Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Larry Russell: still playing along in Mexico

I first met Larry Russell at the "Homage for John Ross" I hosted at Mexico City's Teatro de la Ciudad in February 2011. John Ross, the dean of foreign correspondents in Mexico, loved good jazz almost as much as politics. We decided we needed live music to celebrate his life.  Digs collaborator Carol Hopkins had heard Larry Russell play jazz on his saxophone, said he was great, and asked him to play. We were delighted when he volunteered his services to honor John. 

Larry showed up, set up, and with no drama played “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” composed by Charlie Mingus and “Round Midnight” by Thelonius  Monk.   I was extremely impressed.  Who was this US jazz great who just happened to be available in Mexico City and willing to give his time?

Larry Russell was born in Connecticut. At 14, already interested in a career in music, his mother took him to visit the big band leader Henry Jerome.  During intermission back stage Jerome suggested Larry talk to lead saxophonist Alan Greenspan (yes, later chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board).  Greenspan advised him not to put all his eggs in one basket. Though an accomplished saxophonist, Greenspan was apparently already practicing to be an economist.

Larry studied music at the New England Conservatory and at 19 was playing with the Boston Pops.  Though Larry enjoyed classical music he pursued his early passion for jazz, traveling and playing with some of the great jazz groups including Buddy Rich and Louis Prima. “Jazz is the only original US art form,“ Larry told me.  “To play classical music the idea is to play a composition as perfectly as possible resulting in constant imitation.  In jazz you’re encouraged to find your own voice, do improvisation, interpretations, variations.”

“Popular music depresses me.  Rock music is like wading in a kiddy pool. Jazz is like swimming in the ocean. Rock musicians play 3 chords for 3000 people and jazz musicians play 3000 chords for 3 people.” 

Larry’s first trip to Mexico was in the early 60’s at the behest of a Mexico City jazz promoter.  He enjoyed Mexico’s jazz scene but returned to the U.S. where jobs were more plentiful.  In New York he met and fell in love with Mexico City-based photographer Nadine Markova.  An antiwar activist, Vietnam had already soured Larry on paying US taxes. Moving to Mexico was an attractive option. He married Nadine.

In the following years Larry continued to perform jazz but also taught music. For a number of years he headed Mexico City's American School music department.  “I’d still be there but the peso devaluation in the mid-80’s led to the withdrawal of half the students and the closure of the music department.” 

Heeding Greenspan’s advice, Larry and Nadine pooled their considerable talents and began supplementing music and photography with journalism. They were a natural team. Larry wrote and Nadine photographed.  They did many travel and archeological pieces for "Geografia Universal".

While working for the BBC on an archeological piece Larry had an experience I listened to in awe and envy. Larry secured rare permission to enter the cave beneath the Pyramid of the Sun. INAH Director Roberto Gallegos suggested they “bring compasses, I think you’ll be interested.” Larry said that when the team reached the cave the compasses “went haywire – we were in a strong magnetic field.  Also of interest was the freshness of the air.  We were eleven in an enclosed space, carrying heavy equipment.  We suffered no oxygen deprivation -- in fact felt energized.”

Asked about other jazz greats who’d come to Mexico, Larry mentioned good friends who lived (and died) in Cuernavaca – the double bassist Charlie Mingus (1922-79) and pianist, arranger, and composer Gil Evans (1912-88).  Saxophonist Dexter Gordon (1923-90) spent several years living near Larry  -- gigging with him in Mexico City and Cuernavaca.  Dave Brubeck (1920-2012) was also a friend with whom Larry jammed at European festivals.  “Dave and his wife Iola spent a number of quiet vacations at nearby Hacienda Cocoyoc,” Larry said.

“For many years Aeromexico and/or Televisa sponsored participation in European jazz festivals.  As the first traveling Mexican jazz group we were a bit of an oddity but much appreciated.  We have a standing invitation to the great jazz festivals however without sponsorship it’s impossible to attend. It’s unfortunate. We’ve developed great local talent.”

Larry added, “I’m very content in Mexico and have no intention of retiring. Though an octogenarian I pay no attention to my chronological age; music is therapy. In fact, I may be a better musician now than I’ve ever been.”

You can hear the Larry Russell International Jazz Quartet most Wednesdays and Thursdays 7-9 p.m. at Kash in San Angel in Mexico City.  They are also regulars at Paparazzi in Cuernavaca.

John Ross' son was dismissive of having live jazz at his father’s homage, preferring a recording of Charlie “Bird” Parker or Charlie Mingus.  Little did he know that Larry Russell had played with these greats and carried on in Mexico the jazz tradition beloved by his father. 

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