Michael McClimon

Reconceptualizing the Lydian Chromatic Concept: George Russell as Historical Theorist

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Music Theory, St. Louis, Missouri, October 31, 2015


It is difficult to overstate the influence of George Russell’s Lydian Chromatic Concept on jazz pedagogy; he has been called the first jazz theorist, and the book has been praised as “the foremost theoretical contribution” of its time. And yet, the Concept has been largely ignored in recent music-theoretical scholarship on jazz. This paper considers why, by examining Russell and the Concept from a historical perspective.

Russell’s work in the Concept can be divided into two components: chord-scale equivalence and Lydian generation. The former has taken a strong hold in teaching improvisation; the idea that a scale can stand in for a chord symbol was groundbreaking, and seems so obvious in retrospect that many authors today do not even credit Russell with the idea. This equivalence grows out of the more fundamental theory (indeed, the Concept itself) that the Lydian mode is the principal organizing force of all tonal music. This idea is more controversial and has not taken hold in the same way. But of course, theorists are used to adopting worthwhile theoretical ideas from authors without assuming their entire worldview.

By reconsidering Russell historically, we can begin to understand why parts of his idiosyncratic theory have flourished while others seem to have fallen by the wayside. The paper begins by briefly outlining Russell’s contributions, tracing their adoption, and then considers what we might gain by reincorporating some of his original intention of the Concept into modern scholarship.