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George Russell George Russell

George Russell is an NEA Jazz Master

George Russell is a hugely influential, innovative figure in the evolution of modern jazz, the music's only major theorist, one of its most profound composers, and a trail blazer whose ideas have transformed and inspired some of the greatest musicians of our time.

Russell was born in Cincinnati in 1923, the adopted son of a registered nurse and a chef on the B&O Railroad. He began playing drums with the Boy Scout Drum and Bugle Corps and eventually received a scholarship to Wilberforce University where he joined the Collegians, whose list of alumni include Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Fletcher Henderson, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, Ernie Wilkins and Frank Foster. But his most valuable musical education came in 1941, when, in attempting to enlist in the Marines, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, spending 6 months in the hospital where he was taught the fundamentals of harmony from a fellow patient. From the hospital he sold his first work, “New World,” to Benny Carter. He joined Benny Carter's Band, but was replaced by Max Roach; after Russell heard Roach, he decided to give up drumming. He moved to New York where he was part of a group of musicians who gathered in the basement apartment of Gil Evans. The circle included Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Max Roach, Johnny Carisi and on occasion, Charlie Parker. He was commissioned to write a piece for Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra; the result was the seminal “Cubano Be/Cubano Bop” the first fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz, premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1947 and featuring Chano Pozo. Two years later his “Bird in Igor's Yard” was recorded by Buddy DeFranco, a piece notable for its fusion of elements from Charlie Parker and Stravinsky.

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