William Russo (musician)
A former student of the jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, Russo wrote ground-breaking orchestral scores for the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the 1950s, including 23 Degrees N 82 Degrees W, Frank Speaking, and Portrait of a Count. One of the more famous works he wrote for the Kenton Orchestra is Halls Of Brass, specially composed for the brass section, without woodwinds or percussion. The section recording this piece, featured such jazz artists as Buddy Childers, Maynard Ferguson and Milt Bernhart, was much-respected by symphony brass musicians.
At the beginning of the 1960s Russo moved to England, where he founded the London Jazz Orchestra. He was a contributor to the Third Stream movement that sought to close the gap between jazz and classical music. He returned to his native city of Chicago in 1965, where he founded Columbia College's music department and became the director of its Center for New Music, as well as the college's first full-time faculty member. He was also the Director of Orchestral Studies at Scuola Europea d’Orchestra Jazz in Palermo, Italy.
Besides writing for jazz ensembles, Russo also composed classical music, including symphonies, and choral works, as well as a number of works for the theater, often mixing elements of different genres. His 1959 Symphony No. 2 in C "TITANS" received a Koussevitsky award, and marked his entrance into the classical-music world. It was performed by the New York Philharmonic that year with Leonard Bernstein conducting (Bernstein had commissioned the piece) and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson appearing as soloist.
The 1973 album that included Russo's Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra became a big seller for Deutsche Grammophon, with its cross-genre performance by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, with Seiji Ozawa conducting and the Siegel-Schwall Band. (Ozawa had premiered "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra" with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Siegel-Schwall Band in 1968.) The success prompted the label to release Russo's Street Music, A Blues Concerto in 1979, featuring Corky Siegel on harmonica and piano.
Russo's music-theater works included a rock cantata, The Civil War (1968), based on poems by Paul Horgan. A politically charged multimedia piece for soloist, chorus, dancers, and rock band, The Civil War paralleled the American Civil War and the martyrdom of President Lincoln with the turbulent civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s and the murders of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Russo followed The Civil War with other rock-based multimedia music-theater works including Liberation, Joan of Arc, Aesop's Fables, The Bacchae, and Song of Songs. These and other works were performed by the Chicago Free Theater, which Russo founded and directed. One of the seminal troupes of the off-Loop theater movement that blossomed in Chicago in the late 1960s, the Free Theater spawned sister companies in Baltimore and San Francisco.
In 1969, Russo teamed up with director Paul Sills, who was the founding director of the Second City, and community activist Rev. Jim Shiflett to establish the Body Politic Theatre, one of the first professional off-Loop theaters in Chicago. Russo's other works for the theater include the operas John Hooton (1962), The Island (1963), Land of Milk and Honey (1964), Antigone (1967), The Shepherds' Christmas, The Pay-Off (1983–84), The Sacrifice, and Dubrovsky (1988), as well as a double bill of operas inspired by commedia dell'arte, Isabella's Fortune and Pedrolino's Revenge (performed off-Broadway in 1974), and a musical fairy tale for children, The Golden Bird, for singers, narrator, dancers, and symphony orchestra (premiered in 1984 under the auspices of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). His collaborators on these and other works for the theater included Adrian Mitchell, Arnold Weinstein, Jon Swan, Alice Albright Hoge, Irma Routen, Naomi Lazard, Robert Perrey, Donald T. Sanders, Albert Williams, Jonathan Abarbanel and Denise DeClue. Russo also composed art songs set to poetry by Edna St. Vincent Millay, W. H. Auden and Gertrude Stein, as well as scores for dance and film.
As part of his work with Columbia College, he started the Chicago Jazz Ensemble (CJE), which was dedicated to preserving and expanding jazz. However a few years later this ensemble was disbanded, but was fully reborn in 1991 and continues to the present; Russo's successor as the CJE's artistic director was trumpeter Jon Faddis. Russo appeared with the band the week prior to his death. After a bout with cancer, Russo retired as chair of the Columbia College Music Department in 2002. He died in 2003.
Russo was married three times, to:
- Shelby Davis, a singer. They had one child, Camille Russo.
- Jeremy Warburg, a music teacher, who was a granddaughter of American magazine publisher Condé Nast. They had two children: Alexander Russo and Condée Nast Russo.
- Carol Lo Verde, a classical soprano.
He also had a daughter, Whitney C. Schildgen, from an extramarital relationship.
Russo was also well known as a trombonist and composition teacher. Among his notable pupils were John Barry, Richard Peaslee, Fred Karlin, Patrick Gowers, Joseph Reiser, Albert Williams, Louis Rosen, and Mark Hollmann.
In addition to composing, arranging, conducting, playing, and teaching, he also authored three respected books on music: Composing for the Jazz Orchestra (1973, University of Chicago Press, plus a workbook for the book in 1978); Jazz Composition and Orchestration (1968, 1974, pbk 1997, University of Chicago Press); and Composing Music: A New Approach, written with Jeffrey Ainis and David Stevenson, Russo's former students (1983, Prentice Hall; 1988, University of Chicago Press).
Overall, Russo composed more than 200 pieces for jazz orchestra, and there were more than 30 recordings of his work. His five-decade career included collaborations with his idol Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Stan Kenton, Cannonball Adderley, Yehudi Menuhin, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Maynard Ferguson, Billie Holiday, Cleo Laine, Annie Ross, and others.
- A Recital of New American Music (Dee Gee Records)
- Experiment in Jazz (Universal Records)
- School of Rebellion
- The Seven Deadly Sins
- Russo In London
- The World Of Alcina
List of print works
- Composing for the Jazz Orchestra (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961, ISBN 978-0-226-73209-1)
- Workbook for Composing for the Jazz Orchestra Co-Authored With Reid Hyams (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978, ISBN 978-0-226-73214-5)
- Composing Music: A New Approach (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988, ISBN 978-0-226-73216-9)
- Jazz Composition and Orchestration (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1968 ISBN 978-0-226-73208-4)
- The Guardian, obituary
- Independent obituary
- Daily Telegraph obituary.
- John Fordham, "Bill Russo - Creator of a jazz/classical hybrid" (obituary), The Guardian, 13 March 2003.
- The Independent, obituary, 16 January 2003
- Obituary in The Daily Telegraph, 4 February 2003
- Obituary Bill Russo at the Jazz House
- Russo biography from the Chicago Jazz Ensemble website
- Yahoo Group for those studying the Russo Composing Music A New Approach book
- William Russo interview Columbia College 1998
- The Island is a jazz opera commissioned and broadcast in the 60's on radio themed on events in Garcia Diego written by William Russo, words Adrian Mitchell performed by the Russo Orchestra sung by Cleo Laine and Denis Quilley