Date Posted: 2005-05-26

1905 is a year of significant jazz centennials, but for New Orleans enthusiasts none is more important than that of Russell William Wagner, known to all of us as Bill Russell. Whatever any of us tries to do in the furtherance of New Orleans music, we`re working in Bill`s shadow- he probably did it first and did it better.And there is probably no individual as beloved by older New Orleans players as Russell- he was a living saint to most of them and his acts of kindness and generosity over fifty years provides an unsurpassed record of selflessness.
This article would probably be considered an affront by Russell as well. When I tried to write an article about him for the Mississippi Rag, he told me clearly that he wasn`t worth interviewing as long as there were still original New Orleans musicians to be interviewed and profiled in magazine articles.
Some recent publications have portrayed the man as an eccentric (Jelly`s Blues by Reich & Gaines) or an evil plotter in the dumbing down of New Orleans jazz to meet a Communist agenda (Bunny Matthews` article in a recent issue of Offbeat). He wasn`t like the rest of us, though a lot of us would like to have been more like him, and his political sympathies probably did lay with the Old Left.
He was just a lot smarter than most of us and was willing to do whatever it took to further New Orleans jazz. He had no interest in his personal welfare or any of the creature comforts- most members of cloistered orders live in more sumptuous surroundings than Russell`s digs in the "Hotel Jaffre," an apartment building at 924 Orleans Street owned by Allan Jaffe that housed persons of interest to Preservation Hall.
Russell was born February 26, 1905 in Canton MO. He began violin studies at age ten and obtained a music teaching certificate from the local Culver-Stockton College in 1926, after which he taught school locally and at Yankton College in Yankton SD. He headed for New York City and further education at Columbia University Teachers` College in 1927. He also continued his violin studies under Max Pilzer, concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. He obtained a degree from Columbia in 1929 and started teaching school in the New York area.
While teaching on Staten Island in 1929 he had a revelation. He`d asked his students to bring some of their parents` records from home, hoping to expose them to different types of music while at the same time reinforcing the value of the European masters of classical music. One of the students left a few records overnight- one of them had an odd title- "Shoeshiner`s Drag" by Jelly Roll Morton, and he gave it a listen. He knew something good when he heard it, and he was soon haunting Salvation Army depots, jukebox outlets, and any place else where he could find more of this magnificent music.
There were very few jazz record collectors in the world in 1929, but Russell was able to meet Stephen Smith, a book illustrator with similar musical taste and appetite, and the two joined forces to comb the junkshops even more efficiently.
During the early 1930s Russell developed a reputation as a composer of modern classical music, particularly for percussion. He was associated with John Cage and Henry Cowell and his works, which included such effects as breaking a ginger ale bottle and hitting all the keys of the piano at once with a board, are considered among the earliest modern classical works. Russell rearranged his name when his first compositions were published, reasoning the world already had a composer named Wagner. He never legally changed his name, however; to his dying day the name next to his doorbell was Wagner.
The later thirties saw Russell on the move- he was the accompanist for the Red Gate Shadow Players, a touring company who put on Chinese puppet plays. He accompanied the shows on original Chinese instruments, and when he got off work he`d head for the junkshops and pore through piles of 78s looking for rarities. He built one of the great collections of 78s, including mint copies of many items most collectors only dream about.
As the 1930s wore on the record collecting community grew and became more organized. Russell and Smith organized the Hot Record Exchange in 1936 and several of its participants were tapped to contribute chapters to Jazzmen, the first US-originated book on jazz. Russell contributed three chapters to the pioneering book, edited by Charles Edward Smith and Fred Ramsey, and he later contributed to Smith`s Jazz Record Book, an early discography/ critical review of classic jazz recordings.
