Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn’t: Light a candle for Funeral Friday.
One of the few people to truly make tuberculosis work for them, George Russell managed to avoid World War II after contracting the disease, instead spending many months in the hospital, where he learned music theory from a fellow patient. Of course, Russell was already well versed in music, thanks to the years he spent playing drums in Wilberforce University’s famed Collegians—a breeding ground for jazz greats like Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, and Ernie Wilkins. Once he was discharged, he took up playing again with Carter’s band, only to give it up after hearing his replacement, Max Roach. (Wouldn’t you?) It was coming across Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” for the first time that gave him the urge to move to New York, where he soon became part of the influential clique that hung around Gil Evans’ apartment, a who’s who of jazz that included Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, and Charlie Parker among others. Unfortunately, Russell missed out on the chance to play in Parker’s band after he came down with tuberculosis a second time—but once again, he turned it to his advantage, using the downtime to compose his highly influential The Lydian Chromatic Concept Of Tonal Organization, hailed as the first contribution by a jazz musician to music theory. Based on a series of scales rather than chords and harmonies, Russell put his concept to use while composing “Cubano Be, Cubnao Bop” for Dizzy Gillespie, and it later formed the basis of the sort of modal jazz employed by John Coltrane and Davis’ Kind Of Blue, thus laying a blueprint for scores of musicians to follow. Russell recorded more than 20 albums with various lineups (plus a very memorable version of “You Are My Sunshine” with Sheila Jordan); his last was 1996’s It’s About Time. He died this week at the age of 86 of complications from Alzheimer’s.
Few choreographers can claim to have had the impact of Merce Cunningham—and in his case, much of that can be attributed to startling longevity: Until the age of 70, he participated in every single appearance by the New York’s Merce Cunningham Dance Company, danced a duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov at the age of 80 at the Lincoln Center, and celebrated his 90th birthday this year with a 90-minute performance at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music. But it was also due to Cunningham’s avant-garde approach, which—along with Jerome Robbins and Paul Taylor—embraced a new school of movement that was based on a dramatically intense purity of expression, one that helped make dance a major art form unto itself in the 20th century. His most famous work was with partner John Cage, who often composed music for their shows independently of Cunningham to heighten the ambiguity, a favored element of Cunningham’s dance theory. What was not so ambiguous was Cage and Cunningham’s feelings for each other, as shortly after meeting their romantic relationship led to the dissolution of Cage’s marriage, and he and Cunningham remained companions until Cage’s death in 1992. Cunningham joined him this week at the age of 90; the New York Times has a fascinating and stunningly comprehensive obituary here.
In a cautionary tale that anyone agreeing to, say, translate the Crayola scribbling of Kendra Wilkinson should probably read, Sandford Dody spent his life as a ghostwriter to the stars and received nothing in return but a world of disillusionment and bitterness. His work on the bestselling memoirs for actors like Bette Davis and Helen Hayes was almost uniformly diminished by a consolatory “second billing,” and occasionally went all but unacknowledged, as when Davis thanked Dody for helping him with “research” on her The Lonely Life. Dody understandably developed a palpable dislike for his subjects, writing in his own memoir that he found the work spiritually enervating, and expressing dismay that the artists he’d once admired always revealed themselves so quickly to be vain and petty. By the time he wrote his own memoir in 1980, he had soured on the idea completely, writing, “Let the next star write her own damned autobiography.” He lived out the rest of his life quietly, sustained by royalties and a small inheritance, until his death (reported this week) on July 4 at the age of 90.
Though she didn’t achieve fame in quite the way she expected, American Idol contestant Alexis Cohen nevertheless became an indelible part of the show’s history, thanks to two memorable appearances during its seventh and eighth seasons. Wearing star-shaped earrings and caked with glitter, Cohen proudly proclaimed that she “marched to the beat of a different drummer” and that she would knock the judges off their feet, fully expecting to advance to the next round and move out of the small studio apartment she shared with her mother. Unfortunately, the judges roundly rejected her, with Simon Cowell being particularly rude (even calling her “The Green Goblin”); she retaliated with a profanity-laden tirade that made her instantly famous on the Internet, and which even earned her a short, whirlwind tour of the morning talk shows. When she returned during this last season, she was noticeably more demure—but still, once the judges shot down her dreams again, the old Alexis came out, middle fingers flying. Earlier this week, Cohen was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver, who has since been charged with manslaughter. Cohen was 25.
Have a super weekend!