Book Review: Time, Beautiful and Cruel — The Story of Composer George Russell

In the best of all possible worlds, Duncan Heining’s biography will be the cornerstone of the edifice that time will erect to the memory of George Russell and his gift to music. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen. In some ways, because of the vagaries of the book business, it’s up to you

George Russell: The Story of an American Composer by Duncan Heining. Scarecrow Press (imprint of Rowman & Littlefield).,328 pages, including Preface and footnotes at the end of each chapter; 51 pp. of endnotes (Recordings, Tour Dates [1982–2005], Bibliography, Index, and About the Author), SRP $55.

By Steve Elman

Can I “review” something that’s been on the market for more than a year? Considering the fact that Duncan Heining’s groundbreaking biography of George Russell has been all but ignored by the jazz press and the trade press, I think I’m actually obligated to do so.

I met Heining at Russell’s memorial service in New York on May 8, 2010. George’s widow, Alice Norbury Russell, had asked a handful of people to speak—George’s son Jock Millgardh, jazz scholar Gary Giddins, UK concert producer John Cumming, and Heining—and I was honored to be among them. I knew Heining had been at work on the biography since at least 2003, but I had no knowledge of the man or his writing. He struck me at the time as a modest, gracious, sincere appreciator of George Russell and his art, and I think that, like me, he was a bit awed to be in such company at such an important occasion.

Or at least it should have been such. By the time George Russell died, on July 27, 2009, his theoretical work and his music had fallen into a deep shadow cast by his long struggle against Alzheimer’s disease. He was just a month past his 86th birthday, so the sickness that took his mind and ultimately his life deprived us of at least 10 years of great music, and it also deprived him of some of the honors that accrue to great octogenarian artists who remain in the public eye.

Russell’s last major work, “It’s About Time,” was completed in 1995 and released on CD in 1997. He had a solid schedule of performances here and in Europe through the late 1990s, but his health began to affect his work seriously after 2000. He was able to celebrate his 80th birthday in a limited tour with his Living Time Orchestra (LTO) in 2003. Subsequently there was a CD release of live concert performances from that year (The 80th Birthday Concert, Concept, 2005). In March 2007, he was honored as one of 34 living jazz masters at the Kennedy Center in Washington. There was one more appearance with his orchestra in 2008. The rest was silence.

The turnout for the Jordan Hall memorial concert on October 2, 2009 was disappointing, but the paucity of people in All Souls Church the following May at the memorial service was shocking. Everyone in New York City who cared about jazz should have been there, but only a handful of the faithful turned out.

It shouldn’t be necessary to explain why George Russell’s place in jazz history ought to be high and secure, but let me try to do so in a digression that I hope will be useful for those who do not yet share this view. Anyone who’s already convinced can skip the next seven paragraphs.

One might define the jazz composer as an artist with three faces, simultaneously gazing upon the past, the present, and the future. He or she is the person who consolidates the innovations of jazz up to his or her time in written form, moves those innovations forward in frameworks that allow peers and younger players to improvise music in their own way, and leaves a legacy for future composers and improvisers to build upon.

Using this standard, the five greatest jazz composers are Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and George Russell. If placement of George’s name into this pantheon seems presumptuous or precipitous, it might be worthwhile to remember that each of the other four was, at some time in his career, viewed with skepticism for his innovations. Time, which was almost an obsession for George in his titles, may yet give him the place he deserves.

Russell wrote three enduring jazz classics in short form—“Ezz-thetic” (a stunningly original contrafact of “Love for Sale”), “Stratusphunk,” and “Blues in Orbit.” He created three unassailable masterpieces in long form—“All About Rosie,” “Living Time,” and “The African Game.” And he “discovered” the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, a guide to expanding the harmonic language of jazz improvisers and composers, which he considered his life’s work and the foundation of all his composed music. The Concept has been credited for opening thousands of musicians’ minds to the use of modal structures in their improvisations and compositions and for giving them tools they could use to broaden the emotional range of their music.

