The Book Cooks
Excerpt from

Stratusphunk: The Life and Works of George Russell
Duncan Heining
(Jazz Internationale; Framlingham, Suffolk, UK)


From Chapter Five:
A Bird in Igor’s Yard

When “Cubano-Be, Cubano-Bop” received its premiere at Carnegie Hall, Russell was just twenty-four years old. On one level, given the critical acclaim received by his first major composition, it was a remarkable achievement. While Russell was clearly an insider amongst the musicians grouped around Gil Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Max Roach, he was largely unknown outside those circles. On another level, his payment from Gillespie for “Cubano-Be, Cubano-Bop” was small and the amount of work as a composer/arranger that its critical success brought with it was hardly life-changing. Asked by Ian Carr whether Russell did other arrangements for Gillespie’s band, Juanita Giuffre, Russell’s first wife, noted, “He didn’t. He didn’t work that steadily. He wrote ‘Cubano-Be, Cubano-Bop’ for him and I think Dizzy gave him a very nominal amount of money for it. It was a big success.”1

It was certainly a hand-to-mouth existence and Russell did what he had done back in Cincinnati. He took occasional jobs in stores or in catering but, whereas in Ohio there was regular work playing drums to supplement his earnings and relieve the drudgery, several patterns began to emerge that would mark Russell’s approach to his career for the next ten years – and, in fact, for the rest of his life. The first of these was that his pursuit of the Lydian Concept would become his overriding concern. Second, Russell was never afraid of work – Joe and Bessie had instilled that virtue in him – and he would take menial jobs when necessary to survive, albeit only as long as absolutely essential to pay the bills. Third, as stated previously, he would compose only when he had something or someone to write for. Composing would always take second place to the Concept. Despite his pride in works like The African Game, Jazz in the Space Age and All About Rosie, the sense one got from talking with him is that such achievements were almost incidental to the main feature - the Lydian Concept. Of course, he welcomed the income from composing for others and from making records. From time to time, in the fifties and sixties, a record date could mean enough money to live on for up to six months or even a year. But, just as importantly, it provided an opportunity to test out his ideas. Speaking about his contract with Riverside Records in the early sixties, Russell told Ben Young of WKCR,

I was thirty-five years old before I could say I was earning money from music. That all started with the RCA Victor album [Jazz Workshop], and things were touch and go in between. So the offer from Riverside meant a few months of being able to pay the bills and also a chance to create. Well, the offer from Riverside stretched out not only into one album but into two or three or four albums and that was good for a couple of years of security and at the same time being able to test, because I always was working at the Concept, and being able to test the new ideas coming from the Concept in music, check them out and I would never let anything go without being satisfied with it aesthetically.2

This pattern continued throughout his life, albeit with a full-time teaching post and occasional grant replacing income from recording. As he said above, the money from a recording meant that he could live on it for several months and work on the Concept. For, as Russell also explained to Young, the Concept had a life of its own almost separate from the music-making process.

Well, for me the Lydian Chromatic Concept was an obligation that I took on and I took it on . . . rather than just use it as an instrument for me becoming a composer ten years ahead of his time or something and being able to afford all the pleasurable, creamy and delightful things that money can buy. I didn’t choose that way at all because I knew I had something to offer and, as I said, I debated about whether I should really part with it. The thing that convinced me is that it does deal with gravity and it deals with gravity behaving and controlling music and therefore you can’t keep gravity a secret without really going against nature. So I’m obligated and have been obligated to take time away from the music to work on the Concept. I’m always working on the Concept. Like this time, for example, the book has to be finished now, so I don’t want or need any commissions. They do interfere. I don’t have time for that. The book is very important to get out there. So we’re working very hard on that. And all through my musical life, and the Concept was the beginning of it in 1945 – the Lydian Concept – I’ve dropped composing from time to time to devote to that. But then with having worked on it and having worked it up to another level, I use that level to then compose from it and, if I have to drop it for a while, I’ll do it and work it up to another level.3

Or on a more prosaic level, as Russell told Carr, “When I was with Max, his mother told him, ‘Max, this boy never sleeps, you know. He’s always working on the theory.’”4

