7 Questions With Catherine Russell

The chart-topping vocalist opens up about musical childhood and singing in the car

Catherine Russell was born with music in her genes. Her father was Louis Armstrong’s long-time collaborator and her mother was a Juilliard-educated member of the storied International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female band in the U.S.

Photo by Sandrine Lee.

Growing up in New York City, Russell has always associated music with “fun.” She was David Bowie’s go-to vocalist and has performed and/or shared the stage with Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Wynton Marsalis, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper and Roseanne Cash, to name just a few. She launched her solo career 15 years ago and has been soaring ever since, recording seven albums as bandleader, including Grammy-nominated Harlem on My Mind for Best Vocal Jazz Album. Her rich, hypnotizing vocals landed her a Grammy for her work on the soundtrack of the HBO Series Boardwalk Empire, and a number of her emotional interpretations of tunes dating from the 1920s to today have topped the Billboard charts. Before her much-anticipated local debut on Aug. 15, Russell took a few moments to answer some questions with Vail Jazz.

 1. Vail Jazz: What specific characteristics do you believe you inherited from your mother and father?

Catherine Russell: Both my parents were leaders. They were both very organized and cared very much about their personal appearance. They always looked good. They knew how to take care of business as well as music. Whatever they did, they did 100 percent. My mother, Carline Ray, taught me about being punctual, prepared and confident. My father, Luis Russell, made recordings that were always fun to listen to, and I model my recordings after his.

2. VJ:  As a child, how did you fall in love with music?

CR: I listened to my dad’s recordings, which were always fun to hear, because the musicians sounded like they were having fun. We had a radio in the kitchen, so every morning my mother and I listened to the “Make-Believe Ballroom,” where I heard everyone from Frank Sinatra to Louis Armstrong … all the hits of that time. The first year I remember what I heard was 1959, and Bobby Darin comes to mind. We listened to jazz station WLIB, where I first heard Herbie Hancock. We also listened to a lot of classical music and opera on the radio, because my mother knew a lot about both. So I fell in love with Ravel and Bach, as well as the wonderful German lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

3. VJ: What are your earliest memories of singing and playing instruments?

CR: I used to harmonize to the national anthem when we sang it in school at the start of the day. And I used to figure songs out by ear and play them simply on the piano at home. We had several instruments in the house, including my grandfather’s violin and mandolin, so later on, I started fooling around on his mandolin, playing simple songs with a few chords.

4. VJ: Your interpretations of classics and standards are so rife with emotion. How do you go about selecting tunes?

CR: First, I need to be able to sing every lyric. Does the tune speak personally to me, so I can live through it every time I sing it? Nice chord changes will draw me to a tune. If it’s a blues tune with just a few chord changes, will it be fun to sing and play for the band? I like tunes that swing and ballads that ask questions about life, old blues from the 1920s as well as R&B from the 1940s and 50s.

5. VJ: What have been some of the most memorable moments sharing the stage with artists like Wynton Marsalis, David Bowie and Cyndi Lauper?

CR: Well first of all, it’s inspiring just to be on stage with iconic musicians. I can’t believe I get to do that time after time … no pun intended. Every night when David Bowie would sing “Ziggy Stardust,” I was transported, because the songs on the Ziggy Stardust album were some of my favorites as a teenager.

6. VJ: How do you hone the versatility of your vocal chords? Do you sing in the shower? The car?

CR: I have two voice teachers and I combine some of their exercises for my warm-up. The voice changes every day according to how much sleep I’ve gotten, whether I’ve traveled, etc., so I have certain exercises I do all the time and others that are specific to whatever may need more work from day to day. Sometimes I sing in the car … usually if I’m traveling and that’s the only place I have to warm up. When I get to sing in concert halls, the dressing rooms are made for musicians to practice. If we are in a club with no separate dressing room, then I’ll find a place away from everyone else to do a final warm-up before the show. Mostly I’m vocalizing in hotel rooms …my poor neighbors! I try to practice in the mid-afternoon when people may be out for the day.

7. VJ: What have been your most rewarding moments during or after a performance?

CR: Well I have to say, performers like applause. Applause means that the audience is having a good time, so that makes us feel good. I like to see people smiling during songs. Sometimes a few couples will get up and dance to a swing song. After a show when I meet people, I like meeting younger people who might be hearing the songs – and the artists’ names who originally recorded them – for the first time. I also like meeting older people who have memories attached to the songs that they share with me. I’m grateful that with all the ways people have to spend their days or evenings, they would choose to come to hear us.

Aug. 15: Vail Jazz @ Vail Square with Catherine Russell

Catherine Russell performs with Mark Shane on piano, Matt Munisteri on guitar and Tal Rohen on bass at 6 p.m. on Aug. 15 in the all-weather jazz tent at Vail Square in Lionshead. Tickets are $25 for general admission, $40 for preferred seat and $50 for premium seat. Beer, wine and cocktails are available for purchase. Get tickets here.


