b. 23 June 1923, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. One of modern jazz’s leading composers, Russell started out as a drummer with Benny Carter, but first came to prominence in the mid-40s writing for Dizzy Gillespie, notably ‘Cubano Be, Cubano Bop’. He also wrote for Artie Shaw and Claude Thornhill and his ‘A Bird In Igor’s Yard’, combining elements of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Stravinsky, was recorded by the Buddy De Franco big band in 1949. Periods of hospitalization for tuberculosis led to him developing his theoretical The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization, first published in 1953 and a crucial influence on the later modal jazz of Miles Davis and John Coltrane. In the 50s Russell wrote ‘All About Rosie’ on a commission from Brandeis University and taught both privately and at the School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts: his students, then and later, included Carla Bley, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Don Ellis and Steve Swallow (the latter pair also recording with him).
In the early 60s he led a sextet and made several celebrated recordings, often featuring avant garde artists such as Sheila Jordan (‘You Are My Sunshine’), Eric Dolphy (Ezz-Thetics) and Don Cherry (At Beethoven Hall). In the mid- to late 60s, Russell was based in Sweden, where he experimented with electronic music and worked with musicians such as Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal and Palle Mikkelborg. In 1969 he returned to the USA to teach at the New England Conservatory, but still continued to record in Sweden. (Many of the recordings he made in Scandinavia in the 60s and 70s have since reappeared on the Soul Note label in the 80s.)
From the late 70s Russell began playing and recording regularly in the USA, often working with a big band. He was one of the first artists signed up by the reactivated Blue Note Records, and in the mid- to late 80s he toured the UK with bands that included several well-known British players, for example, Chris Biscoe, Ian Carr, Andy Sheppard and Kenny Wheeler. Russell has continued with his theoretical work, completing a second volume of his Lydian Chromatic Concept in 1978. This stands as one of the central texts of modern jazz theory. A complex work, its basic premise is that traditional jazz structures, such as chord sequences, can be overlaid with scales or modes that introduce a degree of pan-tonality and so allow the player more choices for improvising. He has continued to perform with his Living Time Orchestra up to and beyond his 80th birthday.