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George Russell

When I was released from the hospital, I was actually on New York City welfare. They had a very enlightened program then of getting patients who had been incapacitated (it was tuberculosis that had involved itself with me). You could study what you wanted to for six months. This paid for lessons with Wolpe. I saw him once a week for six months. I heard his music when he played it for me and went to concerts where his music was played. All of us did.

I conducted Cubano Be/Cubano Bop in 1947. I wrote Bird in Igor's Yard in 1948, but it wasn't recorded until 1949. When I auditioned for Wolpe, he heard the recording of Bird in Igor's Yard and was impressed. He said, "You have possibilities, you have talent, of course I'd be interested." He called me George. He knew I was a kid who didn't know much about anything and didn't know a lot about life. My interest was in talking to him chiefly about life, but I wanted to know his principal concepts of music. The two things that impressed me, that caused me to think in a new way, were his theory of the rate of chromatic circulation as a means of destroying any tonical integrity and the principle of the thirdless sound. I thought that was incredible. [...] The rate of chromatic circulation and the thirdless sound were big ideas. The works that would show that are on an RCA Victor album, The Jazz Workshop, George Russell (1956). Other works are Lydian M-1 and All About Rosie, written for small chamber orchestra. [...]

Gil Evans didn't study with Wolpe in the way that students did who would like to write like Wolpe or write in the style of Wolpe. But I have a feeling that other people like myself just wanted to absorb as much not only of the music but of the man. Gil was one of those, and Wolpe loved him, I'm sure. If any one would influence Wolpe it would be Gil. I do remember Wolpe being at one of the initial concerts of that Gerry Mulligan-led group that's been given the credit for founding the whole cool movement in jazz. Some of Wolpe's influence is in there. Monk would have been open to Wolpe's ideas and Charlie Parker. Towards the end of his life he [Parker] was desperate to find new ways to expand his own music. Remember the story of how he approached Varèse. He asked Varèse if he could be his butler and study with him. Gil might have mentioned Wolpe to Lester Young because he [Young] and Gil were very good friends.

Wolpe's overall effect on me was immensely positive. I felt a living, breathing force in this man that was extremely life-positive. You couldn't be around him without that force entering you. To that extent Wolpe and the two principles that stuck with me and his forceful being are part of me now, and they always have been, and always will be. He's alive in those of us that he touched.

George Russell was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1923. He began his career as a drummer, but in the 1940s began to write arrangements and compositions for big bands and small ensembles. Author of The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization (1953; 1999), Russell has been elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Music, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, A National Endowment for the Arts American Jazz Master, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Telephone interview: AC, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, 6 December 1997.


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