Howard Stone: I Did It My Way

The Academy Award-winning documentary film, Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) explores the careers and lives of a number of rock/pop “backup” singers. These very talented women backed up Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Sting, Stevie Wonder and other iconic rock/pop performers, but while the public may have known their voices, they were largely anonymous, performing while standing in the shadows, as the spotlight shone brightly on some of the legendary pop vocalists of the 21st century. Their value was their ability to blend and harmonize with the “front person,” enabling the group effort to create an overall sound that propelled the leader to fame and fortune. The film examines the hurdles, some self-imposed, that prevented these great vocalists from solo careers and stardom. There have been, of course, many male backup singers in rock/pop, as well, and many of both gender have gone on to great careers. Cher, Elton John, Luther Vandross, Mariah Carey, Michael McDonald, Sheryl Crow, Whitney Houston, Katy Perry, Pink, Mary J. Blige, Phil Collins and John Legend, to name just a few, all sang backup before becoming huge commercial successes.

Howard Stone (above: Catherine Russell).

What about jazz backup singers transitioning to the limelight? The simple answer is there haven’t been any, because there haven’t been any jazz backup singers. While there have been several instances where members of a jazz vocal ensemble (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross and the Manhattan Transfer come to mind) have vocally supported a solo by one of its members, the jazz vocal tradition relies more on the interaction between the vocalist, who is seen as another one of the instrumentalists, and the remaining members of the band. In jazz, everyone is responsible for the group sound or you are a soloist and everyone else in the band supports you. Scatting, the vocal technique of singing non-sense syllables, is a perfect example of how a jazz singer and the band work together for a group sound. So in jazz there is a totally different approach to the music.

Interestingly enough, there have been only a few rock/pop backup singers that have become top draw jazz vocalists. Catherine Russell and Niki Haris are two of them. Each started out singing backup for legendary pop artists. In the case of Catherine, she spent over two decades singing backup for the who’s who of pop music – Steely Dan, Al Green, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, and many others. Catherine toured extensively with David Bowie and is a multi-instrumentalist, not only singing backup, but also playing mandolin, guitar and percussion. It was only as she approached her fifth decade that she decided to take a stab at a solo career, not as a pop vocalist, but as a jazz singer.

Niki Haris began singing pop and R&B music in the early 1980s after college and from 1987 to 2001 she toured the world singing backup for Madonna. During the same period, her vocal work could be heard on the soundtracks of a number of films and she appeared in the documentary film about Madonna, Truth or Dare. She also worked as a choreographer for Madonna and others. By 2003, Niki decided to focus on family life and gave birth to her daughter, and when she returned to work as a vocalist several years later, she began to sing jazz and gospel.

So how is it that these two very successful rock backup singers suddenly discovered jazz and decided that in the later part of their careers they wanted to be a soloist singing jazz? Well, I guess the old proverb, “an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” and the lyrics of the Frank Sinatra hit, “My Way,” may explain it. Catherine and Niki have several things in common that I believe led them to jazz. Both are the daughters of jazz greats, but they both chose a career path outside the world of jazz. While their musical journeys may have started with jazz, both established their own identities and didn’t initially follow in the footsteps of their fathers.

In Catherine’s case, her father was Luis Russell, the legendary jazz pianist, bandleader, composer, arranger and long-time music director for Louis Armstrong. In Niki’s case, her father was Gene Harris (Niki uses one “r” in her last name), who was one of the most soulful pianists to ever play jazz, with a career that spanned over four decades.

So now you can see why the metaphor and song lyrics above are so appropriate. The daughters of two jazz greats grow up and develop into remarkably talented vocalists, but the world they grow up in is not the world of their fathers. Instead, they come of age in a world dominated by rock. My view is that as gifted, independent young women, they didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of their famous fathers, but instead, they did it their way.

Catherine Russell makes her Vail debut as part of the 25th Annual Vail Jazz Festival on Aug. 15 at the Jazz Tent in Lionshead (Get tickets HERE). Niki will once again return to Vail to lead the perennial Vail Jazz Party favorite, The Gospel Prayer Meetin,’ which will make its inaugural appearance on the big stage in the Ford Amphitheater on Sunday morning, September 1 (Get tickets HERE).

Howard Stone is the Founder and Artistic Director of Vail Jazz, the presenter of the annual Vail Jazz Festival. This summer Vail Jazz is celebrating its 25th Anniversary Season with performances by internationally renowned artists in multiple venues throughout the Vail Valley. In addition, Vail Jazz presents throughout the year jazz educational programs with a special focus on young musicians and young audiences. Many of Vail Jazz’s performances and educational programs are presented free of charge.