Catherine Russell: Queen of the Armstrong Blues

An interview with the acclaimed singer who successfully transitioned from background vocalist to frontwoman

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Sandrine Lee

Catherine Russell

Sitting in the audience of a Catherine Russell concert, one can’t imagine that this charismatic pro was once a shy child who only hoped to reach the heights of her distinguished parents (bassist Carline Ray and pianist Luis Russell). That’s how far she has come.

Over the past few years, Russell has been at the top of her game, winning a Grammy for her participation in the 2012 soundtrack to the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, and a Grammy nomination for her own Harlem on My Mind in 2016. She appears regularly at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC and curates shows worldwide that explore the history of jazz. During the last year she’s been performing at festivals and theaters with John Pizzarelli, celebrating the music of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. Harlem royalty and elegance radiate from her honeyed voice.

Russell is a seasoned musician who has earned her place, a natural-born singer with perfect pitch, timing, and a gift for storytelling. Singers young and old can learn much from her.

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Roseanna Vitro: You were born into a cradle filled with swing music, raised by two famed jazz musicians. At what age did you pick up your first instrument or start singing?

Catherine Russell: I played the violin from fourth to sixth grade. But I was a dancer in Katherine Dunham’s dance company at the same time. We danced for four seasons of the opera Aida at the old (40th and Broadway) and new (Lincoln Center) Metropolitan Opera House.

Where did you go to school?

I went to a private nursery school called Virgie’s Tot Town in Harlem. I attended public elementary and junior high schools in New York City. I went to Music & Art High School. Then I left New York, went out to northern California to finish high school, and attended Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State College.

Did your parents set up private music lessons for you?

When I was a child I had a piano teacher named Mrs. King, whom I didn’t connect with, so those lessons were short-lived. My music education was primarily in school. I was too afraid to study with my mother, so the lessons basically ended up in tears—mine. Haha! All I could see in my mind were her degrees from Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music. But as time has passed, she is still my best music teacher.

On stage or off, you always appear calm and focused. As a younger artist, were you naturally disciplined? If not, how did you develop these skills?

Wow! Thank you, I’m glad I appear calm to you! Preparation is the key for me. I spend much of my time preparing in advance. I pick out the songs and decide the order of material for a show or an album, so I can provide a (hopefully) joyous and inclusive experience. I don’t start with a theme first. I start with songs I like to sing, then a theme may come out of the song list. It’s all about the songs I like. I was never able to cram for tests growing up, so I always need time to study. And as a bandleader, I must organize my charts for the musicians so the gig goes as smoothly as possible. But again, I do all of this in advance.

As a young artist I had no idea what I was doing. Fortunately, I became a bandleader in later years. I learned from the tours that I’ve done with major artists. I learned from tour managers about organizing hotel rooms, meals, and all the nuts-and-bolts that make for a smooth gig. One thing goes wrong and the vibe goes dark, so I know by now that musicians want to know when they can go to their hotel rooms, eat, play the gig, and go back to their hotel rooms.

In your formative years, what were the most important lessons you learned from your parents or teachers?

Honestly, my formative years were a mess! I was depressed, with no direction and no way of knowing what I would do as an artist. I only knew that music was leading me. I was in choirs and bands through school; I was in a vocal jazz trio in junior college that worked independently of the school band because they didn’t want singers. I was in a gospel choir under the direction of the great Daryl Coley at the College of Alameda in California. I was in a country swing band called Smokin, where I sang and played mandolin. We played lots of gigs in clubs and in places where there was dancing. I just found different situations where I could learn and get better at my craft. I was shy and always nervous, never thinking I was good enough. I was always surprised that people would actually hire me. I had perfect pitch and desire, but not much else.

Vibrations and personality affect an artist’s success as much as talent. Your persona is always warm and gracious. How did you handle putting yourself out there to land some of the high-profile groups you’ve performed with? Did you want to be the frontperson?

I never saw myself as the frontperson. Probably because my mother, as accomplished as she was, never saw herself as the frontperson, so that was my role model. But when I was a young adult, she took me to see Alberta Hunter. She also played bass with Ruth Brown for six years, so I went to many of those shows. I saw Etta James, Betty Carter, Anne Peebles, Koko Taylor, and Carmen McRae. I observed those great ladies, and modeled my shows after what they were doing. A mix of classic jazz, rhythm & blues, and fun with the audience. Those ladies made a great impression on me. Those ladies were always warm and gracious, as you say. Well, Etta James—not always. I feel like I’m giving a party, and the audience members are my guests, so I need to make them feel welcome in my home.

You’ve garnered great success as a backup singer and instrumentalist sideman, performing with David Bowie, Steely Dan, Cyndi Lauper, Jackson Browne, Michael Feinstein, Levon Helm, Paul Simon, Rosanne Cash, Wynton Marsalis, and Dr. John. What are techniques and lessons you’ve learned for success as a vocal or instrumental sideman?

First of all, I am honored and privileged to have worked with these iconic artists. The main lesson is, “It’s not about me!” I am in service to the artist who hired me. I am there to musically and spiritually support the artist so they feel comfortable and free to express themselves. Preparation is the key, so when I get a gig as a sideperson, I delve into that artist’s catalogue to get a flavor of their music overall. Then we usually get specific songs to learn before the first rehearsal. I listen to the songs multiple times. I dissect the parts so when I get to rehearsal I have a good idea of what I’m singing or playing.

Writing helps me, so I physically write out lyrics or chord changes. In these days and times writing pen-to-paper is not so popular, but I believe this practice helps with learning songs. Everyone has a different way of learning; some learn aurally, some visually. My advice is to know how you learn, and come to the first rehearsal prepared so you are relaxed and open to the vibe of the person you’re working for.

As a lead singer, your storytelling talent is as important as handling the audience and leading the band. Did you study theater and acting in school or did you come by this gift naturally?

I studied theater at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I wanted to get to know myself better and just … relax … on stage. This was not easy for me to do, especially when I started to work as a solo artist. The process took time. But I once listened to an interview with the great actress Angela Lansbury, and she talked about “letting the lyrics take you.” That is what I live by. I pick songs where I can express myself through the lyric. To me, the lyric comes first. Then the story is always fresh. Along with the lyric is a great melody. Then great chord changes that are fun for the musicians to play. All of these elements contribute to the band sounding cohesive so the audience receives one unified message.

Scat singing in jazz music enjoys a long history, from Leo Watson through Louis Armstrong and Jon Hendricks on to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Betty Carter. You’re an excellent musician, sight-reading parts and playing instruments, so you have the knowledge to improvise. What is your thinking about scatting?

My role model for scat singing is Louis Armstrong. My understanding of scat singing is based in rhythm, so Satchmo’s ideas appeal to me. If I feel like emphasizing or extending an idea, I’ll do a chorus of simple scat after I’ve sung a chorus with words. I love Ella’s scatting, but it’s much more complex note-wise, and I have to listen to many more famous horn solos to grasp her vast knowledge of the vocabulary. She and Louis Armstrong are the gold standard because they always scat perfectly in tune.

I of course love Lambert, Hendricks & Ross since they scatted with words, and I listened to their recordings back in the ’70s. Jon Hendricks was such a wonderful lyricist. My feeling is that one really has to pay attention to execute vocal scat ideas and sing in tune. I loved Sarah Vaughan’s vocal improv—very simple and easy to understand—so when I practice I also listen to Sarah. I would say, please don’t get ahead of yourself when you scat. Keep it simple. And it’s also not necessary to scat on every tune when you do a show.

Fortunately for today’s vocal improvisers, there are more than a handful of high schools and college programs teaching improvisation to singers. As a result, school choral programs now feature young singers scatting and learning complex harmonies. Scat singing is almost compulsory. I feel the good news is this focus has spawned singers around the world who are capable of understanding improvisation. But group singing and scatting don’t promote lyric interpretation or phrasing. What class would you add to bring back a focus on the value of simply singing a song, interpreting the lyrics and the melody correctly with feeling? Would you promote a jazz history listening class or one or two sessions added to a choral class for this study?

When I taught at Berklee College of Music, I taught all types of classes, including group singing. I feel that the emphasis these days is not so much on harmony group singing as it is on becoming a star. I hear very talented young people, but they have to find themselves in the music and what they want to express. So, yes, I would have classes on listening to the masters. Young people don’t get exposed to a broad scope of historical recordings, in my experience (jazz didn’t start in the 1950s). And singers are a marginalized group, so I feel that as much exposure as possible to historical recordings is crucial. It’s not just the notes, it’s the heart and soul that went into those performances. Sometimes I feel that song and dance have lost some of the heart and soul, and what the artists went through to achieve their results. It’s up to the next generation to find themselves in their music. That may be a personal journey that can’t be taught in school.

While you were developing as an artist, what inspired you to sing works from the 1920s?

Since both my parents were professional musicians and high achievers, it took time for me to figure out my direction as an artist. I only knew what I liked to sing to: a good groove, good lyrics and a good melody, and the tune should be fun for the band to play. Female blues vocalists of the 1920s inspire me as much as the songwriters of that era. The lyrics are fun, the singing style allows for free expression and creates a kind of party atmosphere. I’ve listened to many of those singers starting with Bessie Smith, and I love that style of singing. I love good storytelling.

You’ve carved a fresh niche with your talent and musical choices. Did you have guidance from others—from a producer, for instance?

I had no guidance for developing my “style” except trial and error, and good role models. Alberta Hunter was my main role model for singing vintage blues because she was one of the pioneers of that style. I’m soglad I got to experience Ms. Hunter in performance! I also listened to Koko Taylor for her Chicago blues style. I listen to soul singers like James Brown, Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke, and Little Willie John. I listen to classic gospel singers like Shirley Caesar. If I like the sound of the singer, I listen to them and then I determine if I can find myself in their style. This takes a lot of listening and practice. Some things work and some don’t, and that’s fine.

Leading and directing a band covers running rehearsals, handling the pay, taking care of tax forms, hiring accountants, finding an agent or manager, and designing sellable projects. It’s daunting. I don’t know how many singers have told me that at the end of the day, there isn’t enough time to practice. Could you provide a short list of suggestions for younger singers who desire to be the bandleader?

Yes, bandleading is a lot of work. But the reward is working with musicians who you love, and who support your vision. Finding the right combination of supportive musicians may take some time. But when you find that magic combination, there is nothing better. This is separate from practicing. There’s always time to practice. I practice in my kitchen, when I’m washing dishes after a good meal. In the shower. In my bedroom. I hear a riff that I want to learn, and I drill it over and over to see if I might be able to add it to my vocal vocabulary. There is always time to practice.

How do you communicate and get the best from your band? In my 20 years of teaching, I’ve seen many vocalists who are afraid to assert themselves in a rehearsal or show. Do you have guidelines that have helped you through the years as a female bandleader?

If I encounter resistance to my bandleading, I do not call that person again. There are plenty of good musicians who want to work, so you don’t have to put up with that kind of thing. I have a young student who tells me that musicians are resistant to her giving them direction, and I say, “Well, you may have to stop calling that person if they are not supporting you the way you want them to.” That’s all. They just won’t get the call next time.

Be organized in your rehearsals and recording sessions; know what you want. Try to be as clear as possible in communicating your ideas to your band members. Don’t waste time in rehearsals and recording sessions. Communicate firmly, but calmly. You’ll know who you want to work with again and who you don’t

Check out Catherine Russell’s schedule and recordings at her website: http://www.catherinerussell.net/