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Russo and Columbia
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Russo and Columbia

Russo was hired by Columbia College president Mirron “Mike” Alexandroff to be Columbia College’s first full-time faculty member in 1965, and served as the chair of the Music Department until his retirement in 2002. Columbia College was seen as a progressive educational vessel that was a perfect laboratory for Russo's own progressive musical and educational ideas. Under Russo’s direction, Columbia’s music program was one of the first college-level programs that melded courses in classical, jazz, and rock music along with studies of literature, visual art, dance, theatre, and film.

Russo speaking at a Columbia College Chicago event

In Russo’s own words, “The Music Department at Columbia College was founded on the basis of creating a rapprochement between classical music and popular music, with a special emphasis on seeking out and developing the best elements of both: the serious and moral aspects of classical music and the focus toward the audience to be found in popular music.” This fundamental approach to music education allowed the Columbia College Music Department to create and develop the programs existing today.

Russo was also instrumental in establishing the Musical Theatre program in the Columbia College Theatre Department.

In addition to founding and teaching at Columbia College Chicago’s Music program, Russo was also the Director of Orchestral Studies at Scuola Europea d’Orchestra Jazz in Palermo, Italy, as well as a visiting professor at Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore and composer-in-residence for the City and County of San Francisco.

Russo's distinguished roster of students included Oscar-winning film composers John Barry (Goldfinger, Out of Africa) and Fred Karlin (Lovers and Other Strangers, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman) and theatre composers Richard Peaslee (Marat/Sade) and Mark Hollmann (Tony Award for Best Score of a Musical, Urinetown).

Images courtesy of Columbia College Chicago Archives and the family of William Russo.