Eddie Russ was an impressive jazz keyboardist-composer-arranger who worked with numerous legends throughout several decades, including Sonny Stitt, Sarah Vaughn, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, Nancy Wilson, 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. In Europe, he was often billed as the “King of Soul Jazz”. <>br>|
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 was the Musicians Club, where he learned jazz by absorbing the music from major name figures.
After graduating from Penn High School in 1952, Russ attended Pittsburgh Musical Institute and spent eight years studying music. 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 with a three year residency at the Park Place Hotel in Traverse City, MI. There, Russ honed his creative writing abilities and developed a bankable collection of original compositions. After the Park Place gig ended, Russ journeyed back to Albion to form the very successful group Mixed Bag which created opportunities to record five albums with legendary alto sax great 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. Russ, then formed the band Eddie Russ and Friends featuring members of the camp’s faculty. In 1977 while playing a Grand Rapids club, Russ hooked up with European promoter Martin Bialias, which led to 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. 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 prompted a move to Ann Arbor, placing him closer to his many musical jazz comrades. That same year, 1986, Russ helped found the now famous Bird of Paradise jazz club. In 1992 Russ went back to Europe for a tour of Holland and England, again sponsored by Soul Jazz Records. Since the early 80s Russ enjoyed unmatched popularity abroad. Thanks to the British dance-jazz scene, groove-laden recordings like “Fresh Out” and the No. 1 LP “See The Light” (1981) brought Russ international recognition. 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.”
Eddie Russ died at age 62 in November 1996 after an extended struggle with chronic kidney failure. Eddie’s passing left a void on the international and national jazz scenes, and he is sorely missed. This collection of his music is a tribute to his legacy.