George Russell, one of the Jazz Legends, died last week in New York City, a death that went all but unnoticed except in the New York Times, which had a fitting obit to the jazz legend.

Russell’s album “The Jazz Workshop” from 1956 is a legendary work, and for years commanded very high collectors’ prices in mint first edition, usually more than a hundred dollars. It was an amazing work.

Russell, as the NYT obit noted, invented modal dissonant jazz—dense harmonic dissonant chord changes which he described in his “bible of modal jazz”, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation, published in 1953 and again in 1959. (thanks to the New York times 7/30/09 for this).

The effect on the jazz world was dramatic. Miles Davis and John Coletrane immediately picked up on modal jazz, starting with the album “Milestones” in 1958 (they were still in the same band) and then Davis struck gold with his all time classic “Kind of Blue” a year later in 1959 (the fifty year legacy edition was recently released by Columbia in a two cd edition).

From here to the wild modal jazz explorations of miles and coletrane of the 50s and 60s, and to the free jazz of ornette coleman, and the fusion jazz of the 60s and 70s, was but a short step. Dissonance and freedom from tonality was all the rage for the next 25 years.

The movement raged on into rock and blues. Ray Manzarek explained “Light My Fire” as a “modal chromatic inversion” of Coletrane’s “My Favorite Things”; the Grateful Dead and other groups began to improvise and jam along modal jazz lines each and every night, as did more blues-based groups like Eric Clapton and Cream. By the 1970s, modal jazz and jazz-rock fused into jazz-fusion and groups like Mahavishnu Orchestra led by John McLaughlin produced stupendous works like “The Inner Mounting Flame,” while more mainstream artists like Al DiMeola, Jean Luc-Ponty and Weather Report experimented with jazz fusion and modality throughout the decade.

Perhaps my favorite modal work was 1967’s “Nefertiti”, by the legendary Miles Davis lineup which included Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter & Tony Williams. Sublime and spectacular.

George Russell was completely forgotten by then, but he was the father of it all. No one remembered that Russell was the composer of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Cubano Bop” and “Cubano Be Cubano Bop” in the late 1940s, or that Russell continued to teach and play in the new york area for years, or that Russell received a McArthur Fellowship in 1988.

George Russell was one of my favorite jazz figures precisely because he was obscure but influential and brilliant. He never sought out the spotlight, fame, money, fast cars or the attention of pop stardom. He was, to the end, a musician’s musician. He will be missed.

–art kyriazis, Philadelphia, PA
the birthplace of dizzy gillespie & john coletrane