photo of William Russell tuning a violinWilliam Russell, born Russell William Wagner (1905–1992), was a jazz historian and collector who focused on traditional New Orleans–style jazz. The William Russell Jazz Collection documents his lifelong study of New Orleans jazz and related musical forms such as brass bands, ragtime, and gospel music. Russell amassed an extensive collection of jazz memorabilia, including musical instruments, records, piano rolls, sheet music, photographs, books, and periodicals. His collection traces the development of jazz in New Orleans and follows the movement of musicians to New York, Chicago, California, and beyond. It encompasses notes from Russell’s research, audiotapes, programs, posters, correspondence, films, business cards, notes, clippings, and scrapbooks.

Russell conducted extensive research into jazz and the cultural milieu from which it arose; his collection includes his notes, drafts of articles, discographies, oral history tapes and transcripts, photographs of musicians and the places associated with them, and other documents resulting from his research. Russell was a friend of many of the musicians he researched, including Louis Armstrong, George Lewis, Mahalia Jackson, and Baby Dodds. He kept letters from them as well as other mementos of his friendships. Also represented in Russell’s correspondence are his fellow jazz enthusiasts such as Eugene Williams, Roy J. Carew, and John Steiner.

Large portions of the collection focus on the lives of three individuals: Manuel “Fess” Manetta, Bunk Johnson, and Jelly Roll Morton. Russell interviewed Manetta at length about his life as a musician and the early days of jazz. Russell spent many years working on a book about Jelly Roll Morton; his Morton collections include manuscript music and letters written by the composer. Russell was instrumental in reviving Bunk Johnson’s career in1939. There are three series focusing on different aspects of their friendship. Russell founded American Music Records to record musicians including Bunk Johnson, Wooden Joe Nicholas, and Kid Shots Madison. The collection includes business records, photographs and notes documenting recording sessions, and liner notes.

Russell’s other research interests, such as voodoo, African American history, and New Orleans history (in particular, the Storyville, Bucktown, and Milneburg sections of the city) are represented. A member of the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, Russell studied brass bands and ragtime extensively, with an emphasis on Scott Joplin. In addition, Russell had a collection of postcards of New Orleans and the Gulf South that was unrelated to jazz.

For more specific information, see collection records or finding aids for MSS 501-MSS 541. The William Russell Jazz Collection is divided into several parts, each with its own in-depth finding aid.

Suggestions to researchers

Researchers looking for photographs should check MSS 520 (William Russell Photographic Collection) first. There are also a number of photographs in MSS 508 (Jelly Roll Morton Book Photographic Collection), MSS 510 (Bunk Johnson Papers), MSS 511 (Bunk Johnson Promotional Material), and MSS 536 (Jazz Files—particularly the Armstrong files). The two Bunk Johnson collections include photographs of performers other than Johnson as well as New Orleans historical sites.

Those interested in a specific musician should first check to see if that performer was interviewed in MSS 530 (Oral History Tapes), or if there is a collection named for that musician or an associate in the list that follows. Other suggested resources are MSS 519 (General Correspondence and Working Files) and MSS 536 (Jazz Files). It should be remembered that the Jazz Files include a number of “catch-all” files, most notably Obituaries and Boogie-Woogie. MSS 533 (Personal Papers) also has some biographical information about specific performers.

Researchers interested in William Russell’s own music should see MSS 514 (Baby Dodds Collection) and MSS 533 (Personal Papers) for information about his percussion music and MSS 528 (Ragtime, Orchestrations and Brass Bands) for his ragtime performing.

For a full description of the William Russell Jazz Collection, download the Finding Aid (PDF, 582KB).