Russo's Roost

Started by KevinP, August 17, 2022, 03:17:35 PM

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For some, William Russo (1928 - 2003) is the composer of those quirky symphony orchestra and blues band pieces that get coupled with Gerswhin and little else. He left behind, however, an impressively large oeuvre.

I post this in the realisation that it may not garner much discussion. He was classical, but he was jazz, and he was rock, and he was third stream. Sometimes he fused those together, and sometimes he worked exclusively in one genre.

If this thread is mostly just me posting some articles and remembrances, so be it.

Here is a Chicago Tribune article from four years ago, remembering him.

Remembering the genius of William Russo
By Howard Reich
Jun 19, 2018

Less than a week before he died — in 2003 at age 74 — Chicago composer William Russo led his band at the Jazz Showcase while pulling oxygen from a narrow plastic tube.

Two months earlier, while battling cancer, Russo presided over the world premiere of perhaps his greatest work: "Jubilatum," a sprawling statement of faith based — improbably — on ancient Gregorian chant. Frail but unbowed, Russo led a six-voice choir, classical soprano, solo jazz trumpet (played by Orbert Davis) and Russo's mighty Chicago Jazz Ensemble in a serenely illuminating performance at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights.

Those two achievements, Russo's last in a global career that stretched more than half a century, help explain why Chicagoans — and anyone else who values profound achievement in the arts — ought to take note of his forthcoming 90th birthday, on June 25.

Sadly, no major concerts, symposia or public celebrations have been planned for a man who gave far more to musical culture in Chicago (and beyond) than he received in recognition. But that doesn't mean we can't reflect on what he produced and remember how it changed and enriched our musical lives.

The numbers alone are daunting: more than 200 compositions for jazz orchestra, two symphonies, nearly two dozen works of musical theater, three concertos, five ballets, an opera and more. But it's the character of this music, rather than merely its profusion, that stands out.

For Russo routinely transcended barriers separating classical, jazz, blues, rock and whatnot, long before it became fashionable to do so.

"There are very few, unfortunately, people and musicians like Bill, who wasn't trapped into thinking he had to do what other people expected of him," says Chicago blues harmonica player Corky Siegel, who ought to know.

For Siegel was integral to Three Pieces for Blues Band and Orchestra (penned for the Siegel-Schwall Band) and "Street Music" (written for Siegel and orchestra), both recorded on Deutsche Grammophon with Seiji Ozawa leading the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

"He was fearless," adds Siegel.

And unstoppable. Siegel recalls a startling scene in the 1970s, when he, Russo and Ozawa were in San Francisco preparing "Street Music."

Russo "had finished the score, and in those days we didn't have computers," says Siegel. "We were eating in an Italian restaurant, and Bill said to me and Seiji: 'You know, I've got to go to the car — I left the score in the back seat, in a briefcase, and that's probably not a good idea.'

"I said to Bill: 'I'll go with you.' So we left Seiji there.

"We go back to the car. The back window is broken, and the briefcase is gone. Bill is standing there. I'm standing there. We're silent.

"Bill turns to me and says: 'It will be better next time.'"

That incident may say more about Russo's grace under pressure than any encomiums could, but it also references the man's work ethic and faith in his own creativity.

He launched his composing career at a surprisingly high musical level and built from there. "Solitaire" (1950) radiates a sublime melancholy one would not expect from a composer who penned it barely out of his teens. Its warmly lyrical solos for trombone (Russo's instrument), exquisitely translucent orchestration and unmistakable self-assurance foreshadow artistic successes yet to come.

Who else could have invented such brilliant vocal lines for a jazz version of "Othello," of all things, as Russo did in his one-act opera "John Hooton"? Jazz works Russo composed for the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the 1950s, most notably "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West" (a thrilling riff on Afro-Cuban music) and "Frank Speaking" (a concertolike vehicle for Kenton trombonist Frank Rosolino) stand as landmarks in the repertory.

The convergence of rock, jazz, blues and gospel in Russo's rock cantata "The Civil War," the melodically inspired art songs he penned for "A Cabaret Opera" and other breakthroughs suggest that the music world has yet to take the full measure of his contributions.

In the 1990s, Russo revived one of his greatest experiments, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, which he had created at Columbia College Chicago in 1965 and informally disbanded in '68, proving, once again, how far ahead of the times he had been.

"Sure, I wish it would have worked out the first time around, but it seems people weren't ready for that repertory-band approach yet," Russo told me in 1994, his CJE having preceded by decades the rise of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in Washington, D.C.

"So over the years I wrote ballets and operas and classical pieces."

He also created the music department at Columbia College Chicago in the mid-1960s.

"He was the first full-time faculty member at Columbia College when it was reorganized by Mike Alexandroff," says Albert Williams, a longtime teacher at the institution.

"His music was one of the first things that put Columbia on the map as an arts school. ... Aside from the music program, just in general, he was one of the people who shaped Columbia College as being something new, something different and something uniquely Chicago."

