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In the Jazz Tradition: Catherine Russell

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Catherine Russell was born into jazz royalty. The daughter of Luis Russell, Louis Armstrong’s longtime music director, and Carline Ray, who collaborated with the great Mary Lou Williams and played guitar for the legendary International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the New York native was raised on the best jazz the world had to offer. But Russell took a long detour to a career as a jazz singer, spending decades supporting others with her warm and flexible voice, whether touring and recording with David Bowie or singing background vocals for hundreds of albums. In 2006, Russell finally stepped into the spotlight with the first of a string of six sterling records, eventually returning to the jazz of her youth on 2016’s immaculate Harlem on My Mind. Russell has become one of jazz’s most versatile and dynamic performers, whether her voice is drifting over lonesome piano or belting over a barrelhouse band. She can be flirtatious, even lascivious, harkening back to the heyday of Bessie Smith; or slinky and seductive, channeling the ardor of the great torch singers who populate her regal jazz lineage. In October 2017, Duke Performances staged an elaborate one-hundredth birthday party for one of North Carolina’s most inventive artists and a true pioneer of jazz, Thelonious Monk. For ten days, many of jazz’s greatest musicians filled the arts venue and former warehouse Durham Fruit & Produce with the sounds of Monk’s songbook, sometimes playing it faithfully and sometimes splintering it entirely. There were engaging talks, spontaneous improvisations, and a listening room where fans could spend time with Monk’s records. Raleigh artist André Leon Gray turned the building into a shrine to Monk’s genius and a playhouse for his legacy. Durham brimmed with “moments when the spirit of Monk’s piano playing got called up and shocked back to life in the air of the present day,” according to a rave review of the festival in The New York Times. This season, Duke Performances returns to the historic warehouse for another extended musical meditation, In the Jazz Tradition, a seven-day series featuring some of the most important women vocalists in jazz today. In recent years, a legion of jazz singers has drawn inspiration from flashpoints in race relations and the struggle for gender equality, commanding a renewed sense of urgency with their music and reaffirming the relevance and popular appeal of jazz itself. Durham visual artist Stacy Lynn Waddell — who, much like the series’ singers, explores how traditional forms can express contemporary themes — will transform the space, setting the scene for a timely update on familiar jazz traditions.

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