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Ground-breaking composer and arrangerCopyright © 2003
Bill Russo was one of the most important composers and arrangers in jazz history. He contributed some of the most innovative orchestral scores ever written in a jazz idiom to the Stan Kenton Orchestra in the Fifties, and later founded important jazz orchestras in London and Chicago.
He was born William Joseph Russo, and attended the same Chicago high school as saxophonist Lee Konitz (later a band mate in the Kenton group). Like Konitz, he studied with pianist and jazz pedagogue Lennie Tristano in the mid-Forties, and carried forward his progressive thinking into his own work.
He played trombone in dance and jazz bands, and began writing and arranging while still in his early teens. He formed his own rehearsal band while a student, under the appropriate name of Experiment in Jazz (1947-50).
His work came to the attention of Stan Kenton, who engaged him as a trombonist, composer and arranger in 1950. He remained with the band until 1954, and wrote many famous pieces for Kentons "progressive" 40-piece orchestra. Many of them incorporated elements and structural complexities from classical music within a jazz context.
His contributions to Kentons library include some of the most striking charts of their time, including "Hall of Brass" (1950) and several cuts from the ground-breaking album New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm (1952), notably "Portrait of A Count"; the Afro-Cuban influenced "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West"; "Frank Speaking", a concerto-like piece written to feature trombonist Frank Rosolino; and "Improvisation".
Russo continue to study composition privately, and led his own quintet on a tour of Europe in 1955. He moved to New York in 1958 after the award of a grant from the Koussevitzky Foundation. He taught at the influential Lenox School of Music in Massachusetts (1957-60) and the Manhattan School of Music (1959-61), and led the Russo Orchestra, where he conducted further experiments with combining jazz and classical music in the so-called "Third Stream" style of the period.
He lived in London from 1962-5, where he worked for the BBC and formed the London Jazz Orchestra. He returned to Chicago in 1965, and was the director of the Center for New Music at Columbia College for the next decade.
He worked in the film industry in California as a composer in the late Seventies, then returned to Columbia College, where he worked until the early Nineties. As an extension of his work at Columbia College, he founded and led the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, a group dedicated to preserving and extending the jazz legacy, as well as playing many of Russos own compositions. He appeared with the band in Chicago less than a week before his death.
He wrote three highly-regarded books on the art of jazz composition and arranging, and also wrote classical music, including operas, symphonies and cantatas, as well as a rock opera.
The cause of his death was pneumonia contracted in the wake of a recurrence of the cancer which he had been treated for in recent years. He is survived by his sister and four children.