The composer George Russell, best known for his 1953 music theory The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization died yesterday aged 86. He had been unwell for some time and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. His ideas were at the time seen as some of the first major contributions by a jazz musician in the field of music theory. But Russell was not only a theorist and as firstly a drummer in the 1940s with Benny Carter and later after formulating his theory – which explored the nature of chord/scale unity – as a composer wrote ‘Cubano Be/Cubana Bop’ for Dizzy Gillespie combining jazz and latin influences and one of his best known compositions ‘Bird in Igor’s Yard’ recorded by Buddy DeFranco.
He contributed arrangements to the bands of Artie Shaw and Charlie Ventura among others and in the mid-1950s started to make his own recordings as a leader of the Jazz Workshop. He became part of the circle of Gil Evans and along with Evans was one of the leading jazz composers of the 1950s and 60s, premièring ‘All About Rosie’ in 1957 and teaching at the Lenox School of Jazz and taking up piano.
In the 1960s he moved to Scandinavia and taught in Sweden and in Denmark and thanks to Swedish radio was able to record his compositions and undertake new commissions. He worked with Don Cherry and a young Jan Garbarek and then on his return to the States joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory. Later in the 1980s and 90s he formed and toured his Anglo-American group the Living Time Orchestra which featured Andy Sheppard among the soloists. His albums include the classic 1961 Riverside album Ezz-Thetics.
– Stephen Graham