Catherine Russell and Paul Kahn on the legacy of pianist and bandleader Luis Russell
Catherine Russell's music comes from deep inside. Her mother, Carline Ray, was an early member of The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the outstanding all-female band of the 1940's. Her father, Luis Russell, was the pianist and musical director for his good friend, Louis Armstrong. Cleaning out her late mother's closet one day, "Cat" came upon boxes of tapes, which turned out to be long forgotten recordings of her father with Louis Armstrong in the late 1930's; leading his own Luis Russell Orchestra, featuring vocalists Sonny Woods and Midge Williams; even some solo piano work of tunes by Willie "The Lion" Smith and Lucky Roberts, one of the baddest cats to ever stride into a piano hall. Music from those tapes have just been released in an album entitled At the Swing Cats Ball: Newly Discovered Recordings from the Closet, Volume 1, 1938-1940 from the Dot Time label. Note the Volume 1 in the title, meaning there is more music to come.
Paul Kahn is quite an authority on Luis Russell's life, first investigating Luis when first dating Cat (they're now married), and later completing his Master’s dissertation on Luis Russell at Rutgers University. Together, their insight is a unique look into the treasure trove that was Luis Russell.
Gary Walker: Let’s start by talking about a tune called “The New Call of the Freaks.” In fact, it was his theme song for a while, in addition to many other tunes that he wrote, like “Saratoga” and “Louisiana Swing” and “Saratoga Shout.” He was also part of a number of firsts. We're going to talk about Luis Russell a little bit today. He grew up in Panama around a musical family. I think his father was called Teach Russell, if I'm not mistaken. He taught not only his son, but a lot of people in Panama, about the world of music. Is that right?
Paul Kahn: Yes, that is correct. He was known as Teacher Russell—Felix Alexander Russell.
Luis, at the very young age of 17, won the lottery. Today when most people win the lottery, the stories are that they bought a big house, they bought a new car and did all this stuff. In contrast, Luis Russell took the $3,000 that he won and moved with his mother and sister to New Orleans. He started a new life there working in clubs in and around town. The communal association of musicians brought him together with one Louis Armstrong. Paul and Cat, talk about those early times in New Orleans.
How did the two of them come together and go to Chicago after that fact?
Luis Russell was the house pianist at Tom Anderson’s and Armstrong would come and sit in with them. That's where they first met in early 1922. Then Armstrong went to Chicago first in 1923 to join his mentor, Joe “King” Oliver. Russell and the other musicians went to Chicago at the end of 1924 also to join Joe “King” Oliver. There was a little separation, but it all came together.
It certainly did, and there's been some discoveries, and that's what we're here to talk about today, At the Swing Cats Ball, which is also one of the compositions of Luis Russell. It's Volume One, which means there's going to be a Volume Two, my friends. This first volume covers 1938 to 1940, and it opens with Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra at the Grand Terrace in Chicago. What's important about the first part of these recordings here?
Catherine Russell: Let me first talk about how we came upon these. They were actually sitting in my mother's closet in her apartment, so that is why it's called Newly Discovered Recordings from the Closet.
After my dad passed, Carline Ray kept all of my dad's artifacts and archival materials. My dad saved everything—photographs, acetates, etc.—which is where these recordings come from. One day I was cleaning out her apartment, I opened up a closet. The shelf was collapsing with all of this stuff.
I took all the stuff down and it happened to be a treasure trove of my father's things that he had saved. He saved everything, like Louis Armstrong. I brought all that stuff home, showed it to Paul, and he said, “Oh my goodness, what is all of this?” Included in this collection were acetates of some of these recordings that we later had restored. It was very exciting to come upon these things, but they were in terrible shape. A gentleman named Doug Pomeroy, who's a scientist and restorer of recordings, cleaned these up for us. We were able to use most of what we found.
The amazing thing about this collection that has just come out on Dot Time Records is that in spite of some of the technical difficulties, because the recordings go way back, is the fact that you still get the feeling that you're right there. You hear Louis Armstrong and there’s an announcer that brings him out. The band is just smoking.
Catherine Russell: Yeah, it's really fun. That's the part that I love, the feeling that I'm right there with the orchestra, because I don't get to hear music like that now. You get the excitement and it's great.
You certainly do get the excitement. Now, Cat grew up in the house with Carline Ray and Luis Russell, although he passed I think when you were about seven years old. But there are still some sense memory about your daddy sitting at the piano and playing, right?
Catherine Russell: Well, you know, he practiced a lot. I'm not sure if he was coming home from a gig in that photo of the two of us, but I always wanted to know what he was doing. He would sit at the piano and practice a lot, mostly classical pieces. And he was also very well dressed in the house. It's not unusual that he would look like that just sitting at home, dressed up and practicing. We had an excellent relationship for the time that I had him. Since his last job was as a chauffeur, he was probably in his chauffeur uniform at that point.