But neither the Concept, nor “Cubano-Be, Cubano-Bop” sprang fully-formed from Russell’s brow. Rather both emerged from and reflected those milieux that Russell had encountered both in “Gil Evans’s Church of the Aesthetic,” as Russell described it to Carr, and in the intellectual circles around Stefan Wolpe. This was the late forties and, having led jazz into the post-war era with bebop, the musicians centred around Evans were looking to see how much further they could push the boundaries. With Wolpe, the concerns were even broader taking in a range of other arts, as well as social and political ideas, concerns that certainly touched these forward-thinking jazz musicians.

Moreover, however advanced “Cubano-Be, Cubano-Bop” might have been, it had to have a context in which it could be appreciated. This required an articulate and progressive audience of musicians, critics, and fans. This had been prepared not only by bebop but by the open-mindedness of the previous generation of musicians, both black and white.

It is far too simplistic to suggest that jazz prior to bebop was somehow conservative and mainstream. One only has to think of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, of Russell’s erstwhile employers Benny Carter and Earl Hines, of Fletcher Henderson or of white bandleaders like Claude Thornhill, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Stan Kenton. These musicians were quite familiar with modern composers such as Copland, Stravinsky, Milhaud, and Ravel, many of whom were themselves influenced by jazz. And Russell was, as noted, one of a number of jazz musicians who chose to study with Wolpe.5 Nor was the influence in one direction in Wolpe’s case. Brigid Cohen has pointed very specifically in her writing on Wolpe on the ways in which the new jazz influenced the composer. 6

Moreover, these cultural advances grew out of a particular fertile historical context. The Second World War had been, in many ways, both a portent for social, cultural and political changes and their progenitor. It had amplified both conservative and progressive currents that had come into existence in the thirties but also created contexts in which both could flourish.

  1. Ronald Oakley has described the 1950s as ‘a period of puzzling paradoxes,’7 within which optimism for the future and belief in progress contrasted with nagging fears about nuclear war and communism. In post-WWII America, rigid conservative and reactionary cultural, social and political impulses contrasted with other more progressive, if less powerful forces. And within the space between these two conflicting currents, possibilities arose artistically and socially, if less so in the arenas of politics and economics. If, as Martin Halliwell suggests, the fifties would later be vilified in the sixties “by those who saw themselves as its victims,” the post-war years also saw the birth of what was later described as the counter-culture and the first skirmishes in the battle against segregation.8

Nor were jazz musicians, promoters, writers and fans – black and white – unaffected by the struggles for civil rights. Ingrid Monson in Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Callout to Jazz and Africa (2007) reveals a picture of ongoing struggle to break down ‘Jim Crow’ segregation in the music business. Such activism focused not only on the refusal of black and, some, white artists and band leaders to play segregated or whites-only venues but also on direct activism, for example to desegregate the American Federation of Musicians and the broadcaster NBC. Monson argues that such struggles were intimately bound up with wider African-American civil rights activism. 9

Though, the 1950s and 1960s were the years when the struggles of Black America for full emancipation were at their height, those struggles had their roots in the expectations raised in African-Americans during the Second World War. Many African-Americans served during the war, often visiting countries where their race and colour did not bar them entry into the wider white world. Many other African-Americans, due to the war effort, found paid employment in jobs that had largely been reserved for white people and at wage levels they had not experienced before. Come the war’s end, it was back to business as usual as black ex-soldiers found their service unrewarded and black  workers were laid off to make way for returning white service men.10 This was the beginning of and antecedent to new phases in campaigning for  civil rights and the rise of both a new Black Nationalism and these struggles were inevitably reflected in African-American music and literature. Black avant-garde jazz musicians and their poet/writer confrères represented the most radical and politicised sections of African-America. Writing of the later liberation struggles in the 1960s, W. S. Tkweme has argued that African-American jazz musicians in the late fifties-early sixties connected with all aspects of African-American arts, including poetry, and both initiated, pioneered and were “the harbingers of the shifts in black consciousness seen in the work of 1960s Artists and African-Americans in general.” 11 I would simply suggest that signs of such developments were already present from the late forties onwards.

