Cat's party

Vocalist Catherine Russell, who will lead a master class on November 6, talks about singing, following dreams and making the world a happier place.

By Gigi Kisela '17

“It’s like throwing a party, and they’re my guests, and I just want them to have a good time,” said vocalist Catherine Russell, who was talking about audience members. I got goosebumps. My fingers rippled subconsciously as though keying my saxophone and dreaming fondly of lavish parties that, in the hands of good hosts, might look and sound like this: a smooth double-bass host that turned the party into a slow-dance, a lung-bursting Catherine Russellsousaphone host that called for a New Orleans street party to pulse through the night, or a nimble-fingered band-leading piano host with his upbeat count-in propelling guests into the extravagance of big-band Gatsby excess.

That's what Russell does: She stirs the visceral and musical. Her Learning From Performers master class on Nov. 6 at Leverett House Theatre is sure to do the same. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1956 into a fine calibre of musicianship as the daughter of Luis Russell (Louis Armstrong's band leader) and Carline Ray (pianist, singer and bassist), Cat Russell – as she is called – attended incredible parties before she threw them herself while first trying a variety of ways to host them.

“Piano, violin, tuba – because my mother’s father, my grandfather, played the tuba and the sousaphone – sax…” she began when I asked her about her start. She told of a rich gratitude to her mother for her unwavering support and encouragement of creative exploration: She rented every instrument her daughter wanted to try and attended every performance she could.

Still, Russell's music career started gradually. As a child, she danced professionally with the Katherine Dunham Dance Company in Aida at the Metropolitan Opera, and she piggy-backed on her mother’s interest in choral singing. She liked the singing enough to audition successfully for both the Westminster Choir College and the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. In the 1980s, when an artist friend of Carline Ray was looking for a replacement singer, she suggested her daughter. It's likely that was the post-dance wave that started the rippling motion toward her illustrious musical career.

Instead of pinpointing an "I’ve-made-it moment," Russell described her career as a process. However, onstage singing with David Bowie in Ziggy Stardust, she thought, “This is really cool.” And of course, there's the 2012 Grammy Award she won. I reminded her of that. “I mean, I felt pretty good about that,” she downplayed jokingly, laughing.

I wondered: Do these “really cool” and “pretty good” experiences on respected platforms translate into social justice? We acknowledged that this was a massive question to unpack in one conversation, but she believes everything one does should not be separate from what one believes.

“Music is the soundtrack and battle cry for these causes," she said. "It eases pain.” She recalled singer and human rights activist Odetta Holmes who, while not at the front line of protests, would perform at them to do exactly that: Ease the pain. Russell’s musical style is, for her, a return to her roots and a career-long acknowledgement to those who paved her way. “My mother could not go to places where I can now perform,” she said. 

Russell wants to pave the way for others, too. She sums up her Harvard master class in one word: inspiration. Turns out, her favorite guests at her "parties" are young people – as she gets a special joy from seeing their passion for music and developing artistry.

“I want them to inspire themselves and to be inspired," she said.

Russell acknowledged that the arts can be a challenging career choice, but she emphasized that every path has its challenges. Carry on, she advised. 

“Later on, you’ll regret that you didn’t try – even though you didn’t like the road," she said. "[Your parents] will come around, and once they see you acknowledged by other people – an audience – as evidence, don’t worry about it.”

Goosebumps again for me, and this time with hope. You might as well pursue your dreams, Russell said and added: "If more people pursued their dreams, it would be a happier world.”

 Catherine Russell will be running a jazz vocals master class presented by the Office for the Arts’ Learning from Performers program 4 p.m. Friday, November 6 in Leverett House. See the event page for more details. This project is supported by the Bernard H. and Mildred Kayden Artist in Residence Fund.