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Title:George Russell's Jazz Workshop: The Composer's Style and Original Methods of 1956
Author(s):Kenagy, Peter E.
Director of Research:Carrillo, Teofilo L.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Carrillo, Teofilo L.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Lund, Erik R.; Magee, Jeffrey S.; McNeill, Charles
Department / Program:Music
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):George Russell
The Jazz Workshop
George Russell and His Smalltet
Jazz Performance
Jazz Dissertation
Bill Evans
Miles Davis
Hal McKusick
Art Farmer
Gil Evans
Modal Jazz
Lydian Chromatic Concept
Abstract:This study contributes to knowledge of George Russell’s musical compositions and illustrates the creative methods of his 1956 work for small jazz ensemble. This body of work consisted of twelve pieces for the RCA Victor album The Jazz Workshop: George Russell and His Smalltet and three pieces commissioned by saxophonist Hal McKusick for his own Jazz Workshop album. George Russell (1923–2009) is remembered as a pioneering jazz music theorist, but his life in music integrated rich activity alongside theory, including performing on drums and piano, composing, leading a sextet and jazz orchestra, and teaching. Russell’s compositions have not received significant attention by researchers, who have instead focused on his extraordinary theoretical accomplishment, The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation (1953, 1959, 1964, 2001), recognized as the first theory of tonality to come from within jazz. This study repositions Russell’s music alongside his theory and places his achievements in the context of his early life experiences, his development during the swing era, and his participation, beginning in 1947, in New York City’s modern jazz movement. Russell’s involvement with the RCA Victor Jazz Workshop series in 1956 marked his return to activity as a composer and his first experience as a bandleader. From 1947 through 1949 he had composed big band music for Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Buddy DeFranco, and Artie Shaw. From 1950 through 1953, he then took time away from composing to develop his theoretical foundation, ultimately creating the Lydian Chromatic Concept as his personal system. In the midst of a fertile time in the development of jazz music, Russell’s 1956 Jazz Workshop period found him among modern jazz players who were sympathetic to his new ideas and came to be guided by his vision. A review of the academic literature reveals that studies of Russell have tended to focus not on his music but on his contribution to modal jazz theory and culture—often represented by Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, and their followers in the sixties—and as a figure within a movement of African American avant-gardism. Through documentation and analysis of his musical materials and methods, the present work adds to the few studies attempting to view Russell’s unique compositional voice in the context of his wide impact. In part one, author interviews with participants Hal McKusick and Paul Motian, as well as oral histories and remembrances by his peers, give insight into Russell’s Jazz Workshop period and the cooperative nature of the community involved in commissioning, rehearsing, and performing this challenging music. An overview of jazz in New York City of 1956 establishes the context in which Russell was working and reveals an active new wave of jazz composer-performers. Russell and his wife Alice Norbury Russell made manuscript analysis possible beginning in 2008. As an additional resource, the author has made personal transcriptions of the Jazz Workshop music. In part two, analytical chapters build upon each other, tracing Russell’s approach to melody, counterpoint, harmony, form, and the role of improvisation. Finally, thematic and modal organization are analyzed within a representative piece, “Knights of the Steamtable.” George Russell’s musical language touches on many familiar elements in jazz composition: practices of blues, swing, and improvisation; conventions of big band arranging; the Afro-Latin influence; and popular song form. But his music also makes use of ideas that were rare in jazz at that time, such as suite form, dissonant counterpoint, pantonality, and the modal (scalar) approach to composition and improvisation his own theory had informed. This study concludes that with the music of his 1956 Jazz Workshop period, Russell was able to integrate his pursuits of music theory, composition, and performance into a unified, original, and influential art.
Issue Date:2010-01-06
Rights Information:Copyright 2009 Peter Ellis Kenagy
Date Available in IDEALS:2010-01-06
Date Deposited:December 2

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