These are amazing recordings though. If you go back, you can listen to some of those great recordings of Louis Armstrong. What made them so great was the fact that it was basically the Luis Russell Orchestra with Louis Armstrong. Then it became the Louis Armstrong Orchestra later on. But it was put together by Luis Russell. The amazing thing about this to me is that you're looking at ten cats together, sounding like 16. That had a lot to do with the arranging of Luis Russell and how he approached the music. Listening to those acetates, you can tell he’s asking, “How can I make this tune better? How can I make this tune different? How can I approach it this particular way?” Paul, I know you write in your dissertation about Luis Russell being involved with a number of firsts. Talk about some of those firsts that kind of set the tone for just how important someone like Luis Russell is.
Paul Kahn: He was the first Panamanian jazz superstar. He also has an odd distinction of being the first famous orchestra to be taken over by another star, Louis Armstrong. He invented a lot of recording techniques. Like in “The New Call of the Freaks,” he ends the song by fading before there were mechanical faders in the studio where an engineer could just hold back the volume. He had everyone play softer and that was the ending. He invented that. So those are a few of the firsts.
About these recordings in 1938 in Chicago and throughout the collection, I believe that Luis decided to record for his own edification and to hear how he was doing. The curatorial stamp on this collection is like when musicians today play gigs and they ask the soundman, “Can I have a board tape?” Since this is the digital era, they give you a CD right away of your performance. What Luis was doing was use what they had at the time—a thing called presto discs where they literally had had one wire dropping a needle and cutting the performance onto shellac or aluminum or glass.
That's what we found in the closet. Luis took the stuff on those discs home. He listened to it repeatedly, so it was very worn, hence the rough sound quality. But the performances capture the spirit and they swing so hard. It's also a beautiful example of musical telepathy, the way the orchestra plays and backs up Armstrong, that kind of staccato sections and the call and response with arranging between the brass and the horns. This was his specialty, also supporting vocalists.
I would say another first is that Luis Russell introduced the idea to Louis Armstrong of having other vocalists on the show. After all, it was a variety show, and up until that point in his career, Louis Armstrong just went out and fronted an orchestra. When he started working with Luis Russell, he brought Sonny Woods and Bobbe Caston, who were then the singers with the Luis Russell Orchestra, along with him, into what then became Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra.
There's also a vocalist, Midge Williams, that I was unfamiliar with until listening to this collection At the Swing Cats Ball: Newly Discovered Recordings From the Closet. Aren't we glad she decided to clean the closet? If I clean my closet, there’s nothing in there but a bunch of old shirts that don't fit. You talk about your daddy's ability to reimagine. I look at the second collection here, Luis Russell's Orchestra Live, location and dates unknown. You can put yourself in a time of your own choosing if you'd like, but I'm thinking of the arrangement of “Ol' Man River.” Most people think of that tune as being slow and purposeful and maudlin, but this is at breakneck speed. Sonny Woods is the vocalist on this tune.
Catherine Russell: Yes, when I first heard Sonny, I was so inspired because it's the mix of classical training. He's obviously classically trained. I don't know where he studied or who he studied with, but that is a trained tenor voice that also sings the blues, which in our community was not an unusual thing. You don't really hear that a lot these days, but just the mix of those two things. It's just a beautiful tenor voice and just a beautiful interpretation of “Ol' Man River.”
When I first heard that, I just thought, “Wow.” and I played this in Ricky Ricardi’s class where I was a guest last night. He had one of his students who is an opera singer in the class. I said, “Listen, I want to play this for you. Listen to this.” She said, “Oh, that sounds like La Traviata.” That's it. She loved it, she loved the quality. That's what is so exciting.
Sonny Woods was from Pittsburgh, right? You wonder, where does somebody acquire that background? Of course, Pittsburgh is a real ground swell of great, fabulous musicians. The drummers in the band too. I mean, your daddy just had a knack for timekeepers. They included along with Paul Barbarin, Sid Catlett and later on, even Roy Haynes played with your daddy.
Catherine Russell: Only the best. My dad sought out the best players all the time that he could find. He went from the A-team to the A-team, basically. I understand that. Why wouldn't you?
In the saxophone section, there was Albert Nicholas and Charlie Holmes and we referenced JC Higginbotham earlier. These are some of the cats that made this kind of music and they were able to make this kind of music because they lived this kind of music day in and day out. Paul, as you studied the life of Luis Russell academically, what were some of the things that you uncovered that surprised you about Luis Russell?
