An eccentric man of many talents, William Russell was a catalytic presence in the rise of early jazz. Born in 1905 in Canton, Ohio, the classically trained violinist got hip to the groove in 1928 while teaching in New York. Like most seminal jazz producers, he began as an addictive record-collector scouring stores for rare discs, even going house to house in a black neighborhood of Cleveland seeking old ones from Depression-burdened people willing to sell.
In 1936, Bill Russell and several comrades hauled down to New Iberia, Louisiana to interview Bunk Johnson, an early coronetist and influence on young Louis Armstrong. In 1939, Russell contributed key chapters to “Jazzmen,” the first major book in English on the new art form. He rehabilitated Johnson’s career and in the 40s produced influential recordings of Bunk and clarinetist George Lewis on the American Music Label (works still in issue), which helped spark the New Orleans Revival of the 50s. A longtime fixture at Preservation Hall in the 1960s, he was a founder of Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive, for which he conducted valuable oral history interviews.
Russell’s vast research collection went to The Historic New Orleans Collection after his death in 1992; for all that energy, Russell was an introvert, a life-long bachelor and often self-effacing man. The riddles of his personality animate an impressive new book, “Bill Russell and the New Orleans Jazz Revival” by the English jazz scholars Ray Smith and Mike Pointon (Equinox). Based on marathon interviews with Russell in the mid-1980s, they reached far in questioning others who knew him. Like John Steiner, a Chicago producer, collector and force behind the music there. The two men were roommates in the 1930s, when Russell was spending lots of time with Mahalia Jackson.
Steiner calls Russell “inherently, a hermit… [but] those players were an essential live element of his study and hobby. However, it took both groups: his followers, who grasped and confirmed his gospel and could fulfill the psychological needs of his modest ego; and the musicians who were the performing angels to satisfy his artistic wants.”
The house became a makeshift hotel when “a New Orleans band came to town, some carrying their own pallets,” Steiner continues. “Bill became a mother hen, running for strudel, helping place phone calls to their friends, and sewing on buttons.”
Thirty years later, after Russell settled into a bohemian life in the French Quarter, living in a house without a phone, his messages left at Preservation Hall, he played violin for the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra while pouring himself into research on Jelly Roll Morton, writing articles, gathering more and more material. For some researchers, the quest becomes the story, the hunt for more begets more hunting. Bill Russell and the New Orleans Jazz Revival is a grand journey through the life and mind of a man who seriously mattered.
“He enjoyed talking about the music he loved,” writes coauthor Pointon. “This remarkably kind man gave so willingly of his time, although it was clear he suffered badly from asthma, not helped by the humid New Orleans climate.” Several of the interview tapes were used for a BBC radio series. Now, in full scope, Russell has found the biographers he deserved.