March 2, 2004

Jazz Musician Gets Ithaca Swingin'

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Cornell and the surrounding Ithaca community is filled with a wide range of musical talent, ranging from newly-established student-based bands to old-time favorites who have been performing on campus for countless years. The East Hill Classic Jazz Group led by Johnny Russo has been performing for students in Collegetown as well as on campus for well over two decades.

Russo was drawn to the musical scene at an early age. When he was eight years old he decided that he wanted to be a trumpet player for his elementary school band in Geneva, N.Y. His conductor agreed to let him join but insisted that he start off on the trombone, as there was a lack of trombonists at that particular time. He continued to stay with the music department throughout high school and decided that he would take his love of music and pursue a career in the field. He was granted a scholarship and was accepted into the Eastman School of Music, a division of the University of Rochester, where he graduated in 1966 with a B.A. in music. Russo went on to spend a short time with the military, followed by period of exploration in New York City.

“My time spent in [the city] helped me to find myself and realize what I really wanted,” Russo said. “New York City was not for me. I traveled all over the United States and half of the world and I decided that the Ithaca area was where I was meant to be.”

Russo came back from his travels and settled down in Ithaca in 1977.

From that time on, Russo started to gain recognition and popularity among Cornell students.

“My big break came in 1984 when the owner of Ruloff’s offered me a job playing the piano for diners. This opened up all of the doors for me and my fellow band members.” Russo said.

It was in this strategically-located spot that numerous fraternity brothers heard Russo’s music and became interested in hiring him for various fraternity events.

“We have played at almost all of the frats on the Cornell campus for events such as the Alpha Delta Phi Victory Club, Psi Upsilon, and Alpha Sigma Phi’s Great Gatsby Party,” Russo said.

Russo and his band members have played for the Cornell Alumni Reunion for many years and were “hired by the class of ’44, ’46, ’54, ’59, ’64 and the Johnson School of Business for their reunions.”

Russo’s sextet includes Doug Robinson on guitar, Drew Frech on banjos, Brian Earle on clarinet, Bernie Upson on bass and Steve Brown on percussion. Russo plays the horns.

The sextet traveled to New York City in April to perform at Carnegie Hall and is planning on returning there in 2005.

Russo said, “There is nothing that I don’t enjoy about music, but this is the highest form of it: when you can sit back and let the musicians go at it, totally natural and not enhanced. We go in and give it our all.”

On Thursday night, Russo’s sextet will be performing a concert sponsored by the Tompkins County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at the Ithaca Unitarian Church at 8 p.m.

Archived article by Shannon Delaney