His influence as a theorist and innovator touched nearly everyone in what came to be known as the “Cool School” of the 1950s, at least on its New York campus—among them brilliant originals like Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, and Gunther Schuller. It was his theoretical approach that laid the foundation for the most popular single jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue.

He afforded opportunities for Bill Evans (in a number of early pieces, including “All About Rosie”), Dizzy Gillespie (in “Cubano Be Cubano Bop”), John Coltrane and Max Roach (in “New York, NY”), Eric Dolphy (in Russell’s small group, particularly in the Russell reconfiguration of Monk’s “’Round Midnight”), and Sheila Jordan (in Russell’s recomposition of “You Are My Sunshine”) to create work that was immediately recognized as masterful and came to be understood as classic within their own discographies. He encouraged and inspired younger composers—including Don Ellis, Carla Bley, and Maria Schneider, just to mention three from very different contexts who have made wildly different kinds of music.

His work from the late 1960s onward, beginning roughly with “Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature,” parted the critical waters. He introduced chance elements, non-linear development, electronic instruments, and danceable funk into his compositions all at the same time and used each of those elements in varying degrees in all of his compositions that followed. Some critics got off the bandwagon, judging these pieces too long, too intellectual, too rock-oriented, too far out, too cacophonous, or too subservient to popular taste, depending on the day of the week and the piece at hand. For me, his work in those years fulfilled and surpassed what had gone before.

Biographical data and assertions of greatness seem flat and dull in written words. Surpassing and making unnecessary anything I could write, there is the music itself—brilliant, rich, rewarding music, filled with powerful rhythm, beautiful melody, and nuanced emotion that never fails to speak to me through my feet, my heart, and my brain.

To some extent, the critical divide still remains; there are some who admire George, and some who scoff at him. However, a third way of dealing with Russell’s work has emerged over the past 20 years. Those who don’t appreciate him don’t bother to denigrate him; they simply ignore him.

But if there is justice, Heining will guide the critical ship back to its proper course. In George Russell: The Story of an American Composer, he has done a masterful job of establishing a line of continuity from Russell’s early life, through his first musical incarnation as a drummer, through his early compositions and his formulation of the Concept, through his adventures as bandleader and educator, to his last works, demonstrating that they are all of a piece. In a final chapter, he takes great pains to explain the importance of the Concept to the non-musician, and I think he succeeds admirably in showing why a listener ought to respect Russell’s theoretical contributions even if he or she doesn’t completely understand them.

As someone who has taken some pains with book-length biography and knows the drudgery involved in trying to determine the facts of a life story, I admire Heining’s diligence. He conducted interviews with 69 individuals who knew and/or worked with Russell, six more with Russell himself, and two with Alice Norbury Russell. He cites 11 and a half pages of articles and books he consulted. His scholarship in attributing every important statement in the book is impeccable. He is careful to say what he knows and what he does not know, and he is careful to separate his opinions from the facts as he found them. Future research will probably uncover more detail about Russell’s life, but it seems unlikely that the foundation upon which Heining erects his book will be seriously shaken.

Because the rest of the book is so good, its index, which Heining himself had to prepare with very little notice, is particularly deficient. It hits only the highest points of the text and cites only the most well-known names. A project of this scope deserves a scholarly and careful index of every name, every composition title, every point of interest. Let’s hope for a future edition that remedies this flaw.

But back to kudos: the extensive quotes from Russell himself and his associates are well-chosen and transcribed with remarkable sensitivity. For example, Heining was smart enough to preserve the hesitations and dead ends that I remember well from Russell’s own speech. As another example, he did not try to smooth away what he calls the “rather unusual, elliptical syntax” of Ran Blake, which gives Ran’s speech such an endearing, effervescent quality. Because he’s taken such pains with voices that I know, I’m confident that he’s given similar attention to the quirks of others, and thus the quotations sound more individual than they might have if he’d tried to homogenize all of them into “acceptable” English.