Russo also founded the London Jazz Orchestra in the 1960s and brought new audiences to the music with his CJE revival in the '90s.

Why was he so intent on merging musical languages?

"His favorite period in history was Paris in the 1920s," explains Williams. "He was so inspired by that era: Gertrude Stein, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, Igor Stravinsky.

"That was his model of what a culture should be."

Russo not only revered the spirit of that time but lived it. And his all-embracing, wide-open view of the arts flourishes in his music, in the character of Columbia College and in the memory of anyone lucky enough to have known him.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.


An article from this year, via WBEZ, on him and The Free Theater, which Russo led.

Chicago's Free Theater grappled with issues like civil rights and the Vietnam War

Between 1968 and 1974, the Free Theater made experimental theater available to all. What happened to its legacy?

By Adriana Cardona-Maguigad

Editor's note: We initially described The Civil War as a rock opera. But some considered it to be a rock cantata.

When Doug Kassel was a teenager, he joined the Free Theater, a Chicago theater group that put on non-traditional, avant-garde theatrical productions from 1968 to 1974. Like its name suggests, the shows were free.

The Free Theater was created during a historic time in Chicago and the country — a period marked by the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. The ensemble stood out for its open door policy (no auditions required) and for putting on rock music plays with strong political themes making theater more appealing to young people looking for a creative outlet.

The Free Theater, which operated with the support of Columbia College, was part of a movement of small theater groups that helped expand theater outside the Chicago Loop in the '60s and '70s.

At first, the Free Theater performed in a building scheduled for demolition known as The Theater at 1848 N. Wells in the Old Town neighborhood. They also performed in other non-traditional spaces including a church before eventually getting a space at Columbia College.

Doug Kassel shared so many stories with his partner, Lisa Patten, about his time with the Free Theater that Lisa wanted to know more about its history and its legacy in Chicago.

So Curious City spoke with former performers and crew members about what it was like to be a part of this ensemble. And we learned that the Free Theater wasn't just about the performances. It had a mission to make theater inclusive, accessible and responsive to the community. Today, theater groups like CIRCA Pintig, the Free Street Theater and others continue that mission, bringing shows to neighborhoods all across Chicago and providing a space for anyone to join the show.

What was the Free Theater?
The Free Theater was known for its free theatrical productions that took on the important political and social issues of the moment. William Russo, chair of the music department at Columbia College, founded and led the program. He was a well-known composer, conductor and jazz musician.

Russo wrote most of the productions the Free Theater performed. He was influenced by the style and techniques of other contemporary theater groups, including two groups founded by Paul Sills, the Second City and the Story Theatre. The Second City, a group the Free Theater shared its first brick-and-mortar space with in Lincoln Park, was particularly influential for its improvisational style.
Russo was a major force behind the success of the Free Theater, according to Kassel. "He was a very powerful presence," Kassel said.

"He [was] definitely a leader. And he [could] be a little scary sometimes," he added, remembering a time before one of the shows when Russo released a big scream to get the band to come in at the same time. "[Russo] would get himself revved up," Kassel continued. "Made the hair in the back of our heads stand up."

Albert Williams, associate professor of instruction at Columbia College, joined the Free Theater in 1970 when he was 19. He started out as a performer but eventually became a writer.
The Free Theater's productions "rarely had dialogue," Williams said. The shows featured singers and multimedia elements including eight-millimeter movies projected onto bedsheets and sometimes even included "psychedelic light shows."

"One of the most interesting aspects of being in the company was watching the process of recruiting audience members who came to see the show," recalled Jos Davidson, who played fender bass for the Free Theater from 1968-1973. "[We] invit[ed] them to come to a Free Theater rehearsal to see if they could become members of the company who were on stage doing simple percussion accents as part of the overall production," she said. "We gained several company members by doing that."
New members didn't need much experience. There were no auditions and participants got their assignments according to their abilities. Everyone had multiple roles.

"We sang, we performed but we also laid down the lighting cords," Williams said. "We hung the curtains for the projectors. We cleaned the house afterward, we cleaned the bathrooms."
And none of the performers were paid. But they did pass around a hat at the end of each performance to collect donations.

"I would grab a mike and give what was known as 'the rap.' I would explain our need for finances. Then I would go to the back exit and stand there with the top of a trap box and make eye contact with everyone leaving. People put in anything from change to singles and up to $20s. We would take about $200 to $350 per performance," said Jerry Yanoff, who was often in charge of collecting donations.

Productions like The Civil War and Liberation took on the politics of the day
The Free Theater offered a space for people, mostly college-aged, to express their feelings and frustrations about racial inequality and the war in Vietnam. "The early Free Theater shows were all about the Vietnam War and civil rights. They were very political," Williams said.

Back then, Kassel said, the line between reality and theater was pretty loose.

