Catherine Russell and Satchmo SummerFest go together like red beans and rice. A Grammy-nominated jazz singer whose credits also include decades of backup singing for major stars, Russell is the daughter of Luis Russell, Louis Armstrong’s music director from 1935 to 1943.
Because Russell’s father and Armstrong stayed friends long after they stopped working together, she has vivid childhood memories of the larger-than-life music star and personality from New Orleans. Her father also shot many home movies of Armstrong. The singer’s website features film of herself with Armstrong taken in 1960 during a party at his home in Queens, New York.
“It was a festive occasion,” Russell recalled from her home in Lower Manhattan. “I was the only child there and Pops picked me up. It was overwhelming for me because he actually did have a very large mouth! But he was always very nice to me. And Pops and his wife, Lucille, loved to entertain. They liked to eat and laugh and everything. That evening, Pops was happy to have his friends with him. He was a loyal friend who visited my dad when he was ill. They kept in touch.”
Despite being a young child, Russell instinctively recognized Armstrong’s depth and dynamism.
“He had a big energy,” she remembered. “I also knew he was serious about what he did, but he could also have a good time and mug for the cameras in the setting of his home.”
Russell made her Satchmo SummerFest debut last year. She’s returning this year to the festival named in Armstrong’s honor for a performance on Sunday, August 6. She’ll also present “The Vocal Artistry of Louis Armstrong, From a Vocalist’s Perspective” at the Satchmo Symposium, Friday, August 4.
Russell loved every second of her 2016 visit to Satchmo SummerFest. “Everyone was so passionate about Pops,” she said. “Every symposium was inspiring. And all of the music that was outside, the food and everything, it was a beautiful experience. When we were leaving, I said, ‘We must come back every year.’ We started talking about that last August.”
Following last year’s festival, Russell quickly picked a topic for the Satchmo SummerFest Symposium.
“I’ll talk about Louis Armstrong purely as a singer,” she said. “He was an incredible interpreter of song and an incredible actor. This is why one believes everything that he sings.”
Armstrong sang with vocal groups on the streets of New Orleans at an early age, Russell said.
“His work with the Mills Brothers highlights how he loved singing in a vocal group,” she said. “And his album, Louis and the Good Book, with the Sy Oliver Choir singing behind him, was like being in church. He understood every genre that he sang in.”
Armstrong’s singing is not as simple as it may sound, Russell added.
“He could make his voice sound like his trumpet,” Russell said. “Or he could focus on the story in the lyrics and give you an intimacy about that. Because I’m doing my own thing as a solo artist and reaching deeper into his interpretation, it’s clear to me that he’s even more of a genius than I’d realized before.”
Like Armstrong, Russell is a jazz artist who interprets multiple musical styles. Her repertoire embraces jazz giants Armstrong and Duke Ellington, for instance, as well as such blues, jump-blues and rhythm and blues artists as Howlin’ Wolf, Wynonie Harris and Little Willie John.
“If it’s good writing, I love it,” she said. “And when I pick tunes, I like a good story, humor, a good melody and something that’s fun for the musicians to play. I like the writing style from the 1920s through 1940s, but I also love Dinah Washington, Howlin’ Wolf, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone. I’m always gathering material and seeing if I can live through it.”
A late-blooming solo act, Russell sang backup from the 1980s on for such major artists as David Bowie, Paul Simon, Dr. John, Wynton Marsalis, Steely Dan, Cyndi Lauper, Jackson Browne, Michael Feinstein, Levon Helm, Rosanne Cash and Joan Osborne. Her recording session credits include more than 200 albums.
Russell loved singing backup but, following a 2002–2004 tour with Bowie, her business partner suggested she finally make a solo album. Russell soon signed with Harmonia Mundi’s World Village Records. The label released her debut, Cat, in 2006.
“It happened quickly,” she remembered. “And then we started doing gigs. I’d sung with many bands before that, but never under my own name. The first couple of gigs, I thought, ‘Oh, why am I doing this?’ Because it takes time to find the musicians who align with the music you want to do. It’s been quite a learning curve, but it turned out incredible. I’m glad that I took that step. Now I do things I’d never imagined I’d be doing.”
Catherine Russell sings at 1:40 p.m. Sunday, August 6, on Satchmo SummerFest’s Cornet Chop Suey Stage. She’ll also present The Vocal Artistry of Louis Armstrong, From a Vocalist’s Perspective, at the Satchmo Symposium, 11:30 a.m. Friday, August 4, at the New Orleans Jazz Museum at the Old U.S. Mint, third floor.