During his research for Jazzmen, Russell kept hearing about a musician named
Bunk- Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Clarence Williams all spoke highly of him, and Louis told Russell that he was a great talker as well as a fine musician. He`d also remembered seeing him while on tour in Louisiana, in New Iberia. Russell and his coterie sent a letter to General Delivery in New Iberia to "Bunk, old trumpeter" and they were soon in correspondence. Bunk Johnson was broke, toothless and without a horn but indicated he was ready to return to action given the right dental and musical equipment.
Once he was outfitted with teeth and a horn, his admirers traveled to New Iberia to visit their discovery. He`d been practicing and said he was ready to record. A session took place in a storage room at Grunwald`s Music Store, featuring Johnson and a pickup band assembled for him. The results were magnificent and inspired immediate followups- a second Bunk session was done by Eugene Williams and Russell returned to New Orleans every summer during the mid-1940s to record Johnson and other musicians, establishing his own label, American Music, for the purpose. At the time he was living with his brother in Pittsburgh and working as a shipping clerk on what was later known as the Manhattan Project, the development of the first atomic bomb. Russell said he was always shipping packages of chemicals to subsequently-famous atomic sites like Oak Ridge TN but had no idea what they were being used for; it was just defense work, what many men who hadn`t been drafted did during the war.
American Music was one of the quirkier record labels about. Russell was notoriously uncommercial and relatively indifferent to the necessity of making a profit. The records were hard to come by when they were in print and really scarce after that. One record dealer I knew sent repeated orders for stock and Russell never opened the mail- he finally sent Russell a 78 rpm box with some junk records in it with an order fastened to the top. Sure enough, Russell opened the package and filled the order. English collectors developed an extensive dubbing network, where record stores would make copies of the records which weren`t exported in those days.
Russell did his own recording using heavy portable recording apparatus he carried down from Pittsburgh on the train. His most famous recordings were made in San Jacinto Hall, a wood-and-stucco dance pavilion on Dumaine Street, though he also recorded at the Gypsy Tea Room and in various musicians` homes.
Russell documented all of his recording sessions in a notebook, including observations about the takes and sketches showing the layout of the band and recording equipment etc.
The music Russell recorded was nothing less than magnificent- in addition to dozens of superb Johnson sides, Russell recorded a landmark session with Wooden Joe Nicholas, a George Lewis session featuring the seldom-recorded Kid Shots Madison, and also recorded more obscure players like Big Eye Louis Nelson and Herb Morand. After Russell moved to Chicago Alden Ashforth and Dave Wyckoff recorded two sessions for American Music.
The LP era began in the late 1940s and Russell was quick to hop on the bandwagon, compiling a series of 10" LPs, pressed on red vinyl and housed in envelopes to which he pasted the liner notes and cover art. Russell moved his operations to Chicago in the early 1950`s, operating American Music in conjunction with John Steiner`s Paramount label. Russell lived at 1635 N Ashland, a commercial building housing a testing lab operated by Steiner, a chemist, and some apartments, which were rented to various musicians and often accommodated visiting jazz fans and record collectors.
During his Chicago period, Russell found a co-conspirator in Barbara Reid, a local jazz fan and what would later be called a member of the Beat Generation.
She worked with Russell on documenting some of the music in Chicago and they promoted a series of concerts featuring the Chicago Slow Drag Orchestra, a group designed to accommodate the weakened condition of Baby Dodds, who`d suffered a series of strokes, by only playing in slow tempos.
John Steiner arranged employment for Russell on a research project funded with a government grant and when that ran out he went on unemployment, but with his own twist- he felt that since the government was providing him with free money, he had to work for the public good. He became friendly with New Orleans-born gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and used his time furthering her music. He said he knew every phone pole on the South Side from his forays tacking up posters for her concerts and he worked with her accompanist Mildred Falls teaching new tunes to Jackson, who didn`t read music. Columbia Records would send a tune from New York and Falls and Russell would play it over and over again until she had it down.
Russell and Reid moved to New Orleans about 1956 and became active on the jazz scene there, scandalizing the New Orleans Jazz Club by appearing at concerts in matching snakeskin outfits- Russell in a sportcoat, Reid in a miniskirt.
Bill opened a record shop in New Orleans, first at 600 Chartres St, later on St
Peter St opposite where Preservation Hall is now.
Richard B Allen, a Tulane student from Georgia, became interested in documenting the stories of New Orleans` elder jazzmen and asked if he could interview some of them for his Mastersâ ™ thesis. His professor, William Ransom Hogan, readily agreed, even volunteering to see about some grant money for the project. The Ford Foundation approved grants ultimately totaling $156,000, allowing Russell and Allen to interview older musicians in New Orleans and elsewhere.
Their work, 1500 reels of tape comprising 500 interviews with over 400 jazzmen, became the core of what is now the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane; Russell was its first curator During this period Russel`s record shop was a gathering place for visiting jazz fans and musicians, and Russell knew who was playing where, organizing car pools to take guests to the West Bank to hear Kid Thomas or to various funerals with music in obscure localities. Russell, Reid, Ken Mills and some others started a club to help run the jam sessions which had been occurring at Larry Borenstein`s Associated Artists gallery and put them on a more professional basis. Their Society for the Preservation of New Orleans Jazz lent its name to the operation, which became known as Preservation Hall. There was a falling out between Borenstein, who owned the real estate, and the club, which brought in the musicians, and Borenstein turned the operation over to a young couple from Philadelphia, Allen and Sandra Jaffe. Russell stayed on at the Hall as long as he was well enough, helping to sell records and lending his genial spirit to the proceedings almost every night. For many years he lived in an apartment next door to the Hall, surrounded by the clutter of fifty years of collecting.
There was a zoning problem in the early 70â ™s and he had to move- the move was accomplished in 24 hours on almost no notice, with Russell hauling most of the stuff the five blocks to his new digs on Orleans St via shopping cart.
Russell resumed his musical career beginning in the late 60`s. Swedish expatriates Lars Edegran and Orange Kellin organized a group to play some of the ragtime scores which had been donated to the Tulane Archives by the families of deceased musicians. The ragtime scores included a prominent violin part and Edegran and Kellin invited Russell to practice with them. Russell was one of the foremost authorities on ragtime, having acquired one of the most complete collections of original sheet music from Lottie Joplin, Scott Joplin`s widow, back in the 1940s.
The group`s first album (Pearl 7) was issued anonymously as Russell wasn`t in the Musicians` Union and most of the other players in the band were. The album was one of the first recordings of band ragtime and was well received.
Russell finally turned pro about 1970; he joined the Union when the NORO was hired to play a Salute to Louis Armstrong at the Newport Jazz Festival. Russell started at the top- his first paid gig as a Union member was the Newport Jazz Festival. Russell remained active with the NORO as long as his health permitted.
A visit to Russellâ ™s apartment was the highlight of any visit to New Orleans. I never went there without wishing I could spend at least a year there- it was always dark and you were surrounded by high stacks of shirt boxes. Each box was carefully labeled in magic marker with the name of a musician- there seemed to be hundreds of boxes, some with names of musicians whoâ ™d been gone forty years There were huge boxes of pictures- unpublished photos of almost
everybody- things you can`t believe ever happened. When we were looking for a picture of Wooden Joe Nicholas we came upon a very nice picture of Lee Collins with a band he toured Mississippi with in the 1930s featuring two Japanese musicians."Oh yes" he said, "that was outside Hattiesburg in 1932," or something like that. He seemed to know everything.
Anyone who spent much time with Russell came to know his friends- the parakeet Pretty Baby "He`s smarter than Allan Jaffe," Russell told me) and the mice.
Pretty Baby used to say "I`m Pretty Boy. I live at 600 Charters." As Al Rose used to say, "He`s so dumb. He doesn`t know his name or his address," but this was after Russell had moved to Orleans Street. The mice lived in his Magnecorder and ate out of his hand. Russell said, "As Karl Marx would say, that machine was just made to produce profits, not provide benefit for anyone. I decided the mice would make better use of that machine than I would. They`re waltzing mice, which means they have an inner-ear disorder that keeps them from walking in a straight line, so it always looks like they`re waltzing. They even know I`ll only tolerate three of them, so they don`t breed."
