Born in Chicago on June 25, 1928, and raised on the city's North Side, William Russo was a composer of jazz, rock, symphonic music, operas, ballets, film scores, and music-theatre works as well as an teacher and author. He founded the Columbia College Center for New Music, forerunner of today's Music Department, in 1965. He served at Columbia from 1965 until his retirement as Chair of the Music Department in 2002. In his wide-ranging career he worked with many notable collaborators, including jazz bandleaders Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, and Dave Brubeck; classical musicians Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Karel Jirak, and Yehudi Menuhin; instrumentalists Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Cannonball Adderley, Larry Adler, Benny Carter, Lennie Tristano, Maynard Ferguson, Corky Siegel, Steven Staryk, and Orbert Davis; and vocalists Billie Holiday, Annie Ross, Cleo Laine, Irma Routen, Aisha de Haas and Darius de Haas.
He died on January 11, 2003, five days after conducting his last concert at Chicago's famed Jazz Showcase nightclub.