James Russell and Jazz

James (Jim) Russell’s love of music was intense and unending, and it started early in his life.  His love of jazz was reflected in his extensive record collection.

As a young man, at the age of five or six, he played two records over and over, Galli-Curci singing the Mad Scene from Lucia Di Lammermoor and Alma Gluck and Louise Homer singing the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman.  Jim wrote, “My brother threatened to use them for target practice.

Jim first started collecting Jazz during his time at the University of New Mexico (1934 – 1936) when he started his Billie Holiday collection.  His affection for Billie was deep.  He mentions in his self-typed bio that, “she’s my twin” since they were born on the exact same day and year.

From 1936 – 38 when Jim was studying at Yale Drama School he would spend occasional weekends in New York City attending theater and clubs.  In Harlem he heard Art Tatum.

From 1938 – 40 Jim taught drama at the University of New Mexico where he wrote a musical.  The music was written by John Lewis, a student.  Along with Milt Jackson (vibes), Kenny Clarke (drums) and Ray Brown (bass) John (piano) would later form the Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the most famous small jazz groups in history.

World War II intervened in Jim’s pursuit of music, to a point.  When on leaves he continued to feed his thirst for culture with visits to London and New York City.

In the late 1940’s Jim discovered jazz completely.  He voraciously collected the best records made by the great artists of the time.  He “haunted clubs” in New York City – Cafe Bohemia, Birdland, The Half Note, The Five Spot and others.  Among the great jazz artists he heard were Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young and others.  It certainly appears that Jim witnessed the birth of Bebop.

In 1958 Jim decided to pursue his art.  As important as Jazz was to him one might surmise that the music was an inspiration to make this important move.

Jim continued his love of jazz throughout his life.  From the late 1950’s to the mid 1970’s he heard live shows of Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman (at his first appearance in New York City), David Murray, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Oliver Lake, Sam Rivers and others.  He continually updated his record collection with contemporary jazz.  The contents of his collection shows that he developed an affinity for free jazz.

After Jim moved back to Kewanna around 1976 he would take trips to New York City to watch after Robert Reid’s apartment while Reid traveled to France.  This would give Jim the chance to do one thing that he greatly missed from not being in New York City, visit jazz clubs.  He would also go record shopping and bring boxes and boxes of records back to Kewanna.

Jim would listen to jazz while he made art.  He found the nature of the music to be inspiring and did not want to listen to anything that might dictate his movements while creating.

In 1977 Jim designed an album cover for Chico Freeman’s LP, Chico.  It is a post-bop recording that was issued on the independent American label India Navigation.

Records show that Jim made no less than fifteen versions of the album cover.  The final version was a combination of woodcuts of “Chico” in various fonts.  A portrait of Chico in graphite with colorful embellishments, including text, reminiscent of the Malcolm X Icon work.  In the upper right of the cover “Chico” is spelled out in semaphore, possibly a nod to Chico’s father, Von, a hard-bop tenor saxophonist, who was a World War II Navy Veteran.  Again, Russell incorporated code into his work.

The album cover that was released can be seen below along with snapshots of other variations that Jim produced.

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