Celebrating William Russo in words and music

The world has yet to take the full measure of Chicagoan William Russo, whose life's work proved – among other things – that jazz, classical and blues languages are not natural enemies.

These sounds, and others, converged in Russo's compositions and rang out in concerts he led with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, a splendid repertory band he founded at Columbia College Chicago in 1965. That's decades before the great Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York or the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in Washington had been conceived.

Ten years have passed since Russo's death at age 74, and his jazz orchestra has been on hiatus since 2012, due to financial constraints at Columbia. But if these unfortunate events have dimmed awareness of the man's enormous contributions, this weekend's "Celebrating William Russo" soiree – presented by Columbia – could go a long way toward turning things around.

With a Friday night screening of an animated film featuring a score by Russo, a Saturday afternoon panel discussion exploring the impact of his work and a Saturday night concert featuring such major figures as alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, trumpeter Orbert Davis and harmonica whiz Corky Siegel playing Russo's music, "Celebrating William Russo" will bring the musician's art and philosophies back to the forefront, where they belong.

"Bill was completely fearless," says Siegel, who ought to know.

In the 1960s and '70s, Russo penned the groundbreaking "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra" for the Siegel-Schwall Band plus symphonic musicians and the follow-up "Street Music" for Siegel and orchestra. Siegel performed both works around the world with conductor Seiji Ozawa and recorded them for Deutsche Grammophon with Ozawa leading the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

"Fearlessness is not a goal," adds Siegel. "It's a tool in order to be able to do what you really feel you should do.

"But Bill was fearless in approaching this really scary idea of offering something (musically) for each person to not like."

Russo, of course, was not the first to mingle jazz and the classics. Works such as Darius Milhaud's "La Creation du Monde" ("The Creation of the World") and George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" bridged that divide as far back as the Roaring Twenties. And starting in the early 1950s, the Modern Jazz Quartet began to convey a classical sensibility within jazz language.

But Russo's methods were uniquely his.

"What really made (Russo's works) different was the compositional approach – the idea was to maintain the character of the blues and the character of classical music and (have) them work side by side," says Siegel. "And, in fact, not to fuse them, not to blend them, but to have them as much as possible highlight their characters, without dissolving them into each other.

"And it certainly wasn't a symphony backing up a blues band, and it wasn't a blues band trying to play classical music."

Works such as "Three Pieces" and "Street Music" were classic Russo, joyous juxtapositions of multiple idioms he treasured. The impact of this music echoes in our culture today, nowhere more than in Orbert Davis' Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, which takes Russo's cross-genre concept further than any other ensemble in America.

"For me, Bill personified Third Stream," says Davis, using a term that loosely refers to an intertwining of jazz and classical techniques. "As a composer, and as a (performing) musician, he lived jazz, but he also lived classical. It was the foundation of what I do now."

And yet Russo's genre-shattering methods represent just a fraction of his achievement.

Born in Chicago on June 25, 1928, Russo studied with innovative pianist-composer Lennie Tristano in the 1940s, led the noteworthy Experiment in Jazz band in the late '40s and composed signature scores for the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the 1950s, including "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West" (a brilliant riff on Afro-Cuban music) and "Frank Speaking" (a jazz-inspired concerto for Kenton trombonist Frank Rosolino).

In the 1960s, Russo founded the London Jazz Orchestra and the Chicago Jazz Ensemble and established the music department at Columbia College Chicago. But the CJE may have been ahead of its time, leading Russo to disband it in 1968 to pursue other interests.

"Sure, I wish it could have worked out the first time around (in the '60s), but it seems people weren't ready for that repertory-band approach yet," he told me in 1994.

"So over the years I wrote ballets and operas and classical pieces. In fact, I could happily retire right now and spend the rest of my life writing string quartets."

The works Russo penned defied categorization and were richly worth hearing. The haunting lyricism of his "Solitaire," the mighty brass choirs and astringent harmonic syntax of "Improvisation" and the profound spirituality of "I Lift Up My Eyes" (which evoked Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts) clearly were the products of an extraordinarily fertile musical imagination.