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Q&A: Catherine Russell

The singer on her legendary parents, her pop past and her new exploration of Harlem's rich musical legacy

Catherine Russell

In late September, Catherine Russell, 60, bustled into the little French restaurant in Greenwich Village exactly at the stroke of 2 p.m. Just back from a weekend concert at a jazz festival in Bogota, Colombia, she had come to talk about her latest album of classic jazz, blues, standards and R&B, Harlem on My Mind (Jazz Village).

She is grateful for, if a bit surprised by, the midcareer surge that has taken her from in-demand, first-call backup singer to rock and pop stars (Steely Dan, David Bowie and Cyndi Lauper among them) to her new status as the foremost vocal interpreter of vintage jazz and R&B songs from the ’20s to the ’50s. Her respect for musical tradition was forged by her parents: famed bandleader and longtime Louis Armstrong musical director Luis Russell and Carline Ray, the Juilliard-trained bassist, guitarist and singer who performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Mary Lou Williams and Ruth Brown.

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