Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Russell, Benny

Russell, Benny, saxophones, clarinets, flute; b. Baltimore, MD, 21 February 1958. His father is Lawrence Russell, born in North Carolina on November 19, 1927. His mother was Sarah Jackson Russell born in Baltimore, MD on June 21, 1934 and died November 1, 1993, a church pianist and schoolteacher. His brothers are Milton (born June 6, 1955 in Baltimore, MD), a drummer, and David (born June 14, 1956 in Baltimore, MD), a trumpeter. His sister is Sylvia (born September 3, 1953 in Baltimore, MD), a pianist and guitarist. His wife, Cynthia Allen (born March 10, 1955 in Pittsburgh, PA), is a model. His children are Omari Alexander (born June 29, 1991 in Brooklyn, NY), a saxophonist, and Nailah Iyabo (born May 27, 1996 in Brooklyn, NY).

When reedman Benny Russell was 15 years old he took his first major step toward what has become a prolific music career--one which 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 rea lly took flight."  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 which 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. 

Currently, Russell chairs the jazz division at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, where he also teaches jazz history. While working at the Conservatory, he has been able to launch a string of other cultural activities that serve 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. Russell's debut commercial recording is on the independent  label: Airmen Records. Prior to this release, however, Russell worked with the producer, Edwin Davis, Jr., on several R&B tracks which evolved into the current "HipJaz" selections on the independent label, Urb N' Flo Records.

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