Eddie Russ Bio
Eddie Russ was an impressive jazz keyboardist-composer-arranger who worked with numerous legends through several decades, including Sonny Stitt, Sarah Vaughn, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Roland Kirk, Hank Mobley, Cal Tjader, and Clark Terry, among many others. Russ came into his own in the 1970s with trend-setting excursions into jazz-funk that mirrored James Brown’s forays into hip-hop and dance.
Since the 70s his commercial fame in England eclipsed that earned in the U.S., but his dedication and contribution to jazz in Michigan is a career highlight he cherished the most. Russ earned awards from the Michigan Council for Arts (1986), “Best Keyboardist” by Arts Midwest (1986), and his trio made a cameo appearance in the motion picture “American Beauty, Ltd.”, winner of the 1990 Berlin Film Festival.
Russ, born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, started piano lessons at age 11 and made his performing debut at 14. His teenage music activities included sitting in at all the jazz clubs with almost any artist who came through town. A popular hangout came to be the Musicians Club, where he credited learning jazz from major name figures.
After graduating from Penn High School in 1952, Russ attended Pittsburgh Musical Institute and spent eight years studying music. At 21, Russ formed his first band J-Nut, featuring Russ’s piano alongside bassist Bobby Boswell and drummer Chuck Spadafore. In 1960 he moved to New York and spent five years recording many sessions with various artists. During this time he also taught at Oscar Peterson’s Advanced School for Contemporary Music in Toronto. His next move to Albion, Michigan, soon found him mingling with Ann Arbor and Detroit musicians and establishing other musical associations throughout Michigan.
His career took a major turn for three years in Traverse City at the Park Place Hotel, playing with bassist Mike Grace and drummer David Koether. There, Russ honed his creative hand and developed a bankable collection of original compositions. After the Park Place gig ended, Russ journeyed back to Albion to form the group Mixed Bag, with Koether, bassist Ron Brooks, saxophonist Larry Nozero, guitarist Jerry Glassell, and drummer Danny Spencer.
Russ’s Mixed Bag playtime fortuitously created opportunities to record five albums with legendary alto saxman Sonny Stitt (then, a Saginaw transplant from Boston), including “Portrait of a Legend” (Jazz Masters), and three solo albums for the Monument label (“Take A Look At Yourself,” “See The Light”). His seminal 1974 album, “Fresh Out” (Soul Jazz Records) with the hit single, “The Lope Song,” took Europe by storm.
In 1974, Russ began a 10-year residency at the Michigan Technological University Summer Youth Program for 2-weeks each summer. MTU Director of Jazz Studies, Don Keranen had heard about Eddie through contact with Mike Grace and hired the Eddie Russ Trio (Russ, Grace, and drummer Danny Spencer) as the foundation of the teaching staff. Also, on staff there was guitarist Mike Irish (current Director of Jazz Studies at MTU), and reknowned Twin Cities trumpeter Bob Kase. Beginning in 1978, Milwaukee drum-legend Steve Zenz, and Pearl Django bassist Rick Leppanen replaced Grace and Spencer on the faculty. Russ, then formed the band Eddie Russ and Friends featuring Kase (trumpet), Keranen (saxes), Russ (keyboards), Irish (guitar), Leppanen (bass), and Zenz (drums).
In 1977 while playing a Grand Rapids club, Russ hooked up with European promoter Martin Bialias, which spawned assorted bookings abroad. That year Russ spent five weeks in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Netting rave reviews helped pave the way for return visits in 1979-80. Starting in 1980, he made three annual trips to Jamaica with Eddie Russ & Friends, serving as professorial mentor and bandleader. By then Russ’s material was acquiring West Coast momentum with regular airplay on Los Angeles area radio stations.
In the mid-80s Russ spent considerable time jamming in Michigan clubs when not teaching at Aquinas College, where he met a prized pupil and bassist named Paul Keller. This fueled a move to Ann Arbor, placing him closer to his many musical jazz comrades. That same year, 1986, also found Russ part of the birth of the now famous Bird of Paradise jazz club. During this period, he became a regular guest artist at Midwest colleges and universities, especially touring with the award-winning University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Mike Irish. Washtenaw Community College music professor Morris Lawrence was yet another jazz educator eager to recruit his expertise.
In 1992 Russ went back to Europe for a tour of Holland and England, again sponsored by Soul Jazz Records. In fact since the early 80s Russ garnered unmatched notoriety abroad compared to less glowing stateside press clippings. Thanks to the British dance-jazz scene, groove-laden recordings like “Fresh Out” and the No. 1 LP “See The Light” (1981) firmly catapulted Russ to international stardom.
In his last four years Russ joined young saxophonist sensation Shawn ‘Thunder’ Wallace for three CD recordings, including “A Whole Lotta Thunder” (MIJAWA Records). He also appeared on “BET Jazz Central” cable specials with Wallace and Detroit jazz singer Naima Shambourguer. Russ’s last solo recordings were live dates at the Blue Lake Fine Arts Academy, “Live at Blue Lake, Vol. 1” and “Live at Blue lake, Vol. 2.”
And in March 1995 Russ joined forces with Keller and the 16-piece Bird of Paradise Orchestra at Washtenaw Community College for a special one-time tribute concert to Eddie Russ, featuring Russ’s revered songbook. Eddie’s last appearance with a university jazz ensemble as a guest artist was at Michigan Tech in November of 1995 for “An Evening With Eddie Russ”.
Eddie Russ died at age 62 in November 1996 after an extended bout with chronic kidney failure. Eddie’s passing left a void on the international and national jazz scenes - and he is sorely missed, as well, in Flint where he was a frequent performer in area venues and at the Flint Jazz Festival. Russ’s last appearance at the Flint festival was in 1995. That this year’s Flint Jazz Festival is dedicated to the memory of Eddie Russ is a tribute to his contributions to the Flint jazz scene and an indication of the high regard he enjoyed in Flint as a performer and a person.
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