Heining also dug into the unreleased material that still awaits a public-spirited record company, and his descriptions of these performances are tantalizing. When I asked the biographer which of them he’d recommend to producers, he cited “Dialogue with Ornette,” from a 1998 London performance, and “Centrifugue,” which was written for the contemporary music ensemble Relâche. One more milestone he re-creates is Russell’s now infamous (or legendary) three-hour collage called “Time Line,” which I had the bad fortune to miss when it was performed in 1992 at Jordan Hall. After reading Heining’s account, I can almost hear it.

Composer George Russell: His influence as a theorist and innovator touched nearly everyone in what came to be known as the “Cool School” of the 1950s.

Another noteworthy thread is that Heining never loses sight of Russell’s heritage and the importance of his experiences as an African-American in the 1930s and 1940s in shaping the man’s sensitivity to injustice and in the construction of his own self-image. In today’s America, George Russell might be considered a mixed-race American like Tiger Woods or Barack Obama, but in 1930s Cincinnati, he was unmitigatedly black. He was raised by adoptive, African-American parents. When a remark by the principal of his school led him to suspect that he might not be their natural child, his mother told him that he’d been fathered by a white music professor at Oberlin College who’d had an affair with one of his African-American students. Although Heining could not confirm this story with documentary evidence, he gets very close to doing so.

He also found a number of Russell’s childhood friends who gave him important anecdotes about what it was like to live in black Cincinnati at the time, to go to school there and socialize in a society that was integrated more in name than in spirit. This context gives a clearer picture than I have ever previously read of the social forces that formed the man’s uncompromising and often angry response to social injustice.

Throughout his life, Russell was keenly conscious of the fine line that separated him from the dominant society, a line that he could see clearly as genetically arbitrary and fundamentally unfair. From time to time, he was mistaken for Greek or Italian; before I met him, I had the impression that he was Mediterranean by heritage rather than black. If he chose to, he might have “passed.” But he never chose to, partly because he was proud of the person he was, and partly because he wanted to prove that the category in which he had been placed did not limit him as an artist or an intellectual. The story of the way in which he established his place in music and in society is not just the story of an individual—it’s a monument to African-American progress.

Because Heining is something of an autodidact, the book has a refreshing quality of unconventional but comprehensive scholarship. In preparing this review, I wrote to him and asked him about his background.

“I studied Politics, German, International Relations and Modern History,” he said. “I also took courses in Psychology, Philosophy of Science and Science Fiction . . . I graduated in German (including studying German Literature) and International Politics, [later] spending a year working and living in Hamburg in a warehouse unloading lorries. . . [After that,] a career in the [English] probation and prison services . . . for twenty plus years [working] with offenders, as well as training students and staff. . . . I know what it’s like to do boring repetitive work in an office or to be so physically tired at the end of the day that I literally crawled into bed, just as I have experienced the emotional and intellectual [challenge] of managing and training professional staff.”

The practical and academic experience he cites make Heining a particularly apt biographer for Russell, who also engaged in a great deal of self-education and self-definition. Philosophy, politics, metaphysics, classical music—it’s necessary to handle all these things with aplomb when you discuss George Russell, and Heining is up to the task.

In the best of all possible worlds, Heining’s biography will be the cornerstone of the edifice that time will erect to the memory of George Russell and his gift to music. Whether that will happen or not remains to be seen. In some ways, because of the vagaries of the book business, it’s up to you.

Scarecrow Press is a UK subsidiary of Maryland-based Rowman & Littlefield, which describes what it publishes (per its website) as “scholarly books in the best tradition of university presses; innovative, thought-provoking texts for college courses; and crossover trade books intended to convey scholarly trends to an educated readership.” George Russell: The Story of an American Composer is part of Scarecrow’s African American Cultural Theory and Heritage Series, of which I was unaware but which obviously belongs in the third book-basket above.

Unfortunately, such a publisher doesn’t necessarily have the strength to rattle the cages of the tastemakers at Publisher’s Weekly, and they probably have difficulty trouble securing placement for their titles in those coveted end-caps in bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, where visibility can generate impulse buying.

Unless you’re extremely naïve, you probably know that lack of marketing success doesn’t necessarily designate poor work. Just because you haven’t yet heard of Heining’s biography doesn’t mean it isn’t an outstanding achievement and well worth your attention. It may be a little more difficult for you to acquire than the latest Michael Crichton novel, but it will be worth it if you care about great music.

