. He states that he has never recorded a piece of music that he didn’t believe in. He hasn’t crafted his music to fit popular tastes, although the music he makes is addictive once you start listening. George discovered immutable laws of music and fashioned a coherent philosophy around those laws which rather then limit what is possible, free musicians to discover what is possible for them. George has not given up the integrity of the discovery so that he could personally profit from its mass distribution in dumbed down versions. George continues working on the expansion of knowledge of the science of tonal gravity even though he is at a point where he could pass the torch to the many musicians and composers that he has mentored. George Russell is a role model of Iconic quality.
George makes a beautiful, simple and profound statement of his philosophy as applied to the general state of humanity in the liner notes for George Russell & The Living Time Orchestra THE AFRICAN GAME which was released on BLUE NOTE records in 1986. (CDP-7 46335 2)
George had the following to say:
It is said that Albert Einstein once remarked "God doesn’t play dice with the Universe" Perhaps he did, once, in Africa during the Miocene epoch some 5 to 20 million years ago when the African Game began.
God Said Grace and rolled the Dice on the Human Race.
As the Cradle of Humanity, Africa is our common home. We are all Africans white, yellow, red, brown or black.
Great nature is on our side. We feverishly pursue the game of how to conquer nature while failing to understand why it needs us to join her in a state of unity. Nature responds by sending signals to tell us that we are out pacing her capacity to adapt to our technical innovation. The signals are everywhere. They cannot be missed. Entropy is accelerating.
The African Game says something of a positive nature about this. It says God (Great Nature) is on our side. It wants to win the game it began millions of years ago. But in order to win it needs the awareness and cooperation of each of us descendants from the Miocene epoch now inhabiting planet earth. George Russell
Pondering George’s statement is a good way to while away your free hours. I have spent a good deal of time doing just that. I believe it is time that is well spent. - Jerry O’BrienI would like to thank George and Alice Russell, Chuck Israels, David Baker, Joe Hunt, Andy Wasserman, Erling Kronen, Kirsten Weinoldt and Ben Schwendener for taking the time to speak with me by phone and email.