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William Russo Dies

After battling cancer for the past two years, trombonist, composer and arranger William Russo died of pneumonia on Sat., Jan. 11 at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago. He was 74.

Russo started on trombone at age seven because his Uncle Frank played, but music ran throughout his family: his father, William, played clarinet, and his other uncle, Danny, led an orchestra that his two brothers played in.

In the late 1940s, Russo studied with pianist Lennie Tristano, which inspired him to form the Experiments in Jazz Orchestra in 1947. In 1950 Russo joined another forward-looking big band, Stan Kenton’s, which included his high school classmate Lee Konitz as well as Zoot Sims and Art Pepper. It was in Kenton’s band that Russo made his mark on jazz history by writing large, complex, polytonal pieces, such as “Improvisation” from the landmark 1952 album New Concepts of Artistry in Rhythm.

In 1954 Russo left Kenton, and he led various orchestras in London, Massachusetts and New York City. In 1965, Russo returned to his hometown to run Columbia College Chicago’s contemporary music program, which he retired from in 2002, and its Chicago Jazz Ensemble, which performed as recently as Jan. 6. The Ensemble concentrated on exploring jazz repertory works long before that movement became common in the 1980s and ’90s, playing the music of Kenton, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Gil Evans and others.

During the later 1960s and through the 1970s Russo also concentrated on more classical-oriented works, theater productions, movie scoring and even a rock cantata, The Civil War, which made connections between the Civil Rights era and the 1860s, using Abraham Lincoln’s poems as inspiration.

Russo is survived by his son, Alexander; daughters Camille Blinstrub, Condee Russo and Whitney Schildgen; sister Barbara Russo Evans, and two grandchildren.

Originally Published