For SF WEEKLY: In a thousand years, people will still be listening to the music of jazz artist Louis Armstrong. At least, so says singer and bandleader Catherine Russell, who will perform Armstrong’s music with her band for four nights at the SFJAZZ Centre, July 16-19.
“Every time I listen to Louis Armstrong, I feel better,” Russell told SF Weekly. “Why is that? His music is like medicine because his whole life is in every note he plays or sings. He doesn’t leave anything behind. He gives all of himself. That translates to people.”
Armstrong’s musical career spans the 1920s through the 1960s, and it’s impossible to listen to jazz or discuss it without noting his fingerprint. As a trumpeter, singer, bandleader, composer, and collaborator, he developed, shaped, and influenced the jazz form in ways that carry on in everyone who’s ever picked up an instrument and attempted to play jazz in his wake. Both Armstrong’s voice and trumpet are instantly recognizable from the very first note.
Russell’s connection to Armstrong began at age 4, when she met him at his home in Queens through her father, who was working as Armstrong’s orchestra leader in the mid-’30s and ’40s. Armstrong’s music was some of the first she heard in her life. Russell won a Grammy for her cover of the 1920s song “Crazy Blues” in Season 1 of the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. She’s performed and recorded with David Bowie, Rosanne Cash, Paul Simon, and Steely Dan, and has recorded five solo albums. NPR called her 2006 debut release, Cat, one of the top 10 jazz albums of that year.
Russell says Armstrong was able to personalize everything he did. He could sing Disney tunes and make them sound honest, by relating to the material and breathing life into it. Because of this, Armstrong could “elevate” audiences and fellow musicians in his performances, something she strives to do as well.
“It’s like I’m throwing a party and people are my guests,” Russell says. “We like to have fun. I choose stuff I can personalize, things I can live through. I’m always telling a story in the present moment. That’s what Louis Armstrong did. The fervor and the passion are always in the moment. He took such good care of his audiences. That is my goal, too.”
“Catherine Russell: The Music of Louis Armstrong” performances take place July 16-19 in the Joe Henderson Lab at SFJAZZ. Shows begin at 7 and 8:30 pm.
Image: Marc Goldshmitt