In that spirit, let me close this already too-long “review” with some of the things I said at George Russell’s memorial service.

Of all the many gifts of George Russell, I cherished his gift of melody. That gift is maybe the one thing in music that can’t be taught. A musician has it or doesn’t. George had it.

Even in the densest moments of his most complicated pieces, you could hear the lines singing to one another. You could hear them simultaneously, the way you can see sunlight on the surface of a brook, and see fish swimming beneath that sunlight, and see pebbles at the bottom—and even see the movement of the water itself.

In my view, George was the first master of jazz composition whose own instrumental performance was unnecessary to his music. Morton, Ellington, Monk, and Mingus were all bound to their compositions inextricably as players. George trusted others to bring his music to life. Now that he’s gone, this may be one of his most precious and most selfless gifts. As long as future performers rise to the standards he set, they can re-create and enrich what he wrote—and in a real sense, he will be alive whenever they do so.

I’ll always remember his last concert with the Living Time Orchestra, at the Institute for Contemporary Art in September 2008. Sheila Jordan was there to sing “You Are My Sunshine.” Brad Hatfield and Pat Hollenbeck were there to help him lead the band. Stanton Davis, Mike Walker, Hiro Honshuku, Jeff Galindo, and a hot, young alto player named Eric Han were on the stand, among others. They did “Now and Then,” “Stratusphunk,” “Ezz-thetic” and “The African Game,” so the master could hear them for one last time. George himself was weakened and limited by his disease, but he managed to get up and conduct a bit, with a hint of the old dance in his step.

I’d always previously thought of him as powering the band, somehow charging them with energy as he stood in front of them. But on that night, the band led the way, and I think they gave him back a little of the strength he had given in so many past performances. As they went through the jokey, Basie-esque, one-more-time ensembles at the conclusion of “Now and Then,” Pat and Brad were leading the LTO with him, and a lot of us were in tears.

I brought one of my recent friends that night, a guy in his thirties for whom this music was all new territory. I told him this might be his last chance to see one of the greatest musicians of all time. After it was over, when we were all spent from the beauty and the power of what we’d heard, he said, “Why haven’t I heard this music before?”

Steve Elman’s more than four decades in New England public radio have included ten years as a jazz host in the 1970s, five years as a classical host on WBUR in the 1980s, a short stint as senior producer of an arts magazine, thirteen years as assistant general manager of WBUR, and fill-in classical host on 99.5 WCRB.


  1. Erica H. Adams on March 23, 2011 at 10:47 pm

    Thank you for bringing to light and detailing the biography of George Russell and his life.

    And for putting into context the effect of his theory on musicians and both of his unforgettable concerts—that I attended—African Game (in a Newbury Street church) and his 80th Birthday concert (at ICA/Boston in 2008). . . part of Russell’s legacy.

  2. Mike Walker on March 25, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Thanks for a beautifully powerful review, Steve.
    I will never forget that final question, and the silence that followed it.

  3. Alice on June 23, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    Blessings on you, Steve.

  4. DCPetty on September 6, 2011 at 10:16 pm

    I, too, was at the ICA and The African Game and many of George Russell’s Jordan Hall concerts. It was your radio show that got me listening to George Russell’s music. We will all miss his genius.

  5. Jack Reilly on September 1, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    I want to thank you for the review of Ducan Heining’s book on George Russell. It a great story of Russell and his life and work.

    I studied with George for 18 months in the early 50’s when his LYDIAN CONCEPT was in formation. I have applied his theory to my composing and piano playing diligently and to this very day (September 2016) I still find his principal of TONAL GRAVITY the most important part of my piano playing and improvising work.

    Thank you Mr. George Russell for sharing your genius with the world of music.


  6. Anna Kajsa Wahlstedt Russell on June 6, 2023 at 4:40 am

    Thank you ! To read this gives me a deeper background to my memories of the five years I was married to George
    when he lived in Sweden.

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