"The Theater would be doing all this stuff about revolution and war and they'd be using this space to talk about how to keep the police under control," Kassel said, adding that there were town hall meetings after some shows, "[w]here people would get up and speak about, you know, about everything that was going wrong, or people that have gotten beaten up."

After Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, was assassinated in 1969, the Free Theater announced a special performance to help fund an investigation into his death.

Many of the Free Theater's shows drew connections between past and present situations. That includes shows like The Civil War, a rock opera that created a parallel between the Civil War in the 1860s and the cultural turmoil of the late 1960s.

"Bill [William Russo] taught me my permanent skepticism of the establishment," said Bob Boldt, who produced the visuals for many of the Free Theater's performances.

Another memorable performance was the show Liberation, written by Russo, which was about three political martyrs: Socrates, Thomas Paine and Che Guevara.

Not all the Free Theater's productions were explicitly political. Aesop's Fables, a comedy based on the stories originally thought to have been written by the Greek storyteller Aesop, took the moral tales told by animals and set them to music with a libretto by Jon Swan. According to Williams, Aesop's Fables was a series of 11 "mini rock operas" written in the Story Theatre style, and was a family-friendly production that drew audience members of all ages.

The shows resonated. The issues Free Theater took on and the "scruffy, free-form quality" of their shows drew huge crowds, Kassel said. "We used to have lines around the block," he added. "And even though it was free, we did get a lot of repeat business, and people would just get addicted to coming to the shows."

The Free Theater's success went beyond Chicago. They performed in other states and even took a production of The Civil War to London.

The end of the Free Theater
But in 1974 the Free Theater stopped making shows. Its cast members moved on to do other things. Making Free Theater productions was a big commitment, Williams and Kassel said.

"A lot of us were not getting paid. I mean we were working for free," Williams said.

Russo, the group's founder, had other projects involving his music career, which included composing other musical productions.

Many of the performers who were involved with the Free Theater went on to use the skills they developed in their professional and personal lives. "The power of the music, visuals, dance and political messages touched me to my core," recalled Barbara Dulski, who joined the Free Theater in 1968. "I went on to compose my own music and at 74 can proudly say I am still performing inspiring work."

But while Free Theater was around only for six years, Albert Williams of Columbia College said it helped shape Chicago's rich theater scene today. "I think that the Free Theater and that off-Loop theater movement did pave the way for other theater companies that are still functioning today," he said.

In the mid-1970s, the Chicago theater scene experienced a second wave of the off-Loop theater movement with the birth of companies like Victory Gardens Theater and the Steppenwolf Theatre.

Today, according to Williams, Chicago is a theater capital, with Tony Award-winning productions and several hundred theater companies in town. But over the years, he said that the grassroots theater scene he was part of during his younger years has changed.

Many theater companies have centered on the North Side of Chicago and the scene has become more focused on entertainment, Williams said.

"It became much more about professionalism and slickness," he said. "And maybe without trying to become this way, maybe it became a little bit less accessible."

So what happened to the Free Theater's mission of accessibility — of being open to the public, with shows available for free or at a low cost?

Well, there are several companies still doing this kind of work. But many people we spoke with who work in these grassroots groups say it's not always easy to keep these small theater companies going. Money is always an issue that creates other challenges in areas like marketing or even finding spaces to perform.

Despite all of this, many small theater companies have managed to survive for years and are still bringing theater to residents who might not otherwise have access to shows.

Curious City put together a list of six community-based theater companies that are bringing theater to residents in different parts of the city or doing donation based or free shows.

(If interested in that part, see the original article. You'll need to enter your email to access it, but no password or account creation.)


Today is the 20th anniversary of Russo's passing.

Here is a recording of his Second Symphony, as conducted by Ozawa in 1958.

There are, I believe, two recordings. One conducted by Bernstein (who commissioned it) was only on LP and never on CD...although I think it may have been included once in a massive, expensive CD box set. The Ozawa has never been released commercially.


A performance of the third stream Image of a Man, for string quartet and alto sax plus guitar. This was originally written for and recorded by Lee Konitz.

Could swear I posted this yesterday. Hopefully I just didn't hit 'Post', but sorry if I posted it in some other thread.

Roasted Swan

Quote from: KevinP on January 10, 2023, 03:55:01 PMToday is the 20th anniversary of Russo's passing.

Here is a recording of his Second Symphony, as conducted by Ozawa in 1958.

There are, I believe, two recordings. One conducted by Bernstein (who commissioned it) was only on LP and never on CD...although I think it may have been included once in a massive, expensive CD box set. The Ozawa has never been released commercially.

I missed this post before - I'll definitely listen to this and thankyou for your previous posts on Russo - a composer I know nothing about except for those DG/Corky Siegel recordings which are great......


About half a year ago or so, I started doing a MIDI mock-up of one of the Three Pieces.

Let's just say it left me a deeper appreciation of Siegel's virtuosity. So much so that I gave up. Much of the harmonica you hear in these recordings was just him following the direction to improvise.

He is still going at it: