Benny Russell Quartet
Benny Russell, sax
George Gray, drums
Blake Meister, bass
Alan Blackman piano
Tickets: $12/$10 students
When reedman Benny Russell was 15 years old he took his first major step toward what has become a prolific music career--one that embraces a range of styles that span R&B, jazz, gospel and classical music. As Russell tells it, his brother David, who was attending Morgan State University at the time, was instrumental in setting him on this path. "I was still in high school when David asked the director of Morgan State's Jazz Ensemble if I could sit in," he reports. "The director said I was welcome if I could play." Evidently Russell could play. He ended up sitting in with the school's concert and marching bands on clarinet, and continued to perform on several reed instruments with the jazz ensemble until his own graduation from Morgan State. He now recognizes those years as a pivotal time in his musical life. "It was in the University's jazz ensemble," Russell recalls, "where my composing and arranging ambitions really took flight."
Born February 21, 1958 in Baltimore, Maryland, Russell started clarinet lessons at age 7 under the instruction of Mr. James H. Holliman. At 12 he began playing tenor. And by the time he was 15, sitting in with the Morgan State bands, Russell was playing tenor, alto and soprano saxophones as well as clarinet, bass clarinet and flute. 1976 was the year he became a full-time undergraduate student at Morgan State, and during that time he also started gigging for the Manhattans, the Four Tops, and Richard "Groove" Holmes in addition to several other artists who toured the area.
Shortly after his college graduation, Benny moved to New York and quickly formed a jazz orchestra called the NEW YORK ASSOCIATION--a seventeen-piece ensemble that featured such noted jazz artists as trumpeters Cecil Bridgewater and Tom Harrell, saxophonist John Purcell, trombonists Steve Turre and Robin Eubanks, pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs, and drummer Mike Clark. Since then, Russell has been steadily building an impressive list of credits. Besides arranging and performing for off-Broadway shows like Beehive, he's worked with Otis Rush, Harry Belafonte, Mino Cinelu, Craig Harris, Jimmy Owens, Junior Cook, Mor Thium and a host of others. Russell can also be heard on The Cosby Show and A Different World.
In 1995 Russell chaired the jazz division at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he also taught jazz history. While working at the Conservatory, he was able to launch a string of other cultural activities that served Brooklyn, including a program of workshops for high school students in the Brooklyn public school system, the Charlie Parker Birthday Festival, and regular performances with the Next Legacy Orchestra. Next Legacy Orchestra is a big band for which Russell writes and arranges as co-director with saxophonist Jorge Sylvester. He first worked with this group when it was known as the David Murray Big Band. When Murray decided to move to Paris in '96, he asked Russell to take on the role of leader, the name was changed and the group got a home on the Conservatory's stage. After a recent performance there, the Next Legacy Orchestra was described by New York Times critic Ben Ratliff as "one of the best overlooked bands in the city."
In February, 2002, Russell presented his work Langston Hughes: The Soul of His Words to a large audience at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The three-movement piece written for 19 piece Jazz orchestra and three actors was received with a standing ovation and a citation from the Borough President Marty Markowitz of Brooklyn, New York. In February 2004, the piece was extended to five movements and received equally as well at the St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York.In February 2005, Russell was commissioned to write a Jazz score for Zora Neale Hurson’s play Cold Keener and it was received well at Baltimore’s Loyola College.In June 2004, Russell was hired to chair the Jazz department at the Maryland Conservatory of Music. Already he has produced a successful Count Basie 100th Birthday Celebration that featured the legendary Frank Foster and Grammy award winners Antonio Hart and Mark Gross. Presently, he is signed to Arabesque Records. His second release entitled Miracles features James Spaulding, Cecil Bridgewater and many other luminaries.