Accolades for Bill Russo
Chicago Jazz Ensemble
by Joe Cunniff
William Russo has often been described as an outsider, a rebel. His Chicago Jazz Ensemble struggled at first, then disbanded. Who could guess what was to come?
These are remarkable days for William Russo and his Chicago Jazz Ensemble. A successful tour of Italy, a new CD, new audiences, a growing educational program at Columbia College Chicago, and a new composition about Chicago are just some of the things going on with this conductor and his orchestra.
Russo is the founder and conductor of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, which is in residence at Columbia College. They have been recent subjects of the highest praise by Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich and by New York critic Stanley Crouch. In a Letter to the Editor of the Tribune, Crouch wrote: “There are no more talented, experienced, respected, or knowledgeable composers and conductors than Mr. Russo, whose contributions to the contemporary language of the big band are indisputable.”
Russo, born in Chicago in 1928, attended Senn High School with alto sax master Lee Konitz. In the 40s he studied with the legendary Lennie Tristano, and in the 50s he became chief arranger for the Stan Kenton Orchestra.
Over the past four decades Russo has composed 22 full-length theater music works, including operas and cantatas, three concertos and five ballets. He founded jazz orchestras in New York and in London, and worked with Yehudi Menuhin, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie. He won a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, and his former students include Oscar-winning film-music composers Patrick Gowers and John Barry. He saw his books win special respect. They are Composing Music: A New Approach, Jazz: Composition and Orchestration, and Composing for the Jazz Orchestra, all published by the University of Chicago Press.
Russo reminisced recently about the ensemble and the college, “At the beginning, Columbia College had about 200 students. Now there are about 8,000, and a $60 million budget. With the help of the college’s president at the time, Mike Alexandroff, I founded the Chicago Jazz Ensemble in 1965.” The first version of the CJE lasted until 1968.
The late ‘60s meant Vietnam and racial unrest, and, deeply committed to civil rights, Russo co-wrote, along with a young black woman named Irma Routen, the multimedia rock opera called “The Civil War.” It became a big hit in Chicago and gave rise, with the support of the College, to The Free Theater, which flourished into the mid-70s and in turn greatly influenced new generations of writers and actors. In 1977, Russo completed his blues band/orchestra piece “Street Music,” which won France’s “Grand Prix du Disque” award.
In 1991, he reformed the Chicago Jazz Ensemble for the Chicago Jazz Festival in Grant Park. Their hit performance led to a revival that is still going strong, and a status as one of the country’s top jazz repertory orchestras.
The band has, at various times and in various combinations, featured some of Chicago’s top pros, including other members of the faculty at Columbia. For instance, this was the makeup of the CJE for their recent appearance at Chicago’s Mandel Hall: on trumpets were Rex Richardson, John Chudoba, Scott Hall, Forrest Buchtel, and Derek Canon; on trombones Audrey Morrison, Edwin Williams, Tracy Kirk, Steve Berry, and Fritz Hocking; on saxophones Bill Horn, Tyrone Tatum, James Gailloreto, Tim McNamara, and Ted Hogarth. The rhythm section consisted of Paul Asaro, piano, Frank Dawson, guitar, Vashon Johnson, bass, Frank Johnson, drums, and Bobby Everson, typani. The band also spotlighted singers Cynthia Felker Rogers, Symbryt Whittington, Victoria Brady, and Laura Amend, as well as dancers Wendy Thomas and tap-dancer extraordinaire Jimmy Payne, Jr.
At this recent concert the CJE blazed through music by Ellington, Basie, Kenton and others in celebration of the release of their CD, The Chicago Jazz Ensemble, on the CMG label. They also played the world premiere of Russo’s “Chicago Suite No. 2,” a work that clearly reflects Russo's deep respect for the artistry Ellington. A scintillating travelogue of Chicago, past and present, the bluesy “Suite” uniquely captures the colors and tones of well-known Chicago locations while also paying tribute in one section to Chicago’s octogenarian drum dynamo, Barrett Deems.
Russo is also the director of the fast-growing Contemporary American Music Program at Chicago’s Columbia College. Russo said, “The success of the CJE has led to the success of the Jazz Studies Program, which is moving into parity with the voice, composition, and other programs.
Our faculty includes conductor James McDonald, Dr. Gustavo Leone, who recently earned a Ph. D in music from the University of Chicago, and Carol LoVerde, who has sung with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We now have a full-time faculty of 7, and a part-time faculty of about 35.”
The soft-spoken Russo added that, “The mission of the school is based on social justice and decency. The music program is based on the idea of not just development in that area but humanistic concern for the world. We’re not offering just traditional methods — running the scales up and down — but trying to get students to be more intuitive, more in touch with their bodies and souls.”
“Sometimes it’s not until years later that a student will call you and say ‘I’m sorry I was such a jerk.’ Teaching is a moral imperative. We were put on this earth to help people and share things.”
Today William Russo and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble are sharing with more and more people through their teaching, tours, concerts, recordings, and their exhilarating performances of classic jazz arrangements.
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