In other respects, jazz also provided a soundtrack to the kinds of, often, radical intellectual discourse of these years. Readers will be aware of the connection between the Beat poets and jazz but the connections between jazz and literature were much wider than that embracing genuine political radicals such as Kenneth Rexroth, ruth wolf, Kenneth Patchen, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. More than that, jazz connected with art and literature – and comedy – through what Stephen R. Duncan describes as ‘rebel cafes’ such as the Village Vanguard (which opened in 1935 and was a cabaret club before it became a jazz venue) and Café Society (1938-1948) in New York and the Black Cat Café in San Francisco (1933-1963). 12 And, of course, one of the attractions of jazz for many young Americans lay in its rebellious, outsider image and stance, one that in and of itself questioned the dominant culture and white bourgeois American values.

At the same time, the war years had also seen a different set of behaviours, more assertive of personal and group affiliations, emerge within the African-American and Latino communities. Groups of black and pachuco youths, who identified strongly with jazz as dance music, marked themselves as outsiders through the clothes that they chose to wear, primarily the zoot suit. There had been “zoot suit riots” in Los Angeles and other centres along the West Coast, involving black and Mexican youths and the predominantly white U.S. servicemen stationed along the coast. These riots had spread to other urban centres, including Detroit, Pittsburgh, and New York. Stuart Cosgrove in his article “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare” suggests that one consequence of the recruitment of men into the armed forces and women into the defence industries was a reduction of the extent of parental supervision of black and Mexican youth. At one point, Cosgrove notes there were as many as 15 million civilians engaged directly in “war work” and 12 million military personnel “on the move” in the United States.13 By any standards this was a major social upheaval for any society and its consequences were both negative in terms of heightening racial divisions and positive in terms of their longer-term consequences in creating the potential for social change and greater equality.

While bebop did break with past jazz in significant respects, it is better to see it as the outcome of a series of merging aesthetic, social, and economic currents rather than a “revolution” or a “divide.” In this context, Houston Baker Jr.’s term, “cultural matrix” is particularly helpful, which he defines as a “point of ceaseless input and output, a web of intersecting, crisscrossing impulses always in productive transit.”14 

And the musicians who gathered around Gil Evans were a highly literate and articulate bunch and were progressive on social issues as well. As Russell noted to WKCR’s Ben Young,

[T]he company I was keeping at that time ... was Gil Evans’s 55th Street conclave with John Lewis, Johnny Carisi, Miles, and Gerry Mulligan and myself being sort of the ... forming the particular spearhead of that group and, of course, Gil Evans being the patron saint of that way. We used to listen to all kinds of music in that little one-room apartment and, as the title insinuates, I think one of our favourite pieces was Sacré du Printemps, and I was particularly amazed at that piece and still am, and at the same time Bird being in the same company because Bird used to frequent that 55th Street one-room apartment of Gil’s under the St. Regis Hotel in the basement with a cat named Becky.15

Russell also mentioned Arnold Schoenberg’s demanding, non-tonal early work, his song-cycle Pierrot Lunaire, as another piece that the group listened to extensively. In addition, the group would often visit the nearby Juilliard School and listen to pre-concert rehearsals of music by composers such as Stravinsky and Paul Hindemith.

And this was, after all, a group that shared ideas but in a self-critical and challenging way:

[A]nd I was always attracted to people who came along and were and are some of this music’s greatest innovators and I learned from them and I had this intensity to experiment. I was in the right circle to do that. Mulligan did it in his way. Miles did it in his way and John [Lewis], of course, with the Modern Jazz Quartet but it helped being in that environment. And something always saw to it that I was in an environment that goaded me into not being satisfied with the latest work but to take it further and not to experiment on the audience but to only release that that I had in essence thought was my very best at that time.16

As for Evans himself, Russell describes him in the following terms: “He was the father, the patron. He was the head, the body, the heart and the spirit of those times. The wise man.” And the “wise man” held open house day and night.

