A Portrait of William Russell
by Michael Slatter


Jazz Journal

A Portrait of William Russell

by Michael Slatter

In 1905 the first great chapter in the jazz drama was drawing to its close in New Orleans with the approaching mental breakdown of Buddy Bolden. Sadly, this chapter was poorly documented, yet on February 26th of that same year, in Canton, Missouri, a man was born who, in later years, was to do more for the music of New Orleans than any other single individual. Once described, by photographer-lecturer Sam Rosenberg, as the “Orwell of the music world”, this man has proved an enigma to the jazz student and a nightmare to his often belligerent critics. His name? William Russell. No doubt it is his innate modesty and sensitivity that have kept him out of the public eye, for only a year ago a photo of him, appearing in an English paper, bore the notation “only known photo of Bill Russell”. That legend and myth should have grown up around this elusive and controversial figure was inevitable, since he has failed to match the popular conception of a jazz critic, being neither vociferous nor spiteful. Yet he is far more than just a critic, as we shall see.

As a small boy he had the usual urge to play drums. In this he was discouraged, being persuaded by his mother to take violin lessons from an aunt. Unlike most small boys, for he was only ten years old at the time, he enjoyed his music lessons and at the age of thirteen was ready to attend the Music Conservatory at Quincy, Illinois. At eighteen Bill graduated and, on obtaining his diploma, entered Culver Stockton College where, unfortunately, he found the music department somewhat limited. He majored in physical science and spent two years teaching music and science before moving to New York in 1929, where he remained on and off for ten years. Besides teaching at Staten Island Academy, Bill attended Columbia University to further his musical education.

During this period of his life he never missed an opportunity to attend operas and symphonic concerts, though already his musical tastes were becoming catholic. He believes that he first heard jazz at the age of thirteen on the riverboats and show boats that plied the Mississippi between Hannibal, Missouri and Keokuk, Iowa, recalling with particular affection the playful sound of calliope. However, he did not acquire his first record (Morton’s “Shoeshiners Drag”) until he reached New York, admitting that it was the title that fascinated him most. At this time he knew nothing of the musicians, even as to whether they were coloured or white, yet his curiosity was insatiable. The great depression reached its height shortly after Bill arrived in New York and he remembers combing the stores on 14th Street and being able to buy up records of Ma Rainey, Morton, Oliver, etc., for between three and ten cents each.

Besides being an accomplished performer on violin, Bill had already made his mark as a composer. While still in high school in Missouri he had entered a competition sponsored by the Chicago Daily News. His composition, entitled “Symphonic Caprice”, was awarded fourth prize by the judge, Frederick Stock, the conductor of the symphony orchestra. Encouraged by his success, Bill continued composing in what he himself describes as an “ultra experimental vein”. He soon turned his attention to the one aspect of classical music that he considers to have been neglected, namely percussion. This new interest, coupled with his reading Seabrook’s “Magic Island”, led in 1932 to his visiting Haiti. He spent in all about six weeks on the island and came away with strong rhythmic impressions. In 1933-4 he published some highly complex pieces for percussion including a “Fugue for Eight Percussion Instruments”. This was followed by “Three Dance Movements for Four Percussion Instruments” which was performed and recorded by the New Music Society of San Francisco.

In addition to his many other interests Bill had mastered the oriental scale and learned to play Chinese music on the Yang Chin (dulcimer), the Yu Chin (Moon guitar) and the Hu Chin (a two-stringed violin). From 1934 to 1939 he toured the United States as accompanist to the Red Gate Shadow Players, who performed Chinese shadow plays. In a sense this was just a front, for the travelling afforded Bill the best possible opportunity for collecting rare and early jazz recordings. In 1936, together with Steve Smith, he started the Hot Record Exchange which further assisted him to amass the finest collection of jazz records in the world.

At the start of every Red Gate tour Russell would leave New York with a suitcase full of clothes and at each successive stopover would abandon a part of his wardrobe to make room for more and still more records. Finally, he would find his way back to New York with a case full of records and with whatever clothing he had left full of holes. It was on one such tour in 1937 that Bill first visited New Orleans.

Since his arrival in New York in 1929 his love for New Orleans jazz had grown steadily and on visits to Chicago he had been able to meet the Dodds brothers, Jimmie Noone, and many of the other musicians, who had fled northward following the closing of the “District”. In 1938 Bill was still composing for percussion and it was on one of his visits to Chicago that something occurred which so profoundly affected his outlook that he discontinued composing. One evening he went to hear Baby Dodds, who was playing with a trio at the Three Deuces. As luck would have it, the other players failed to turn up, yet Dodds, completely unperturbed, provided all the music that the customers requested, using only his drum kit. In that moment Bill realised that he had been on the wrong track, since here was a lone drummer, with one set of drums, and yet he was able, single handed, to produce more than an entire orchestral percussion battery.

This incident, probably more than any other, was responsible for Bill’s ever deepening probes into the history and origin of jazz, which led triumphantly last year to a Ford Foundation Grant. Besides Chicago, Bill also went to Washington in 1938 to talk with Jelly Roll Morton, who was at the time planning a comeback, which he hoped would put him among the highly paid recording stars of the dawning juke box era. It was only with difficulty that Jelly could be persuaded to play the tunes that had made him famous, such as “The Pearls” and “Wolverine Blues”. He seemed more anxious to play “Sweet Substitute” and “My Home Is In a Southern Town” with which he felt he would be able to regain his place at the head of the popularity polls.