Though he appeared outwardly frail, Russell was capable of tremendous spurts of activity. He once chased someone trying to steal a record from Preservation Hall out onto St Peter St and caught him. One Easter he was in Rome and attended eighteen church services so he could hear all the distinguished pipe organs in the city.
Russell was always full of fun and one never knew when he was serious and when he wasnâ ™t. He spoke on ragtime at the University of Minnesota during the height of the 1970s ragtime revival and amazed his listeners by handing out cookies to the audience."These are Maple Leaf Cremes," he said. "If you don`t like these you don`t like ragtime." Another time he decided to do a Father Al Lewis impersonation and handed out balloons to the audience at beginning of the set. I always suspected he may have inherited some of his humor from Bunk Johnson, but it may be he was always that way.
American Music didn`t survive the sudden shift from ten inch to twelve inch
LPs- there were 10" LPs in the stream at the time of the shift and they were basically stillborn. He later licensed about ten LPs to Denmark`s Storyville label and still later there were about seventeen LPs issued on the Japanese DAN label. He sold his catalog to George Buck at the dawn of the CD era (Russell jumped on the CD bandwagon early- I finally gave in and bought a CD player primarily because I heard Bill liked CDs. Russell remained active in the recording business almost to the end, though, engneering sessions for most of the small
labels- Pearl, Center, Icon, San Jacinto and the like. His benign presence had a calming influence on New Orleans musicians and I`m sure most label owners wanted all the good luck they could get; having Bill on board was good insurance.
As time went on Russell became involved in all sorts of other collecting- he amassed a large stock of violins , which he restored and gave or sold at cost to friends who were studying music. He built up a large autograph collection, and collected all sorts of information about great violinists. He influenced two of his family into musical careers- his niece Jennie Wagner plays in the Chicago Symphony and nephew Russell Wagner is a violin dealer and restorer in Chicago.
During his lifetime, Russell was working on three major books- his Jelly Roll Morton book, his New Orleans Style book, and his Manuel Manetta book. He kept all three going, though he was always being called away for other projects- he once dropped everything for a while to bone up on painting, as he`d been asked to contribute a foreword to a book of Noel Rockmoreâ ™s paintings and wanted to be able to intelligently discuss Rockmore`s techniques. We all cringed to see his precious time taken up with nonsense like that.
The Morton book was completed at the time of his death and was sold to the book publishing arm of Storyville Records. The New Orleans Style book was begun at the time of his death, finished by Barry Martyn and Mike Hazeldine, and published by Jazzology Press. The Manetta book is still in the early stages.
Butch Thompson has spent some time going over Russell`s numerous Manetta interview tapes and he will hopefully be in a position to proceed in the near future.
Russell continued his work throughout the eighties, though his health continued to decline. He was asthmatic and had a severe allergy to dust, one constant companion when living in a jazz archive. He was able to treat most of the problems with prescriptions, though he always said he had no right to feel as good as he did after taking his medication.
The International Association of Jazz Record Collectors held their 1992 convention in New Orleans and took advantage of the locale to recognize some of the pioneers of New Orleans recording. The night he was to receive an award at the convention he was rushed to the hospital and never returned. He died August 12, 1992.
There are so many things that would have never happened without Bill Russell- Bunk Johnson, Jazzmen, Preservation Hall, Mahalia Jackson`s finest recordings, the standard photos we take for granted in jazz texts (He was the only person to photograph Johnny Dodds individually, for example), the Hogan Jazz Archive, all the small label sessions he engineered and the wonderful music of the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra. I have met a lot of people in my life but I can honestly say I`ve never met anyone the equal of Bill Russell, and I`m sure
I never will.

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