It was a big room in the basement and with practically every musician in New York coming in at any time after the gig at maybe 4 o’clock in the morning and it would still be available and we’d talk with Gil and that was the place where the “Cool” was born. Mulligan and I, many times, we worked all night on pieces. Gil was, as I said, he was the caretaker there to see that some beautiful music was made. He wouldn’t let go and we would march up to Juilliard if a classical composer like Hindemith was going to give a concert He did a piece called History of the Soldier there. We attended the rehearsals a couple of days before that. We could sit in on the rehearsals at Juilliard. I watched Hindemith’s assistant put the piece together. If it was Stravinsky, we’d be there. We played it down in the basement. We played all kinds of music.17

Maybe it is just the benefit of hindsight but Russell said that he felt that history was being made down in that basement.

Well, I personally thought I was part of that history. I was accepted, certainly but that idea was a living fact. Yeah, there was no way it could be otherwise. The music had to go somewhere and it came out of that basement. He had Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, John Carisi, John Lewis, the Modern Jazz Quartet there every night practically. So there was something came out of that. Plus Gil himself and his band and his writing. Music was the thing that we did and every aspect of life was devoted to music. I think we thought of ourselves as a kind of club and they were good days.18

It was an elite circle but not elitist. Anyone with talent was welcome. However, Russell was still scuffling a living. Nor did he seem to be keen to sell himself. As he told Carr, “Well, I was really practicing that legendary art that I think many artists are forced to get acquainted with and that is living off the graces of a nice lady, you know.” Russell told Carr that he lived with a woman and her husband on Park Avenue, and when Carr described her as his “patron,” Russell concurred. However, in a more recent interview, he explained the situation in more detail, “I did live with ... there was this woman who took a liking to me. She lived on Park Avenue, Anita Kushner. She was very much involved in the arts. She had a husband and they were very nice people. When I came into the picture I lived with them.” 19

Asked if this were une ménage a trois, Russell replied,

It sounds like that and it was like that. (laughs) I don’t want to say anything damaging about her. She was wonderful woman. She took a liking to me and she wanted me there. Her husband went along with it. That lasted maybe a year. She had a good piano and I wrote “A Bird in Igor’s Yard,” it’s one of the things I wrote on her piano for Buddy DeFranco.20

When that came to an end, Russell moved in with the lyricist Jack Segal, writer of the popular songs “Scarlet Ribbons” and “When Sunny Gets Blue.” Their apartment also became a hangout for the members of Gil Evans’s circle as well as other artists like Harry Belafonte and Tony Bennett. Segal, it seems, was interested in the ideas of psychologist Wilhelm Reich and, according to Russell, actually had an “orgone box” in his living room.21

While it hardly constituted a major change in Russell’s circumstances, he did succeed in selling two compositions and an arrangement between April 1949 and January 1950. The first of these was “A Bird in Igor’s Yard.” Buddy DeFranco had just formed his own big band. DeFranco was more than just a fine clarinet player. An established player with the big bands of Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, and Boyd Raeburn, he was equally at home with the new sounds of bebop and had played with Miles Davis, Lee Konitz, Bud Powell, Max Roach and J. J. Johnson. At the time, DeFranco had a vision for his new band that encompassed both the new music and the “progressive” sounds of Stan Kenton. “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” should have fitted perfectly into that vision.

Featuring a band that included Konitz, Al Cohn, Serge Chaloff and Oscar Pettiford, it did not, however, prove quite the heaven-made match anticipated. Four tracks were recorded for Capitol, Stan Kenton’s label, by the band, including Russell’s. The others, arranged by Gerry Valentine and Manny Albam, included “The Boy Next Door” and “This Time the Dream’s on Me.” “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” stands out from the other tracks both in terms of the complexity of its arrangement and the unusual sonorities it pioneered. Russell’s attempt to make Stravinsky dance with Bird would receive a better and more convincing reading seven years later on his own Jazz Workshop date. That said, the DeFranco performance is a fascinating slice of modernist, forward-looking jazz.