1938 was indeed an eventful year in the life of Bill Russell, for it also saw him working on his important contribution to “Jazzmen”. It was while engaged in this that he was told by Bechet, Zutty, Richard M. Jones and others of the existence of Bunk Johnson. The following year he learned from Louis Armstrong that Bunk was living in New Iberia. He lost no time in writing to Bunk and the reply to that first letter has since been given to the world in the introduction to “Jazzmen”.

In 1939 Bill moved to California to study harmony, counterpoint and composition under Arnold Schonberg, but at the same time keeping up his correspondence with Bunk. In 1942 came the first Bunk recordings by Dave Stuart, followed by the famous “Bunk Talking” record on American Music, Bill’s own label. Bill by this time was living in Pittsburg (Pittsburgh) where he remained until 1947. During this period came most of the American Music series and it should be noted by those who own recordings made in 1944 that they were not recorded at true speeds. To correct this it is necessary to play the LP’s at 35 r.p.m. and the 78 r.p.m. at about 81 r.p.m.

Bill’s association with Gene Williams, which started with their meeting at the Commodore Record Store on 52nd Street, New York, in 1940, led to Bunk Johnson’s appearance at the Stuyvesant Casino in that city. Though this particular venture was financially disastrous for Williams, the association of these two dedicated men gave the world some of its greatest recorded New Orleans jazz.

From 1950 to 1956 Bill lived in Chicago where he made the last of the A.M. series, the three Baby Dodds’ records. Since 1956 Bill has been living in New Orleans at 600 Chartres Street, which has become a veritable landmark for seriously jazz conscious visitors from all corners of the world. Now an active 54, Bill Russell feels that his greatest tasks still lie ahead — and what a challenge they present! He has in his possession enough written material to write several books on Bunk; enough recorded material on “Fess” Manetta to dwarf the Library of Congress Jelly Roll Morton recordings. No one has the material on Bolden that Russell has unearthed, including notes on an interview with Bolden’s wife and many eye witness reports on his life and times. But before he can turn his attention to sorting through the material he has so painstakingly collected, Bill has to spend every moment recording interviews with the early pioneers who are still alive. In the summer of 1958 he made a trip to California to interview a number of New Orleans old timers who have settled there, such as Johnny St. Cyr and Kid Ory. This particular task must be given top priority, for time is short. By 1963, when the Ford Foundation Tulane Grant expires, this work should be completed. Then and only then will it be possible for Bill to turn his attention to his personal archives, and once again reveal to the world the product of his selfless dedication. Many of the fallacies now in vogue in the dilettante jazz world will certainly collapse in ruins, and to this day we must look forward hopefully if impatiently.

William Russell’s exemplary professional conduct and inner fortitude should be an inspiration and example to those who follow him. A hard man to do business with, Bill will always remove with loving care the bumps on a Bunk LP with the aid of magnifying glass and sharp knife before parting with it to a customer. This collector’s item he markets for the astonishingly low price of 25 cents which, he maintains, comprises the cost, not of the record itself, but of his own skill at making a poorly manufactured record playable. There are, besides the sale of records, two other main activities carried on in the front room at 600 Chartres Street. By way of a hobby Bill has developed over the past year or so a remarkable talent for repairing old and damaged musical instruments, violins in particular. Many of those that he works on belong to jazz musicians of the city, who have started to bring out the instruments they have kept in the attic, some of them, violins for instance, that went out of fashion 40 years ago. Besides these repairs, an opportunity for acquiring good violins is never missed and most of these, once fondled, can not be parted with, so that one could easily be forgiven for mistaking 600 Chartres Street for the home of one of the Cremonese Masters.

In conjunction with his research, Bill has acquired an outstanding collection of books on New Orleans and Louisiana, their history and folklore, under which heading are included many works on Voodoo. His collection of postcards, valued at hundreds of dollars, shows many of the old landmarks, long since demolished, such as old Basin Street and several of the famous dance halls. The visitor can while away many a pleasant and profitable hour and then only scratch the surface of this remarkable treasure trove. So engrossed can one become that even the Confucius-like sayings of “Babyboy”, Bill’s budgerigar and philosophical metronome are inclined to be ignored, institutional as they have become.

As is often the case in other fields, it is necessary to search beneath the glamorous facade of jazz to find the key men that nourish and sustain its vitality and its heritage. Such a man is William Russell. The full scope of his achievements is yet to be measured, but when it is, you may be certain that his name will stand high in the Jazz Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, to those of you who have written to Bill in vain and whom he seems to have ignored, it must be pointed out that a state of war has existed for some years between Russell and the U.S. Postal Department. Neither side seems prepared to compromise and each tithe a settlement appears likely, up go the postal rates. We are informed, however, that this summer Bill will be taking his first vacation in a long while and, seeking the restful solitude of Cape Canaveral, hopes to come up with a final solution.

The above article was published in the Jazz Journal magazine, dated September 1959, Vol. 12, No. 9, pages 28—29.

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