Vocalist Catherine Russell grew up with jazz as a second language. Her dad, Panamanian-born bandleader and composer Luis Russell, was a lifelong friend and colleague of Louis Armstrong. Her mother, bassist, guitarist and vocalist Carline Ray, traveled with the pioneering International Sweethearts of Rhythm.
And Catherine Russell — “Cat” to her friends — parlayed her rich musical legacy into tours and recordings with Steely Dan, Paul Simon and David Bowie; a Grammy Award for her contribution to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire soundtrack, and critical and popular acclaim for the four albums she has released under her own name.
Those recordings, including last year’s Strictly Romancin’, reveal Russell’s mastery of vintage jazz and blues idioms. Backed by guitarist Matt Munisteri, pianist Mark Shane and bassist Lee Hudson — who will join her Thursday night to open the Coral Gables Congregational Church’s summer concert series — she delves into often-obscure songbook gems by the likes of Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Fats Waller and, quite naturally, Luis Russell.
Cat Russell, 56, has made it her life’s work to spotlight worthy tunes that might otherwise have moldered in dusty stacks of 78s in secondhand record shops.
“I’m continually looking for new tunes and continually looking for tunes with good stories,” the singer says by phone from her native New York City. “I start with the story. After that, it comes down to, ‘Is it fun melodically and harmonically? Are we gonna have a good time playing this?’ ”
Listeners will pick up on the humor and joy in Russell’s reads of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s I’m Checkin’ Out, Goom’bye and Mary Lou Williams’ Satchel Mouth Baby, both from Strictly Romancin’. The latter track has particular resonance for the singer. Pianist, composer and arranger Williams performed, recorded and corresponded with her mom until Williams’ death in 1981.
“Satchel Mouth,” later shortened to “Satchmo,” refers, of course, to the legendary Armstrong, who worked with Russell’s father beginning in the 1930s. Family photos depict her as a pigtailed, less-than-cheery toddler being hoisted by the trumpeter during a visit with her parents to the Armstrong home in Corona, Queens. “At one point, he’s picking me up and I’m a little afraid,” she says. “You know, he was a very big presence.”
A more recent visit to the modest brick residence, now the Louis Armstrong House Museum, was a happier experience. When she and her mother, now 88, dropped by the museum about a year and a half ago, an archivist presented them with a challenge: See if you can tell me who this is, he said, as he cued up a 1961 tape recording. Carline Ray’s voice came floating from the speakers, singing demos of three songs Luis Russell had written for Armstrong.
“My dad had submitted these tunes to Louis Armstrong with a letter,” Cat Russell recounts. "[It read] ‘Hey, Pops, if you record these things, we’ll both be doing well in our old age.’ ”
While Armstrong had become a global icon, Russell worked as a chauffeur for the president of Yeshiva University toward the end of his life. He died in 1963.