In fact, a myth grew up in jazz circles that the piece was so far advanced and ahead of its time that Capitol refused to release it. This seems improbable. Firstly, the label had little apparent difficulty with some of Kenton’s “progressive” jazz at that time. It seems unlikely that the label would have rejected the performance on those grounds alone. Secondly, none of the pieces recorded at that date were actually released until much later and one could hardly claim that the other three pieces were in any sense that “advanced.” Third, the recording itself is not that well balanced and the opening ensembles sound rather frayed. Finally, DeFranco seems to have been rather unhappy with the result and his own playing. As he told DownBeat in 1951, “That was one attempt at pioneering I never should have made.”22

An acetate of the piece was obtained by the DJ Symphony Sid and broadcast regularly on his show. This no doubt helped to fuel the myth surrounding “A Bird in Igor’s Yard.” What does matter about “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” is what it says about Russell’s ambition, even this early in his career. He was drawing on composers like Stravinsky, Debussy, Schoenberg and Ravel quite consciously and was deliberately bringing their ideas and harmonic language into jazz and into contact with improvisation. In doing so, he emphasized the written elements of jazz in creating a symphonic sound for the jazz orchestra, just as he would later stress the chamber elements of the small jazz group. This was years before John Lewis and Gunther Schuller coined the term “Third Stream.” Russell might not have been alone in wishing to expand the scope of jazz in this respect. Gil Evans had already taken such steps with Claude Thornhill, Ellington and Strayhorn had stretched the vocabulary of jazz and Kenton had pressed its case for a place in the concert hall as well as the dance hall. And classical composers like Gershwin, Copland, and Stravinsky had taken bold steps toward jazz. Nevertheless, a case can be made that “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” is perhaps the most “advanced” and coherent such statement up to that point. What is more, its statement of intent is unequivocal and explicit.

 

Notes

  1. Ian Carr, interview with Juanita Giuffre for BBC Radio 3 Broadcast George Russell – The Invisible Guru, July 1994.
  2. Ben Young, broadcast devoted to George Russell in celebration of his seventy-fourth birthday, WKCR Radio, New York, June 23, 1997.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ian Carr, interview with George Russell, June 1992.
  5. See A. Clarkson, ed., On the Music of Stefan Wolpe (New York: Pendragon, 2003).
  6. Cohen, “Diasporic Dialogues in Mid-Century New York: Stefan Wolpe, George Russell, Hannah Arendt, and the Historiography of Displacement,” pp. 156-159.
  7. Ronald Oakley, God’s Country: America in the Fifties, (New York, NY: Dember Books, 1986), p.x.
  8. Martin Halliwell, American Culture in the 1950s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007); Stephen R. Duncan, The Rebel Café: Sex, Race, and Politics in Cold War America’s Nightclub Underground (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins, 2018)
  9. Ingrid Monson. Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Callout to Jazz and Africa (New York, NY: OUP. 2007) pp.29-65.
  10. William T. Martin Riches, The Civil Rights Movement: Struggle and Resistance, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), pp.10-18; Ralph F. de Bedts, Recent American History: 1933 Through World War II, (Homewood, IL: Dorsey, 1973), 334-337.
  11. Tkweme, W. S. 2008 ‘Blues in Stereo: The Texts of Langston Hughes in Jazz Music’ African American Review (AAR) 2008 Fall-Winter; 42 (3-4): 503-512.
  12. Café Society was where Billie Holiday popularized the protest song “Strange Fruit.” See Stephen R. Duncan. The Rebel Café: Sex, Race and Politics in Cold war America’s Nightclub Underground. (Baltimore, MY: John Hopkins Press. 2018)
  13. Stuart Cosgrove, “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare,” History Workshop Journal 18 (Autumn 1984), pp. 77–91.
  14. Houston R. Baker Jr., H. 1984 Blues, Ideology and Afro-American Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p.3.
  15. Young, broadcast devoted to George Russell.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Interview with George Russell, April 2003.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Carr, interview with G. Russell, June 1992.
  20. Interview with George Russell, June 2004
  21. Carr, interview with G. Russell, June 1992.
  22. Leonard Feather, “Dance Biz Needs Younger Leaders: DeFranco,” DownBeat, March 9, 1951.

© 2021 Duncan Heining

 

Stratusphunk: The Life and Works of George Russell

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