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Influential Jazz Composer George Russell Dies At 86

This article is more than 10 years old.
George Russell
George Russell

Influential jazz composer, theorist and educator George Russell died Monday night in Jamaica Plain. His publicist says the 86-year-old jazz legend was surrounded by family and friends when he passed due to complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

In life Russell was prolific and touched countless musicians around the world.

He burst onto the jazz scene as a young man in the late ’40s with the composition, “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop.” He wrote it for Dizzy Gillespie, and it was radical for fusing Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz.

Russell’s expansive, ground-breaking musical concepts influenced jazz giants such as Miles Davis, Bill Evans and John Coltrane. He’s widely considered one of jazz music’s only major theorists because of his work on the “Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization.” It explored unique relationships between chords and scales and is said to be the only original theory to come from jazz.

Russell shared his life-long fascination with music with his students at the New England Conservatory, where the composer taught since 1969.

Jazz writer Bob Blumenthal said Boston's music community will miss Russell. "I found George to be a very warm friend and a very encouraging presence and I'm sure you could find hundreds of musicians in the area who would say the same thing," he said.

"I learned a lot from this man," said percussionist Pat Hollenbeck, president of the Boston Musicians Association and one of Russell’s long-time friends and collaborators. “He led the kind of life that’s not going to fit in a sound byte because he was just larger than life.”

While Russell was not a household name, "people inside the music world know George and know what his contribution was," Hollenbeck said. "He was happy with that, he was not someone who was craving attention or anything else, he was just a man who quietly lived his life and tried to work on the things that were important to him.”

Even though he preferred to operate behind-the-scenes, Russell’s craft has been recognized. He was nominated for three Grammy Awards over the course of his career.

The musician is survived by his wife Alice, his son and three grandchildren. A memorial service featuring George Russell’s band will be planned in the coming months.

This program aired on July 28, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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