Paul Kahn: In jazz history, Luis Russell was extremely under-recognized. One jazz historian wrote me an email from Italy and he said Luis was criminally neglected. So that was a big discovery. The orchestra he led in New York City in 1929 and 1930, which included Red Allen, Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, JC Higginbottom, Paul Barbarin and Pops Foster on these recordings in the collection issued.
He was considered in the first book on jazz history to be a rival of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson in the New York scene. He had that kind of stature. Jazz Men, the first collection on jazz history which came out on a major publisher in 1939, is where he is mentioned. That was a revelation.
I'm thinking about an event that I read about, either in your dissertation or in the wonderful notes from this collection, about a gig that took place at Randall's Island in the late 1930s. Cab Calloway was there and the Basie Band was there and last but not least was the Luis Russell Orchestra. Can you imagine? It's kind of like when Illinois Jacquet used to play that solo on “Flying Home” for the audience at Newport with Hampton Band and people were jumping in the water.
Just fantastic stuff and it's captured here on this collection from Dot Time Records, At the Swing Cats Ball: Newly Discovered Recordings from the Closet, and out in public for you to enjoy and maybe practice your own dance steps. Where are the Lindy Hoppers today? That’s what we need. With all respect to the hip hoppers, I'd rather see some more Lindy Hoppers.
Catherine Russell: They're still Lindy Hopping. They're just not jumping and doing all of the moves that I remember seeing in the videos. They're not flying through the air, going through the legs of the other person and stuff like that. That was exciting.
Norma Miller was one of those ladies.
Catherine Russell: That's right. She was one of the pioneers. There is a lot of swing dancing going on which is encouraging. I think they'll slowly get back to that.
Paul Kahn: I'm glad you mentioned the Randall's Island gig because that was one of the first jazz festivals ever. One of the functions of this collection is to dispel some myths of jazz history. One of which is that when Louis Armstrong took over or started fronting the Luis Russell Orchestra, that was the end of Luis Russell. But for the five years, from 1935 until 1940, Luis Russell continued to perform and do gigs as the Luis Russell Orchestra. Some of those are on this collection, including “At the Swing Cats Ball,” which was an original of his that he performed at that Randall's Island Festival. Armstrong would go off and do Hollywood films and other projects. And Luis Russell would play a week at the Apollo Theater as a headliner right up until 1940.
You also had other people like Louie Jordan looking over his shoulder, “Ooh, that's something for my small group.”
Paul Kahn: Well, a cool thing is that while Luis Russell never recorded his original co-write “At the Swing Cats Ball,” Louie Jordan did.
And so did his daughter, Catherine.
Catherine Russell: It's so much fun to sing, so much fun to do.
Paul, you referenced dispelling certain things about this music and specifically as it relates to Luis Russell. Some people did not think that he was really much of a piano player, but this collection dispels that rumor because there are three Willie the Lion Smith tracks, and one of the baddest cats to stride into any piano hall, Luckey Roberts.
Paul Kahn: Well, it was an amazing discovery when we found these acetate tapes and they were listed as Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra and Luis Russell's solo piano recorded by Chappie Willet. We just went, “Wow, we have to hear this stuff.” Luis Russell came up in Harlem with James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Willie the Lion Smith, and all the great stride piano players including Luckey Roberts and Duke Ellington. He was a serious student of stride piano style. We just didn't know that he made recordings of himself performing in that matter until we found these.
You can hear the artistry within these pieces of music because a solo performance, I don't care who you are, is like giving a speech with no clothes on. He's sitting here whipping through these Willie the Lion Smith tunes like they were his tunes. That's one of the biggest marks of true artistry. When someone can sit down at a piano or stand up at a microphone and sing a story that is not theirs originally, but by the time they're done, you believe they live that story. That was Luis. One of the highlights for me is Luckey Roberts’ “Moonlight Cocktail.” It just doesn't get any better than that.
Cat, as you were growing up with your daddy early on, you spent time together at the piano. What are some of your recollections of Luis Russell, your father?
Catherine Russell: We had, I think, a gold Branson piano. I don't know where that comes from, but that's what I remember. I remember the sound of the piano because he did a lot of practicing. When he wasn't practicing, he was sitting at his film editing machine splicing video or I guess film at that point that he had taken of me, and a lot of family footage from Louis and Lucille's home in Queens and different scenes in Harlem, like the Caribbean parade. He was kind of a home movie fanatic.
Boy, can I relate to that. Did he have the big light bar and stuff?
Catherine Russell: He had the projector, he had the machine, the display. He'd sit there and be editing with a razor blade, cutting the film, editing and putting this piece over here and putting that piece over there. That is how we spent our time together, that's what I remember.
It's funny because my childhood memory is that every Christmas started with burnt corneas, because we'd wake up in the middle of the night, and we’d creep into the living room. It's dark, there's no lights, and all of a sudden this light bar would come on, because my father was there with the Bell and Howell, shooting and saying, “Okay, kids look happy.” I can’t, my eyes hurt.
Catherine Russell: He had the whole set. We still have all that here. It was like a greenish color. He had all that stuff. He would be filming me on the porch with our neighbors in Washington Heights. We found all kinds of stuff recently. We're going to go through all of that and see what else we have. I remember as well that he was a good cook. I grew up eating very well.
You come from such a musical household. Catherine's mother, Carline Ray, one of the original Sweethearts of Rhythm, and one of the first women to ever get a graduate degree in music from Juilliard.
Catherine Russell: Yes, she went to Juilliard for five years. She started out as a concert piano major and then switched to composition. She was actually there for five years, from 1941 to 1946. The guitar, which she played with the Sweethearts, we still have.
The first time I saw you, it was you and your mom and Carrie Smith at the Citi Corp Center sometime in the 1980s. I thought, “Wow, how these people make so much music.”
Catherine Russell: Carrie Smith was fantastic. My mother was working with Miss Smith and actually got me involved in that scene. We went over to Europe and did gospel and jazz tours and things like that. Miss Carrie Smith was also a great mentor of mine, because I actually learned about how to live on the road from Carrie Smith.
When you look at some people’s artistry, you reference DNA. But in some instances, I call it DNE—Do nothing else. Just do nothing else. Paul, earlier in our conversation today, you referenced the fact that Luis Russell was a Panamanian superstar. Indeed, at the Panama Jazz Festival, which is now put together by Danilo Perez, you got to go back there. Cat you got to perform with the Luis Russell All Stars. You got to see the Yellow House.
Catherine Russell: The Luis Russell Collective, which is a group of Panamanian musicians dedicated to playing the music of Luis Russell. Paul had gone to Panama last year and they had premiered another one of dad's tunes named “Bocas del Toro,” which is where he was from. When I went back this time, I got to perform that tune with them. It was the second time that that song had ever been played. There was just a lead sheet to it, so they figured out, “Okay, let's make it sound like this.” It’s kind of a calypso sounding tune.
From the lead sheet you can kind of figure out the rhythm that was intended. Then I brought it to my band. We also performed it down there, and that has continued in our show. There are a lot of lead sheets that we've discovered of things that were never recorded. We're going through those now. “Lucille” was another one of dad's tunes that I recorded years ago. We made that discovery through Ricky Ricardi at the Louis Armstrong Archive. We continue to discover the music of Luis Russell. It's really great because his writing style was so interesting because his melodies are kind of unpredictable.
You think they sound familiar when you hear them, but when I actually sing them, they go places you don't expect them to go. Musically, he was always getting deeper into the journey of the music of the song itself. It's been an amazing journey.
Some of these nuggets that are on this collection At the Swing Cats Ball: Newly Discovered Recordings From the Closet are played and interpreted in ways that we're not used to hearing. I referenced “Old Man River,” for example. It's breakneck speed, but there's other tunes on this collection as well that are never the same. That's one of the major attractions I think for anybody. If you're not a creator of this music, you are an appreciator of this music.
I think one of the big attractions is the fact that, if it's done right, you're always surprised. You've got a tune archivist like Cat Russell who is always bringing things out and sharing them with the public. It's like, “God, I never heard of this person. You know, I didn't know about this.” For instance, I didn't know about Sonny Woods. I didn't know about Midge Williams.
Catherine Russell: I didn't either. Those are major discoveries for me of great vocalists. I'm just so happy to know about these people. So now I've discovered that Midge Williams sang with, I don't know about many different orchestras, but I've found that she performed and recorded with other orchestras. I'm looking into Midge Williams, Sonny Woods. I'm not sure where else I can find him, besides these recordings, so I'm so happy to find him here.
What's that photograph behind you on the wall?
Catherine Russell: It’s a drawing of the early Louis Armstrong photo that I was given. We did a gig on the West Coast. Someone gave me that picture from the Monterey Jazz Festival several years ago. I put it in a beautiful frame. We have Luis all over the house, so we have other photographs of him.
You're not scared of Mr. Armstrong anymore, are you? [Referencing the film of a young Catherine being picked up by Louis Armstrong.]
Catherine Russell: Oh, no. That was so funny because I didn't expect that he was going to pick me up and I think that was the whole thing that was going on with me. Then he just started talking to me. He was a very large presence. I was taken unawares and did not want to embarrass my parents by freaking out at that point. So that's all I could do right at that moment.
You've grown up yourself to be a very large presence. Whenever you take the stage, you hold the audience right in your hand. That takes a special talent and I think it's a family affair.
Catherine Russell: Well, I appreciate that. I also have big shoes to fill with my folks, so I'm always trying to improve. I'm always just trying to get better at what I do, which is trying to share an open heart with the audience.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity