Chicago Jazz Ensemble founder

By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
Published January 13, 2003

Last Monday night, Chicago composer William Russo was leading his swing band at the Jazz Showcase, on West Grand Avenue, while drawing oxygen from a thin plastic tube.

Though looking frail because of recent battles with cancer and pneumonia, Mr. Russo--one of America's most accomplished, versatile and prolific jazz composers--maintained a characteristically unrelenting schedule of performance and composition.

"That was an exciting show, and Bill said he couldn't be having more fun," said his sister, Barbara Russo Evans. "Nothing was going to keep him from making music."

Mr. Russo's death Saturday, Jan. 11, of pneumonia in Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, at age 74, caught even some of his most ardent fans by surprise and left an immense artistic void in jazz and in Chicago music.

During more than 50 years as a composer and bandleader, Mr. Russo penned landmark jazz scores and innovative rock operas, wrote influential texts on the art of instrumental arranging, and educated generations of musicians at Columbia College Chicago, where he founded the music department.

"Bill Russo was one of a kind, an incredibly imaginative jazzman who gave more to music in Chicago and around the world than many people realize," said author Studs Terkel, who knew Mr. Russo for more than half a century.

"Just look at all those great pieces he wrote and the great Chicago Jazz Ensemble that he led. Look at all those kids he taught at Columbia College."

Added Larry Combs, principal clarinetist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and a jazz improviser who often collaborated with Mr. Russo, "He was one of my idols early on."

Mr. Russo was at a turning point in his life and career, for since retiring from Columbia last year he was able to invest his energies in his Chicago Jazz Ensemble and in composing works. In November he unveiled his last and possibly greatest jazz work, "Jubilatum," a typically idiosyncratic composition based on Gregorian chant and scored for big band, chamber string section, vocal sextet, classical soprano and jazz trumpet soloist.

The piece capped one of the most prodigious and circuitous jazz careers of the second half of the 20th Century.

Mr. Russo, who was born in Chicago on June 25, 1928, became a force to be reckoned with when he was barely out of Senn High School. Having studied with bandleader-pianist Lennie Tristano in the early 1940s, by the end of that decade he was leading the groundbreaking Experiment in Jazz band and in the 1950s penning such classic Stan Kenton charts as "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West" (which brilliantly merged Afro-Cuban rhythm with American jazz technique) and "Frank Speaking" (a jazzlike concerto dedicated to Kenton trombonist Frank Rosolino).

"Those pieces that Bill Russo wrote and arranged for Stan Kenton were some of the best works ever to come out of Kenton's band," veteran Chicago jazz radio announcer Dick Buckley said.

Consistently at the forefront of new ideas in music, Mr. Russo created the London Jazz Orchestra in the early 1960s and in 1965 founded the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, which performed historic jazz repertoire and newly composed works with a seriousness of purpose more commonly found in classical symphony orchestras.

Though the venture was interrupted, with Mr. Russo disbanding it in 1968 and officially restarting it in 1994, this repertory band foreshadowed the rise of such 1990s ensembles as the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in New York, led by Wynton Marsalis, and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in Washington.

"I figure I've got three, four more years to lead this band, maybe a little more," Mr. Russo told the Tribune in November. "So in that time, we've got to make the ensemble bigger and stronger. We've got to make sure it can fly on its own for a long time to come."

Though the immediate future of his ensemble is uncertain, Mr. Russo's family hopes the band will endure as his legacy.

"Bill believed it could go on swinging forever," his sister said. "It ought to, as a reminder of all the great music he gave us."

Four children, Camile Blinstrub, Condee Russo, Alexander Russo and Whitney Schildgen, survive Mr. Russo.

Services are to be determined.