George Russell, pioneer theoretician of modal jazz, has died. One thing I wondered about when I heard this news was whether Russell was the question of what race Russell was. I had never really seen a picture of him and accounts of his place in jazz history don't usually identify him by race in any explicit way. He was closely associated with musicians like Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Art Farmer... In other words, the black and white musicians on the forefront of avant-garde music in the 1950s and 60s . In the picture above you see him standing behind Coltrane.
Why is it important to assign him to a race? Well, it seems that part of what a jazz fan knows is, for example, that Art Taylor is a black guy, along with Sonny Stitt. That Pat Matheny is a white guy, like Keith Jarrett or Art Pepper or Shelly Manne. In other words, for every jazz musician you've heard of, you have a race assigned to that person, if you've heard of the person at all and even if you don't necessarily have a visual image of exactly what the person looks like.
What is interesting here is that after looking at several pictures of George Russell, I still didn't have a category for him. Looking at the biographical information, I noticed that he was adopted, grew up in the African-American church, attended Wilberforce, a traditionally black college in Ohio, and played with Benny Carter. So if someone wrote about the contribution of white musicians like Mulligan, Getz, and Russell, in the 50s, you would probably correct the person and point out the Russell was no more white than Mingus was.
It would be nice to have a nicely politically-correct color-blind conversation about all this, but the 50s was a time that race was at issue (as it still is now, evidently). Mixed-race or ambiguously raced people blur the boundaries, raising the question of why we need to categorize people along these lines in the first place.
I think of my daughter, for example, as simply herself, not as someone that is half of one category and half of another, like some star-trek character painted black on the left and white on the right.