Anyone who appreciates Chicago's position as a global hotspot of avant-garde jazz owes a thank you to bandleader Hal Russell.
The unrepentantly iconoclastic Chicago musician – who died in 1992 at age 66, just as he was achieving a degree of international recognition – positioned himself at the forefront of the music here since the late 1940s. His work in the Joe Daley Trio, starting in the late 1950s, ranks among the early stirrings of experimental jazz in Chicago. And the acclaim lavished on his last great band, his aptly named NRG (as in "energy") Ensemble, produced tremendously exciting and provocative music, while also helping to launch the careers of Ken Vandermark, Mars Williams and others.
So it's thoroughly appropriate – overdue, even – that Russell's art will be remembered during Thursday night's installment of the Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series in Millennium Park. More than two decades after Russell's death, his collaborators on his landmark album "The Hal Russell Story" will revisit that music. The personnel from the recording – including Williams, Brian Sandstrom, Kent Kessler and Steve Hunt – plus Russell collaborators Ken Vandermark and Fred Lonberg-Holm will take the stage to honor a singular figure in Chicago jazz history.
When Russell led his NRG Ensemble, starting in the late 1970s, it was easy to be bowled over by the sheer sonic power, rhythmic drive and seeming chaos of the music-making. But there was more to this work than just noise, Russell lacing his art with references to the swing-band aesthetic of his youth and the bebop eruptions that followed.
In a way, you could hear the story of Russell's life in so much of his music, if only because he was so deeply immersed in the rapid evolution of jazz for roughly half a century.
For Russell, the great awakening happened while he was a student at the University of Illinois, in the 1940s, and encountered bebop for the first time.
"It hit me like a thunderbolt," he told me in 1991. "I couldn't believe they were playing that way. it was so different from swing that I found it immediately attractive. I mean, to hear what all the drummers were doing – not just keeping time, but dropping all those bombs!"
Russell quickly established the school's first bebop group, which listeners found "harmonically weird and unacceptable, but we didn't care at all," he said.
By 1948, he was playing drums in Chicago and in the '50s was backing some of the most forward-looking musicians in jazz as they came through town. Miles Davis "seemed to have stretched out a lot since he left Bird [Charlie Parker]" in the late 1940s, said Russell. Billie Holiday "was having trouble with her manager-boyfriend, who wasn't giving her much of the dough, (but) she sang her heart out every show." And John Coltrane "was really into tunes at that time, but you could tell he was goin' to be hot. I mean, he would miss a lot of notes, but he was still playing his rear end off – a thrilling sound."
Unfortunately, like many of his peers, Russell succumbed to the vices of what then was the jazz life.
"At that time, very few musicians weren't into drugs," he said. "For one thing, the road musicians did drugs just to keep awake for the next show. Don't forget, we had to do five shows a day, with no days off, traveling by bus. It was physically whipping. Plus everyone thought that doing drugs would make them play like Bird, and you can see how stupid that was. So, for me, a lot of the '50s is a blank."
But Russell did not allow his life to stay that way. When he got married in 1959, he promised his bride "no more drugs" and quit. To support his new family, he worked mainstream spots such as the London House and Mister Kelly's, "which I hated," he said.
He counterbalanced the money jobs by partnering with Daley, who – like Ornette Coleman – was venturing in the late 1950s into sounds conceived outside traditional Western harmony. By the late 1970s, Russell had been seduced by the power of the saxophone and applied it to the eruptions of his NRG Ensemble, which stoked the avant-garde in Chicago.
The band matured through the years, eventually conceiving ingenious, often comic pieces such as "The Surreal 'Sound of Music,'" which spoofed the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein score, and "Fred," a jagged, fiercely dissonant reimainging of songs identified with Fred Astaire. The fervor and comic mayhem of this music were pure Russell.
"Hal was one of the few people playing original improvised music when I got to Chicago in 1989 who ended up having an impact outside of the city," recalls Vandermark, in an email. "He was a true iconoclast who had passion and the discipline to keep playing his music even when audiences weren't always there to pay attention. And, like Hal, his music was completely unique."
It wasn't until the end of Russell's life, really, that the world started to catch up with him. The news that the prestigious German record label ECM would record "The Hal Russell Story" seemed like vindication for a life lived on the margins of American musical culture.
"We're going to the top on this one – this is going to be the big one," he told me in 1991, as the then still-untitled album was soon to be released.
Why didn't he ever give up, after so many years of scant recognition or remuneration?
"None of that stuff ever stopped me, because the important thing to me is to be playing, and it doesn't really matter where I'm playing, or how much I'm getting paid," said Russell.
The recording, which bristles with the energy of the music and the power of his words, affirms that toward the end of his turbulent life, Russell felt he had achieved a personal victory.
"No happy endings outside Hollywood?" he says in his moving final speech on "The Hal Russell Story." "The camera pans to a circus tent in a German field and a crowd of five thousand, so help me. Ovations. Encores. Hats in the air. Worth the wait? Oh yeah!
"Land ho! Land ho! Pinch me, mama. This old ship's a-coming in."
Come Thursday night, we'll hear again the wizardry of Hal Russell's art.
"The Hal Russell Story," featuring the musicians on the original album plus Ken Vandermark and Fred Lonberg-Holm, plays at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, near Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue; admission is free; 312-742-1168 or millenniumpark.org.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.