This article is about the United States music historian and modernist composer. For other uses, see William Russell (disambiguation).
William "Bill" Russell (February 26, 1905, Canton, Missouri - August 9, 1992, New Orleans, Louisiana) was an American music historian and modernist composer.
He was born Russell William Wagner, but when he decided to become a classical music composer, he dropped his last name as it was already "taken" by Richard Wagner.
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He was a leading figure in percussion music composition, influenced by his acquaintances John Cage and Henry Cowell. Russell also influenced Cage in his emphasis of percussion. In the 1930s, predating Cage's main work, Russell's percussion works called for vernacular textures such as Jack Daniels bottles, suitcases, and Haitian drums, as well as prepared pianos, although it is not clear how specifically he wanted the piano to be prepared. One notable performance of his "Fugue for 8 percussion instruments" took place in 1933, with the ubiquitous and influential critic/writer/performer Nicholas Slonimsky conducting. The fugue was performed at Carnegie Hall on a program that included Varèse's iconic percussion composition "Ionisation." These performances took place under the auspices of the Pan-American Association of Composers, an organization that comprised Cowell, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Edgard Varèse, Slonimsky, and other luminaries of American ultramodernism. Russell, on occasion, performed other Pan-Am composers' chamber works on violin. In 1990, Russell's oeuvre was performed integrally, assisted by Cage, in New York, leading to a recording of Russell's extant works by Essential Music.
He was also one of the leading authorities on early New Orleans jazz, making many recordings for his American Music Records label and writing articles and books, including 3 essays in the milestone book, Jazzmen and the voluminous 720-page Jelly Roll Morton scrapbook, Oh, Mister Jelly. Russell founded American Music Records, which helped bring many forgotten New Orleans performers, including Bunk Johnson, to public attention and was an important force in the New Orleans jazz revival of the early 1940s.
He moved to New Orleans in 1956, settling in the French Quarter and opening a small record shop from which he also performed violin repairs.
In 1958, Russell co-founded and became the first curator of The Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University.
Russell collected a large amount of material related to the history of New Orleans, early jazz, ragtime, blues, and gospel music, which he kept in his French Quarter apartment. During his life he was always willing to share access to the material with serious researchers. At his death, August 9, 1992, he left the collection to The Historic New Orleans Collection, where it continues to be a valuable source for researchers. In his obituary, The Times noted: "Russell was the single most influential figure in the revival of New Orleans jazz that began in the 1940s."
Bill Russell also played violin with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra.