The Dazzling Catherine Russell

Poetic cadence and lush rolls

Stefan Falke Photograph

Luis Russell carried the culture of early jazz. Born 1902 in Panama, the pianist and string player won a $3,000 lottery at 17, by which he vaulted to New Orleans. Here he got gigs in Storyville, then migrated to Chicago in ’25 with another exile, King Oliver, and from there to New York, making it as a bandleader. The Luis Russell Orchestra backed Louis Armstrong from ’35 to ’43. Russell kept the band another five years before retiring to run gift shops with teaching gigs on the side. He died in ’63.

“I just feel like my dad is watching over me and leading me, guiding me with his music and his arrangements,” Catherine Russell told NPR in 2010, as her CD Inside This Heart of Mine cast a spell. The velvet warmth of Russell’s voice put new meaning to American songbook standards from the Depression through the 1950s. Her poetic cadences and lush rolls in those songs of love and blues won a trail of fans.

Russell is a late bloomer. She advanced across the years as a background vocalist in a range of acts, from Paul Simon and Al Green to Roseanne Cash and Bette Midler. In a sense, she follows a path forged by her mother, Carline Ray, a singer and bassist who worked with International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female orchestra during World War II. In later years she appeared with Wynton Marsalis in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

 “My mother had a radio in the kitchen when I was growing up,” she told Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” earlier this year, on the release of Strictly Romancin’. “So every morning, I was listening to Ella, the Mills Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee. Everything that was popular of the day and before that. ... That really formed my appreciation of phrasing, of how the people sang these tunes.”

You can all but inhale the music from that family oxygen supply in Strictly Romancin’. Russell’s silky rubato on the timeless “I’m in the Mood for Love” summons imagery of long gowns, tuxedos, potted palms, a waltz of lovers including those long married.

Why stop to think of whether
This little dream might fade,
We put our hearts together
Now we are one, I’m not afraid.

I kept putting the CD player back to that song on an afternoon of motorized errands through burning summer heat, enchanted by the heroic-hearts motif while a greedy New Jersey media overlord dismembered The Times-Picayune. The notion of the city as a little dream refusing to fade cheered me as federal lawyers circled Ray Nagin for his marble-selling bidness in the post-Hurricane Katrina run of urban recovery. “Wake up and live!”

Catherine Russell sang in the very next cut. I listened:

 Don’t mind the rainy patter
And you will find
It’s mind over matter
Dark clouds will break up
If you just wake up and live.

 Yes, ma’am! That is what’s it all about: wake up and live, don’t let the “blue demons dispatched on their mission of harassment by none other than the Chief Red Devil of all devils himself” get you down. (Mil gracias, Albert Murray). People with voices like Catherine Russell’s float through the world because we need them. Russell is cut from the mold of big-band singers who helped uplift a beleaguered country through the Depression and World War II – think Billie Holliday; think Ella Fitzgerald.

Had he not expired last year I’d be tempted to mail this CD to the fabled essayist and professional atheist Christopher Hitchens as proof that God smiles. (Russ Douthat of the New York Times wrote that Hitchens confronted him at a party and said, “Suppose Jesus of Nazareth did rise from the dead. What would that prove anyway?” A lot, I’d say.) And my package would include John Boutté’s latest revelation, All About Everything, as another sign of life’s spiritual mystery, an uplift to the celebrity-laden news intercut with madness in the Middle East and drug lords buying swaths of Central America for new plantations. A cynic might say that mankind sent God a “Dear John” letter long ago.

And so for perspective, grounding, some hint of optimism in the human experiment, I sat in gridlock on South Carrollton Avenue between Notre Dame Seminary and the College Inn restaurant, awash in the mellow grace notes of Catherine Russell.

What’cha gonna do when there ain’t no swing?

How ya gonna dance, how ya gonna sing?

I’m telling you, you’re gonna be blue
When there ain’t no swing.

 We still have the swing, thank you, Jesus – albeit with far fewer big bands playing live music. If Nagin does go down, the judge should take the fine money and hire Deacon John to perform at Lafayette Square opposite the federal courthouse and import Catherine Russell as featured vocalist. That, to riff on Irving Berlin, would be heaven, heaven, “and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.”

“Although Luis Russell’s Band, left, never gained an enormous or durable following with the general public, in 1929 it was the sensation of New York among those musicians who placed excitement, bold improvisation, feeling and spirited rhythm above precision, smooth sounds and careful phrasing; ballroom dancers liked the band’s swinging beat. Bassist Pops Foster summed it up when he said: ‘Russell’s Band was romping so good in (19)29, we had everything sewed up. We were playing the small style we played back in New Orleans.’”

By John Chilton, Ride, Red, Ride: The Life of Henry “Red” Allen

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