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Ross Russell: 1909-2000
Ross Russell
Record producer, writer

Born: March 18, 1909 in Los Angeles, California
Died: January 31, 2000 in Palm Springs, California

Founder of Dial Records became Bird's Biographer

Copyright © 2000 

The Scotsman, 2000


Ross Russell made important if often controversial contributions to the development of modern jazz, initially as a record producer and later as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction works dealing with jazz, although his critics argued that his inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish between the two was a major weakness of his historical research. That reservation applied particularly strongly to his best known book, Bird Lives!, a biography of Charlie Parker which remains eminently readable, but in which he allowed his imagination to run away with the facts rather too readily.

Russell was an avid jazz fan before he opened the Tempo Records store in Los Angeles in the mid-1940s. He championed the music of saxophonist Charlie Parker and the emerging bebop style, and when Parker arrived in the city to play a famous engagement with Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg's nightclub in Hollywood late in 1945, Russell took the opportunity to record him for his newly-launched Dial label.

The sides which Russell cut in 1946 included an infamous session in which Parker, whose physical and mental state left him barely able to play, stumbled through four tunes, including a tortured version of Ram Ramirez's 'Lover Man'. Later that night, the saxophonist set fire to his mattress in the lodgings in which he was staying, and was arrested and committed to the state mental hospital at Camarillo.

By his own account, Russell was instrumental in securing Parker's release into his custody, and denied the saxophonist's subsequent allegations that he had used the promise of release as a way of securing an exclusive contract (Parker was not much inclined to pay attention to contractual restrictions in any case). Russell did release the 'Lover Man' session on Dial against the saxophonist's wishes (pressed, he claimed later, by other musicians who wanted to hear as much of Bird as possible), but they made up sufficiently to cut several more key sides for the label in 1947, both in California and in New York.

Russell recorded a number of other important sessions on Dial in the short period in which the label was active, from 1946 until 1949. In addition to Parker, artists featured on Dial included Dizzy Gillespie, Erroll Garner and Dexter Gordon, and the label had a surprise jukebox hit with singer Earl Coleman’s 'Dark Shadows'.

Russell stopped recording after 1949, and disappeared from the jazz scene for much of the 1950s before returning to his first love, writing. He had published a number of detective stories in pulp magazines in the 1930s, and was a junior reporter for a time, in which capacity he travelled with Luis Russell’s band, reporting on the indignities facing black musicians on the road. He served as a radio operator in the US Merchant Navy during the war, and considered a career in script writing on his return to civilian life, but chose to open his record store instead.

He published a novel about jazz, The Sound, in 1961, in which the central character is a Parker-like figure, and followed it a decade later with the first of his two non-fiction studies, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest, in 1971. His biography of Parker, Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie 'Yardbird' Parker, appeared in 1973. He contributed to numerous jazz publications, and taught courses in Afro-American music at the University of California and Palomar College. In 1981 he sold his voluminous collection of records and his archive of taped interviews and memorabilia to the University of Texas at Austin, where it is housed at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Centre.

He retired to the town of Escondido in the California desert, and thereafter lived mainly in mobile homes in a succession of locations, most recently in Palm Springs. He fulfilled occasional lecturing engagements, and was a regular visitor to London, where he ensured that one such trip coincided with the auction of Charlie Parker's saxophone at Christie's in 1994. Although he claimed to have lost interest in jazz and listened only to opera, he had been working on a book on bebop prior to his death.

He was married four times and is survived by twins - a son and daughter.

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