Ten years ago, Chicago lost one of its most prolific, inventive, genre-defying creative spirits.
In the 1960s alone, William Russo created the Chicago Jazz Ensemble and conducted the London Jazz Orchestra; joined Paul Sills and Rev. James Shiflett in establishing the Body Politic Theatre, one of the first of the Off-Loop houses; and became the first full-time faculty member at Columbia College Chicago, where he created its music department.
In a remarkably productive career, he also penned such ground-breaking scores as "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra," which was premiered by Seiji Ozawa conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Siegel-Schwall Band; "Street Music, A Blues Concerto" (which, like "Three Pieces," was recorded by Ozawa leading the San Francisco Symphony); and "The Civil War," a rock cantata performed by the Chicago Free Theater.
Jazz musicians revere him to this day for landmark works, including his tone poem about Havana, "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West," and the concerto-like "Frank Speaking," both created for the Stan Kenton Orchestra (where Russo worked as composer, arranger and trombonist in the early 1950s); and various Third Stream pieces merging jazz and the classics.
But since Russo's death of pneumonia on Jan. 11, 2003, after a fight with cancer, his enormous contributions have faded somewhat from public view. And last year's decision by a belt-tightening Columbia College to put his Chicago Jazz Ensemble – which was based at the school – on hiatus represented a blow to his legacy.
A turning point may be in the offing, however, with Columbia College announcing a major retrospective of Russo's life and work. "Celebrating William Russo: Artist and Educator" will feature panel discussions on "Russo's legacy as a musician, theater artist and teacher," according to the announcement, from 2 to 5 p.m. Dec. 7 at Columbia College's Concert Hall, 1014 S. Michigan Ave. The festivities will continue with an evening-length concert of Russo's works performed by the Columbia College Jazz Ensemble at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct., conducted by Scott Hall, the school's Jazz Studies Director.
Russo experts and fans will travel here from across the country for an appraisal of the man's outsized contributions. The proceeds will benefit the William Russo Endowed Scholarship at Columbia College Chicago.
"To me, Bill is a quintessential Chicago artist," says Albert Williams, senior lecturer in Columbia's Theatre Department and a prime organizer of the Russo homage.
"He is in music what a Studs Terkel would be in literature: He's very connected to the community, although he's also an international cosmopolite.
"But he's very representative of the Chicago ethic that produced (author) Nelson Algren, that produced (painter) Ed Paschke. … As a musician, his specialty was trying to break down barriers between quote-unquote the popular and the serious. I know his favorite era in the arts was Paris in the 1920s, where you had this great give-and-take among (Sergei) Diaghilev and (Igor) Stravinsky and (Jean) Cocteau and (Erik) Satie.
"That was Bill's view of life, and he brought that to his work as a composer, his first and deepest love."
Indeed, Russo's achievements as jazz composer and conductor stand at the core of his identity. Decades before the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra had been created in New York or the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in Washington, D.C., Russo formed the Chicago Jazz Ensemble in 1965, following in the footsteps of his musical hero: composer-bandleader Duke Ellington. The CJE made history performing major Ellington suites rarely heard elsewhere and bringing to the jazz repertory a seriousness of purpose more typically associated with classical music.
But amid some resistance to his visionary concept of the jazz repertory band, Russo informally disbanded the group in 1968 and later focused largely on classical composition. By the early '90s, however, he revived the CJE to international acclaim, leading the group in concerts across the U.S. and beyond and continuing to write brilliant new works for it.
Two months before his death, he led the world premiere of his "Jubilatum" at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, in Arlington Heights, and the piece sounded like nothing else in the orchestral repertoire. Here was a sprawling, six movement opus based on Gregorian chant and scored for six-voice choir, classical soprano, solo jazz trumpet and the CJE.
And just days before Russo died, he led the band in concert at the Jazz Showcase, while drawing oxygen from a thin plastic tube.
To the very end, the CJE was as important to him as breathing.
"I wish I knew exactly why he went away from it (after 1968), because he loved the Chicago Jazz Ensemble," says conductor Hall, who worked with Russo in the revived CJE.
"That's all he spent his time (until his death) doing, thinking about, talking about: Organizing (CJE) concerts and tours. I couldn't believe the energy he put into that organization."
The band has been silent since its most recent artistic director, drummer Dana Hall, and executive director, Kate Dumbleton, resigned in May of 2012, so the Russo celebration begs the question of what will happen to this ensemble. Will it be consigned to the history books or will it find a new life under the auspices of Columbia College's new president, Kwang-Wu Kim, who replaces Warrick Carter?
Neither Hall nor Williams knows the answer, but the mere fact the Columbia is casting light on Russo could bolster his legacy – with the CJE inseparable from it.