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Columbia College Chicago
Russo in Music

Russo in Music

Russo in Jazz

New Concepts album cover

A former student of jazz pianist Lennie Tristano and classical composer Karel Jirak, Russo began his musical career as a teenager, leading his own jazz band while attending Chicago's Senn High School. In 1944, at age 16, he began contributing music to Lionel Hampton's big band. From 1950 to 1954, he was a composer, arranger, and trombonist for the Stan Kenton Orchestra. Russo wrote ground-breaking orchestral scores for the Kenton Orchestra, including "23 Degrees N / 82 Degrees W," "Frank Speaking," and "Portrait of a Count," all featured on one of Kenton’s most important albums, New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm (1953). This groundbreaking record featured fiery performances by one of Kenton's best ensembles, including master saxophonist Lee Konitz.

In 1958, Russo penned the orchestral arrangements for saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's last album, Jump for Joy. Subsequently, he began composing for his own jazz orchestras in the 1960s, including the London Jazz Orchestra and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. Under Russo's direction, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble gained international acclaim as the first ensemble other than Duke Ellington's own band to perform an Ellington score, collaborating with Ellington for a performance of his Concert of Sacred Music. After Russo restarted the Chicago Jazz Ensemble in 1991, it became one of the most important repertory jazz ensembles in the nation, presenting the first-ever live performance of the landmark Miles Davis/Gil Evans recording Sketches of Spain as well as a re-creation of Benny Goodman's groundbreaking 1938 Carnegie Hall concert and a rare live performance of Ellington's Black, Brown and Beige.

Experiment in Jazz album cover

In all, Russo composed more than 200 pieces for jazz orchestra with more than 25 recordings of his work. Russo's jazz discography includes Experiment in Jazz, The World of Alcina, The Seven Deadly Sins, The School of Rebellion, Kenton a la Russo, and Chicago Jazz Ensemble. In 1990, Russo received a Lifetime Achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS).

Russo's Orchestral Works

Russo's orchestral works include Symphony No. 2 in C, "Titans," for which he received a Koussevitsky Award; it was premiered in 1959 by the New York Philharmonic under conductor Leonard Bernstein, with trumpet soloist Maynard Ferguson.

Russo with Corky Siegel and Seiji Ozawa.

Russo's Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra premiered in 1968 at the Ravinia Festival, with Seiji Ozawa conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Siegel-Schwall Band, a popular Chicago blues group. The work was later recorded by the San Francisco Symphony and the Siegel-Schwall Band under Seiji Ozawa for Deutsche Grammaphon. The 1973 album's commercial and critical success led Russo to compose Street Music: A Blues Concerto, recorded by Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony with blues artist Corky Siegel as soloist. Deutsche Grammaphon’s 1977 recording of Street Music won France’s Grand Prix du Disque. The two Russo/Siegel/Ozawa collaborations are today available on a single Deutsche Grammaphon CD.

Russo also released two recordings with his former student, composer Richard Peaslee. The Carousel Suite and Stonehenge featured Russo’s adaptation of his film score Everybody Rides the Carousel, with trumpet soloist Dizzy Gillespie and narrator Studs Terkel, as well as a performance of Peaslee’s Stonehenge by Russo’s London Jazz Orchestra. Virtuosity: A Contemporary Look paired Russo’s The English Concerto, played by the London Jazz Orchestra and solo violinist Steven Staryk, with Peaslee’s Chicago Concerto, originally commissioned by Russo for Gerry Mulligan and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble.

Russo's Music Writing

William Russo reading with son Alexander.

In addition to his critical writings for DownBeat, Saturday Review, and other publications, Russo authored several textbooks, including Composing for the Jazz Orchestra, Composing Music: A New Approach, and Jazz Composition and Orchestration, all published by University of Chicago Press.

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