Most of the column inches will go to the passing of Merce Cunningham, and deservedly so, as Cunningham was one of the greatest and most important American artists of the 20th century. But spare a few thoughts for two more gentlemen who have also died, Michael Steinberg and George Russell. Steinberg was a musicologist whose work I first came to know while attending San Francisco Symphony concerts. His program notes in the concert booklet were the finest I have ever read, consistently informative, expansive, dense with information yet absolutely clear. He managed the admirable feat of educating his readers in the means and meaning of each work on the concert program, and his writing enhanced the experience for all, regardless of the level of their musical knowledge or experience. It’s was a gift, one that assuredly kept patrons buying tickets and coming back for more events, and one that every orchestra should strive to cultivate. In all my symphony attendance, including the New York Philharmonic and Carnegie Hall, I’ve found no other program notes that even approach the level of ambition and success of Steinberg’s. His passing is a loss to innumerable concert-goers who will never know of him.
And George Russell was arguably the most important band leader in the history of jazz. He’s widely, and easily, labelled a theorist, and he did invent the influential Lydian Chromatic Concept, but he was primarily a composer and band leader, and a genius. Russell’s music has much more harmonic sophistication than most jazz, but it wears it lightly. As a composer, his music also developed rhythmic and structural sophistication above and beyond the norm of small ensemble jazz, and did so in pithy and punchy form. His music is bluesy, funky and swings like mad, and appeals to the ear, the head and the feet with equal effect. Tune into WKCR today to sample and hold.