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

David “Fathead” Newman, one of the great R & B and jazz saxmen, has passed away January 20, 2009, and Freddie Hubbard, jazz trumpet player extraordinaire, December 29, 2008. Newman is most well-known for being part of Ray Charles excellent R & B band of the 1950s, from 1954-66. Newman played on almost all of Ray Charles important hits of the 1950s and 1960s, including the great “I Got a Woman.”

Newman is also one of the great hard-bop jazz saxmen. He released no less than 38 of his own albums, and also worked as a sideman with dozens of the industry’s greats. One of his greatest albums was STILL HARD TIMES from 1982, a title for our times if ever there was one. But truly, any Newman CD/LP is a good one. He never cut a bad one, truth be told.

Freddie Hubbard trained with the greats, including Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and cut a lot of sides with Joe Henderson and Kenny Barron. Because of the untimely death of Lee Morgan, the heir apparent to Miles, Hubbard was more or less thrust into the role of heir apparent to Miles, a role Hubbard was never quite comfortable with, though Hubbard was a fine and excellent trumpet player.

There are a lot of stories about Freddie’s personal life. He liked to live large, and his career was not managed well, nor did he keep his accounts straight with creditors or bill collectors.

But Freddie Hubbard, whatever his personal faults, was a living jazz legend, and lest we forget, he played with all of the greats, and left behind a vast recorded jazz legacy that stretches over more than fifty years, both as sideman and band leader. Moreover, his recorded legacy, as the memory of his actual life fades, will seem greater and more imposing, as time passes.

David Fathead Newman and Freddie Hubbard collectively have left us with nearly a hundred recordings of some of the most excellent hard bop jazz in existence, recording alongside the best sidemen in the business.

Newman in addition has left behind all his recordings with the Ray Charles band from the prime of that group, and Hubbard played as sideman on many albums to some of the greatest in the business as well.

These recordings are a lasting legacy to a couple of the great jazz musicians of an era.

–art kyriazis philly/south jersey
home of the world champion phillies