Bill Russell and the New Orleans Jazz Revival

By Schwartz, Jeff | Notes, March 2020 | Go to article overview

Bill Russell and the New Orleans Jazz Revival


Schwartz, Jeff, Notes


Bill Russell and the New Orleans Jazz Revival. By Ray Smith and Mike Pointon, with a foreword by George Avakian. (Popular Music History.) Sheffield, South Yorkshire: Equinox, 2018. [xvii, 335 p. ISBN 9781781791691 (hardcover), $70; ISBN 9781781794005 (e-book), $70.] Illustrations, appendices, index.

Born Russell William Wagner in 1905, Bill Russell dropped his last name and reversed his first and middle names when he began his brief career as a composer in the late 1920s, claiming no one would listen to another Wagner. A peer of John Cage and Lou Harrison, he wrote a handful of percussion works that premiered alongside theirs as well as Edgard Varese's Ionisation. As a promising violinist, he also toured for several years with the Red Gate Shadow Players, performing and lecturing on Chinese music. He set aside these projects after 1939, however, in favor of work on New Orleans jazz. Russell was a major collector and dealer of records, sheet music, and other artifacts, produced many recordings, and ran his own label, American Music. His writing appeared in Jazzmen (ed. Frederic Ramsey Jr. and Charles Edward Smith [New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1939]) and The Encyclopedia of Jazz (ed. Leonard Feather [New York: Horizon, 1955]), and he published numerous interviews, reviews, liner notes, and other texts. He was the founding curator of the Tulane Jazz Archives; on his passing in 1992, the Historic New Orleans Collection acquired his own materials. Several book projects have been posthumously completed or assembled: Bill Russell's American Music (by Mike Hazeldine and Bill Russell [New Orleans: Jazzology Press, 1993]), New Orleans Style (by Russell, Barry Martyn, and Hazeldine [New Orleans: Jazzology Press, 1994]), "Oh, Mister Jelly": A Jelly Roll Morton Scrapbook (by Russell [Copenhagen: Jazzmedia, 1999]), and Hazeldine and Martyn's Bunk Johnson: Song of the Wanderer (New Orleans: Jazzology, 2000), which drew heavily on Russell's documentation of his work with Johnson.

Ray Smith and Mike Pointon add to this legacy with a biography of Russell himself, told as much as possible in his own words. The core of the narrative is transcribed from eight hours of interviews with Russell taped in 1990 and supplemented with other recorded interviews, letters, and published texts to assemble a book that reads like a memoir. Interview segments that were condensed are unobtrusively marked with a line running alongside the text on the outer margin. The book is generously illustrated with materials from Russell's archives, including photos, record labels, letters, concert programs, flyers, posters, and so forth.

Occasional gaps in Russell's own account are filled by interviews with his contemporaries or various documents. Russell's eccentricities can be glimpsed through these gaps, and his pronouncements about New Orleans music-such as his disdain for saxophones, brass mutes, and fast tempos- briefly appear as possibly one man's preferences rather than expert knowledge of the music. There are minimal editorial interventions in the text, and the prefatory materials are celebratory, so Russell's account and opinions stand essentially on their own.

Russell was a remarkable character, and this book about him is valuable in several ways. First, it is a significant contribution to the literature on early jazz. As New Jazz Studies and other phenomena have brought more contemporary jazz composer/performers into the academy, there has been a relative lack of attention to styles of jazz that are not part of the current scene, such as pre-swing-era music. With the first recordings of this music now over a century old, a new firsthand account of its practitioners and promoters is precious. Russell provides detailed accounts of his personal and professional relationships with Bunk Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Mahalia Jackson, Baby Dodds, and Louis Armstrong; anecdotes about many lesser-known figures; and insight into the daily lives and nightly performances of working New Orleans musicians. …

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