Forty years ago, almost to the month, the revolutionary jazz album by Miles Davis, and the best selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue was released. George Russell, the jazz musician who laid down the theory of modal jazz which created the possibility of Kind of Blue, passed away last week.
From Swing to Bebop
Prior to World War II, swing jazz was the popular music of America. Swing was based on large bands playing tightly orchestrated arrangements with individual musicians playing improvised solos based on the underlying melody. During the war these large bands became financially difficult to maintain profitably. Music shifted to smaller clubs and smaller bands. At the same time, younger musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, developed and popularized bebop, which stripped down the melody to a basic bed of chords which the soloists aggressively improvised over, chopping the standard four beats per bar into a whirling 16 beats. The solos increasingly wandered from the underlying melody. Bebop became the dominant style among technically accomplished musicians but lost its popularity among traditional fans.
Attack on the Chord
George Russell came to New York in 1945 while in his early twenties to play drums in a jazz band. Shortly after his arrival, Russell contracted tuberculosis and took up residence at a sanitarium for his recovery. At the sanitarium, he found an unused piano and began exploring alternatives to chord progressions as the basis of jazz. In 1953 he self published his new approach to jazz entitled “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation'. In Russell's approach to jazz, the dominance of the chord was replaced by the scale or “mode”, in this case the Lydian scale. This new “modal jazz” provided new opportunities for improvisation, all based on a reassertion of melody into the music. Compared to bebop, modal jazz was less technically challenging and more approachable, more contemplative and less pyrotechnic.
Russell and Davis were close friends since the mid-forties. Both were among the handful of musicians who gathered regularly at freelance arranger Gil Evans' Manhattan apartment to discuss and play jazz. Davis, who had started playing trumpet alongside Charlie Parker, had never completely accepted the dominance of bebop. By the late 1950's, Davis was actively looking for an alternative.
In 1958 Russell was near completion of an expanded version of The Lydian Chromatic Concept. Davis immediately realized the potential of the new approach. In the same year Davis released Milestones in which he began to experiment with modal jazz. He then assembled a group of musicians who he felt would embrace the scale over the chord. In the spring of 1959 they began the recording sessions for Kind of Blue. Released that summer, the album brought both melody and fans back into jazz.
Russell Lead his own bands throughout the '50's and '60's, but became frustrated by his failure to earn recognition or financial reward. He moved to Scandinavia in 1964 and had more success. Russell became a teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music from 1969, where he stayed until 2004. His 1985 recording of "The Africa Game" received two Emmy nominations. But few in the general public know of him or his seminal contribution to contemporary jazz.
This post could conclude with a sample of modal jazz from Davis or saxophonist John Coltrane, but many would likely be familiar with that music. Instead, we offer up “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop”, performed by the Dizzy Gillespie band, featuring Chano Pozo on congas. Gillespie commissioned the 23 year old George Russell to compose the piece.