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Columbia College Honors Legacy of Bill Russo

December 10, 2013

“I’ve found you’ve got to look back at the old things and see them in a new light.” – John Coltrane

It’s been 10 years since William (Bill) Russo, one of the greatest jazz composers and arrangers in American history, passed away (2003), but his legacy and influence live on throughout Columbia College and especially the Music Department, which he founded in 1965. On Dec. 6-7, the college celebrated his contribution to music and education in a rare, all-star benefit concert along with film screenings and panel discussions on Russo’s life and work at Celebrating William Russo: Artist and Educator.

“Bill Russo’s contribution to jazz has not only spanned the greater part of the 20th century, but his legacy is rooted in Chicago and at Columbia College,” said Richard Dunscomb, chair of the Music Department. “He was a radical change agent in music in his time, and many of his concepts are present in the way we teach and practice music at the college now.”

A true son of Chicago, Bill Russo was born in the city and raised on the north side. Throughout his life, he created ground-breaking works in jazz, immersed himself in numerous forms of artistic expression, and he passed away only five days after conducting his last concert at Chicago’s famed Jazz Showcase nightclub. 

There are many, but below are some of the highlights of the celebration: 

  • Bill Russo = Jazz = Chicago = Columbia College = the World. Russo’s passion as a composer, musician, and educator is in the life blood of Chicago and Columbia College. His work connected the college with the community, and through his music, the world. He was also unorthodox in his approach to music and education, breaking down barriers with Third Stream Jazz, and was a renowned collaborator, extending his musical influence into theatre, dance, rock, opera and film. As former Columbia College president Mike Alexandroff wrote of Bill in A Different Drummer: The History of Columbia College:  “Russo came closest to the college’s idea of a marriage with the community…Russo’s introduction of new forms of musical theater and the immense popularity of its performances among young people validated whatever unorthodoxies he employed.
  • All-star benefit concert with Lee Konitz, Corky Siegel and Orbert Davis at the Jazz Showcase. Returning to the Jazz Showcase, where Russo conducted his last concert, long-time Russo collaborators, Konitz, Siegel and Davis played with the Columbia College Jazz Ensemble, conducted by Scott Hall, to support the William Russo Endowed Scholarship Fund for music students at Columbia College. Master jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz is considered one of the main figures in the cool jazz movement. Jazz trumpeter Orbert Davis is one of Chicago’s most sought after musicians, and founder of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. Blues harmonica virtuoso Corky Siegel is best known as the co-leader of the Siegel-Schwall Band and leader of the Chamber Blues group.
  • The award-winning Columbia College Jazz Ensemble released their first CD, featuring members from the 2012-13 ensemble. Some of the highlights include Cedar Walton’s “Bolivia,” Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin” and Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz.” Catch the playlist on Spotify. The Jazz Ensemble was co-founded by Bill Russo and current director Scott Hall in 1999.
  • Russo's musical influence in film, animation. A special screening of Everybody Rides the Carousel, an animated documentary by Oscar-winning filmmakers John and Faith Hubley, featured a score by Russo and played by jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter and Larry Adler. The screening was followed by a conversation with the Hubleys’ daughter, noted filmmaker Emily Hubley, and Cinema Art + Science professor Ron Fleischer.
  • Russo’s musical influence in theatre, education and the community. A free panel discussion reflected on Russo’s career as a composer, a founding father of Chicago’s Off-Loop theatre movement, and founder of the Columbia College Music Department. Speakers included musicians Orbert Davis and Corky Siegel, noted Chicago and Broadway actress Kate Buddeke, author and educator Louis Silverstein and journalists Don Rose and Ron Dorfman.
For additional information please visit http://www.colum.edu/Russo.

More on Russo:

Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune’s Jazz Critic: “Remembering William Russo: A major celebration in store.”
Don Rose’s tribute: "Bill Russo – A Memoir." 
For Russo’s oral history, visit the Columbia College Archives.