Singer Catherine Russell is jazz royalty, a queen of jazz, soul, and blues. Her crown comes not only from her immense talent as a vocalist and performing on more than 200 records (including seven of her own), but also from her lineage. Her father, Luis Russell, besides being a groundbreaking Panamanian-American composer/arranger, pianist, and orchestra leader, served as Louis Armstrong’s musical director for eight years starting in 1935. The pair went their separate ways when Russell reformed his own big band in 1943. Russell’s mother, Carline Ray, also made a name in jazz as a singer and instrumentalist with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. She joined the band after graduating from Julliard and earning a Master’s Degree from the Manhattan School of Music.
With these two musical titans as parents, it seemed like destiny that young Catherine would enter the ranks of jazz, though Russell says she didn’t see music as a “career path.”
“I was just doing whatever I was doing,” Russell tells The Syncopated Times. “I didn’t think I was going to make a living doing this. I was just kind of going along and music was in school then so it wasn’t like a thing. It was just part of your training like math or anything else.”
Young Catherine did cross paths frequently with many of the greats of jazz including Armstrong, who would visit their home in New York City. Her mom would take her to recording sessions as well as classical music concerts and dance recitals providing what Russell calls “a culturally rich, well-rounded upbringing.”
After graduating from high school where she further developed her musical talents, Russell went out to California in the 1970s where she began playing and singing professionally in all kinds of genres. After a few years, she returned to New York where she enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Russell demonstrated acting was also her forte and graduated with honors. A chance to sing at the legendary NY comedy club “Catch a Rising Star” put her in front of audiences on regular basis. Jimmy Vavino, the guitarist and bandleader from NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien, asked Russell to join his band for even more opportunities to perform in the Big Apple.
“A lot of well-known people used to come and sit in (with the band),” Russell recalls. “People like Phoebe Snow, Donald Fagen, a lot of different folks. That’s how I met Donald Fagen. That turned into working with the Rock & Soul Revue, which he had back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, which turned into working with Steely Dan in the early ’90s. One thing kind of led to the next, so I didn’t really plan anything.”
The lack of planning worked well for Russell as she also toured the world, usually as a back-up singer for a list of the some of the biggest pop, jazz, soul, and blues artists of the latter half of the 20th century. Russell appeared on stage with David Bowie, Steely Dan, Cyndi Lauper, Jackson Browne, Michael Feinstein, Levon Helm, Paul Simon, Rosanne Cash, Carrie Smith, Toshi Reagon, Wynton Marsalis, Dr. John, Joan Osborne, Vince Giordano, to name a few.
Performing with those iconic musicians taught Russell about her craft and the music business as did catching live shows from people she sees today as her musical influence.
“There’s a lot of different genres that shape what I do,” Russell says. “Great soul singers like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and singers that people don’t know really like Laura Lee who was a great soul singer and Peebles. All the singers that James Brown produced. Those singers and gospel singers didn’t necessarily influence my interpretation but I just like all different types of singing. The basis of what we do is swing and blues. I saw Etta James a lot. I saw Ruth Brown a lot. I saw Alberta Hunter several times. I also saw Carmen McRae and Abby Lincoln and Marlena Shaw. I listen to people for what they bring and see how they do their thing, so it’s a lot of different influences.”
Now Russell is her own musical tour-de-force with awards and a world-wide fan base for her unique blend of swing and blues. She is on tour with her own band as well as partnering with John Pizzarelli for a show titled Billie & Blue Eyes, a tribute to Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. Her newest album from DotTime Records, Alone Together, offers 13 swinging tunes that range from standards like the title track from Schwartz & Dietz, Nat Cole’s “Errand Girl for Rhythm,” to the rollicking public domain tune “He May Be Your Dog but He’s Wearing My Collar.” Russell dedicated the album to her parents.
A co-producer of the record, and Russell’s manager for more than 20 years, Paul Kahn has watched Russell transform from a backup singer to bandleader with the release of her solo debut record Cat in 2006.
“Catherine gradually took on the skills and challenges of being a bandleader, which, as it turned out, were very different from being a backup singer and band member. While she’s always been a natural in terms of delivering the goods to an audience, she’s grown considerably in self-confidence in every role. She’s always pretty much known what she wants to achieve musically. The biggest change has been not being afraid to go for it,” Kahn says.This album has the maturity of someone not only confident in their talents but with a well-developed ear for choosing the finest in supporting musicians.
“We chose musicians who have evolved with us over the past decade, and become her core band,” Kahn says. “We found the great guitarist, Matt Munisteri, early on, and Matt has become her musical director, and helped by leading us to other musicians, like pianist Mark Shane, and bassist Tal Ronen. We heard drummer Mark McLean performing on a show, and immediately sought him out. The key has been finding musicians who know the vocabularies of swing, classic jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and who are well versed in a wide variety of styles.
Catherine has also been known to sing country, funk, or bluegrass. Playing in time and in the pocket and with a sense of humor, fun, and passion; are all important elements. We feel blessed to have found musicians who fit the bill.”
As for choosing the songs for Alone Together, or her live performances, Russell says she likes songs that are inclusive and not “self-indulgent” but contain “universal themes.” They also have to swing.
“I like music that swings. I like good melodies, good stories, so the first thing I look at is the lyrics to any song. Then the next thing is, is this going to be fun to sing and fun for the band to play. Does it have a buoyant quality to it? Is it danceable? Does it have a good story? That’s really what I look for. Music that swings and I like early blues from the ’20s. I like rhythm and blues from the late ’40s to mid-’50s. So those are three of the elements I look for,” she says.
Russell also recognizes the multitude of responsibilities that come with being a bandleader which are not much different today than they were when her father fronted his own band and worked with Armstrong.
“You have a team of people that work with you but the decision-making is ultimately the leader’s job,” Russell says. “Ultimately, I have to decide whether it’s too many shows in a row or the length of a tour or the routing of the tour, is this a good idea or not a good idea. I have to sign off on all of those decisions. I like to be the one that makes those decisions. Some people give those decisions to other people, but I find that if you do that then you get what you get. I like to be in control of what I’m doing, what my musicians are doing, how we’re travelling, where we’re going, all of that type of thing.”
As for the future, Russell remains open to the opportunities that present themselves to her. It worked well when she started out in music without a definitive plan. It has led Russell to some incredible things.
“I just like to see how things unfold,” she says. “So far, I’m happy with the way things are going. I don’t project what is going to happen in the future because I don’t know. I would never know that I would be doing a show with John Pizzarelli. I couldn’t have imagined that. What’s to come is probably not in my imagination. I’ve also been doing gigs with symphonies, which I never thought I would do. There are all kinds of different opportunities that are coming to me. I’m welcoming whatever they are and I don’t really know what the future holds but so far, it’s been amazing. I’m just thankful for that.”
Brian R. Sheridan, MA, is the chair of the Communication Department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, PA (hometown of Ish Kabibble) and a longtime journalist in broadcast and print. He also co-authored the book America in the Thirties published by Syracuse University Press.
Sheridan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @briansheridan and Instagram at brianrsheridan.