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.
Luis Russell titled one of the tunes Lucille, for Armstrong’s wife. The 52-year-old demo — Satchmo never did record it — is included as a bonus track on Carline Ray’s new Vocal Sides, remarkably, her debut CD. Produced by her daughter, who sings on a couple of duets, the collection of jazz, pop and gospel standards showcases Ray’s expressive contralto.
Lucille has also become a staple of Russell’s repertoire, and she says it will be part of her show at Coral Gables Congregational. Also expect material from her previous albums — and maybe a spiritual or two, given the setting — as well as songs from her upcoming CD.
Her rich legacy notwithstanding, Russell is a product of her times. A Deadhead from her early teens, she was jolted her back into a life of jazz and blues by the 1995 death of Jerry Garcia. She tagged along with her mother to the West Village jazz club Sweet Basil, and found refuge in the music on which she had been raised.
While Russell didn’t wait as long as her mother to record a solo album, she was nearly 50 when Cat was released in 2006. For decades, the singer had been captivating New York audiences and musicians including Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, a band she has toured and recorded with for 20 years. Fagen introduced her to singer Amy Helm, which led to gigs with Helm’s father, Levon Helm of The Band, who died last year.
“Getting to work with Levon, getting to travel with Levon and record with him and be mentored by him, was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Russell says.
“And getting to be at his bedside while he was making his transition was amazing. We sang to him as he passed. I’ll carry that with me for the rest of my life.”