William Russo, Composer and a Leader in Jazz Repertory, Dies at 74


WWilliam Russo, an ambitious composer and arranger at the heart of Stan Kenton's progressive music of the 1950's and an important figure in the jazz-repertory movement, died on Saturday at Rush Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago. He was 74 and lived in Chicago.

The cause was pneumonia after a recurrence of cancer that had been treated two and a half years ago, said his sister, Barbara Russo Evans.

Born and raised in Chicago, Mr. Russo studied with the pianist Lennie Tristano in the mid-40's, by the age of 13 he was composing and by the age of 20 he led a rehearsal orchestra called Experiment in Jazz.

During the period of Kenton's 40-piece Innovations orchestra, Mr. Russo served as trombonist, composer and arranger in the band from 1950 to 1954 and wrote pieces for the band that freely oscillated between jazz and classical idioms, using polytonality and complex, multipart structure.

Some of his progressive pieces — like the two-part "Improvisation" from the 1952 Kenton album "New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm" — rank among the highest achievements in orchestral jazz.

By the 1960's Mr. Russo had taken up the cause of jazz repertory, especially to celebrate and reconsider large-ensemble music in jazz.

In England he founded the London Jazz Orchestra, which he ran from 1962 to 1965; in Chicago, in 1965, he founded and directed the Contemporary American Music Program at Columbia College, as well as its resident orchestra, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble.

At the time there was little momentum for the idea of jazz repertory, and the ensemble disbanded in 1968. In the early 1990's, after successful jazz repertory orchestras had been established at Lincoln Center and the Smithsonian, Mr. Russo restarted the group. He continued as chairman of the music department at Columbia College Chicago, a position from which he retired last June.

The Chicago Jazz Ensemble played the work of composers like Ellington, Basie, Gil Evans and Jelly Roll Morton, and of Mr. Russo himself; in performance and on recordings it also played Kenton's work from the 1950's with fresh energy.

Besides his work in jazz Mr. Russo wrote classical music, including operas, symphonies and cantatas; he wrote a rock opera as well. In the late 1970's he wrote primarily for movie studios in Los Angeles before returning to teaching at Columbia College Chicago. He also wrote three books on composition and arranging.

In addition to his sister, he is survived by his four children, Camille Blinstrub, of Chicago; Condée Nast Russo of Boston; Alexander William Warburg Russo of Chicago; and Whitney Schildgen of Virginia Beach; and two grandchildren, Haley and Jacob, of Virginia Beach.