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An Unlimited Frontier

By Albert “Bill” Williams (BA ’73), senior lecturer, Theatre
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Russo, Williams, and Jonathan Abarbanel take a break from writing, 1974.

William Russo taught me the importance of never fitting in

From the 1960s on, William Russo was a household name in the Chicago music and arts scene. He founded Columbia College Chicago’s Music Department in 1965, where he served as department head and became the college’s first full-time faculty member. He also founded the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. Albert “Bill” Williams (BA ’73) reflects on his time spent with his mentor and friend, who died in 2003.

William Russo is the reason I wound up at Columbia College. Back in 1970 when I was 19, I was working with Russo at the Chicago Free Theatre, and I completely fell in love with the work we were doing: avant-garde multimedia rock operas. I enrolled at the college that year to study with him. I studied as an apprentice composer while also partaking in musical theatre and theory classes. Later, over the years, I wrote lyrics for several of his operas.

Russo’s basic mission was to reach out to the individual in each artist rather than change someone to fit the pattern of what was fashionable or popular. This mission is very much he essence of what Columbia College is, and what I’ve come to practice and teach throughout my career. Russo was a fabulous teacher who truly cared about the relationship he formed with his students. He was a middle-aged icon who was on the same wavelength as 21-year-old kids. He was a full force of support to the idea that art is all inclusive and connected to everything in culture and society. He didn’t believe in conforming, but rather quite the opposite: Russo taught me that it’s OK not to “fit in,” to compartmentalize into this idea of “success.”

My career as a teacher, writer, and theatre critic is a direct reflection of Russo’s belief in what art should be. I’ve performed in experimental theatre, taught singing to nonsingers, and written critiques in the Chicago Reader that defy the conventional format and voice. This led me to become the only Chicago-based theatre critic to receive the George Jean Nathan award, the highest honor for dramatic criticism.

Russo taught me a good teacher is one who learns from his or her students. He taught me to not fear failure for the sake of trying, and to appreciate everything in the artistic spectrum—believing that art is an unlimited frontier. –As told to Sean McEntree (’14)

On December 7, Columbia will present Celebrating William Russo: Artist and Educator, a tribute including panel discussions and a benefit concert.