Biographical / Historical
William Russo, renowned American jazz composer, arranger, and founder of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, had a music career that spanned five decades and included performance, conducting and composition. During his career he worked with such diverse talents as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Leonard Bernstein, Cannonball Adderly, Yehuidi Menuhin, Dizzy Gillespie, Seiji Ozawa, and Billie Holiday. Although critics acknowledged Russo mainly for his pioneering contributions to the big-band jazz canon, his talents extended to a far wider range of musical styles, creating groundbreaking jazz scores, rock operas, classical works, film scores, and educational textbooks on jazz orchestration and arrangement. In all, he composed over 200 pieces for jazz orchestra with more than 25 recordings of his work. In 1990, Russo received a Lifetime Achievement award from NARAS, the organization that presents the Grammy Awards.
As a young trombonist, Russo studied with Lennie Tristano, the pianist and theorist who became a leader in the progressive jazz movement. During the late 1940s, Russo led the revolutionary Experiment in Jazz band. At age 21, he became one of the chief composers/arrangers for the Stan Kenton Orchestra, one of the most innovative and influential jazz orchestras of the postwar era. In his four years with Kenton, Russo penned such classic Kenton works as "23° North – 82° West," and "Frank Speaking."
Russo made several major jazz recordings under his own name before his classical "Symphony No. 2 in C (TITANS)" received a Koussevitsky award in 1959; it was performed by the New York Philharmonic that same year under Leonard Bernstein, who had commissioned the work. This award marked Russo's "official" entry into the world of classical music. Russo continued to write major symphonic works throughout his career, including his 1992 grand opera, "Dubrovsky."
After his tenure with Kenton, in the early 1950s, Russo led his own successful bands, The Russo Orchestra in New York, and the London Jazz Orchestra, before returning to Chicago to form the Chicago Jazz Ensemble in 1065. With the Ensemble, he presented Duke Ellington's "First Concert of Sacred Music" in 1967. This was one of the rare times when Ellington allowed one of his compositions to be arranged and performed by a jazz orchestra other than his own, and was a reflection of Ellington's respect for Russo. Shortly after this performance, Russo composed a rock cantata, "The Civil War," that led him into the field of rock opera. After concentrating on classical music again in the 1970s, in the late 1980s, Russo began to re-explore the history of jazz through his revived Chicago Jazz Ensemble. In 1995, the Chicago Jazz Ensemble made history with the first-ever complete live performance of Gil Evans' and Miles Davis' "Sketches of Spain" in its original form. Recent Russo works that premiered in Chicago included "Chicago Suite No. 1," and "Chicago Suite No. 2," a recording that was published posthumously in the spring of 2003.