The Strathmore continues its Shades of Blues festival tomorrow with a performance by a powerhouse trio of vocalists that channel the spirits of the divas of the past. They’ll prove to you that the blues, a uniquely American cultural creation, is as ageless and relevant as ever.
Catherine Russell, Brianna Thomas and Charenee Wade join together for the first time as part of Jazz at Lincoln Center Presents: Ladies Sing the Blues with a seven-piece band led by pianist Mark Shane. Their arrangements will transport you back to the time when you’d gather in a crowded, brick-walled nightclub to listen to the innuendo, longing, love and pain of 1920s blues divas Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Ethel Waters.
Catherine Russell is a Grammy Award-winning vocalist who has recently released her sixth album, Harlem on My Mind. Russell grew up surrounded by music. Her father, the late Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s musical director, and her mother, Carline Ray, a vocalist and instrumentalist – both were seeped in the musical culture of the golden age of Harlem jazz. On Tap spoke with Russell about tomorrow night’s performance, and the state of blues music in 2017.
On Tap: Which blues divas have influenced your singing the most, and which songs are you most looking forward to interpreting?
Catherine Russell: In addition to those listed above (Smith, Rainey, Walters), we also pay tribute to Alberta Hunter, Victoria Spivey and Sippie Wallace. I include a tune by Fats Waller (can’t forget Fats!), and another recorded by my father’s orchestra in 1930. I am influenced by all of these artists equally, even though I’ve recorded tunes that were originally recorded by Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters. I can’t say I have a favorite song in this program; they are all my favorites because they are great tunes and fun to sing!
OT: The blues was born out of a uniquely African American experience. Do you think the blues are still relevant to the African American experience now? How do you want to interpret it for the 21st century, and especially in 2017?
CR: The blues will always be relevant because it’s music that’s personal and reflects how we feel. It literally saved lives in the African American community by giving people a chance to improve their circumstances, particularly through recording and performing, so the music could reach a wide audience. Many blues themes are universal so everyone can relate to them, so the stories bring people together.
OT: What are you hoping the audience will take away from your performance and the songs of these women?
CR: First and foremost, I want the audience to have fun! The tunes are arranged very closely to the original recordings, so you can hear how the they might have been played in a live setting so many years ago. Charenee Wade and Brianna Thomas are exceptional artists, and together we are united in keeping this music alive, and not relegated to just the history books.
OT: How do you envision the future of jazz and blues music?
CR: The future of the music is in the hands of those who keep recording and performing it. Jazz and blues will forever evolve as they should, and we also need to keep the roots of this music alive so we never forget where we come from. And once again, it’s fun!
OT: People say that you can sing virtually anything! What’s your favorite song and/or genre to sing that might be unexpected to people that only know you as a blues and jazz vocalist?
CR: Thank you for the compliment! I love, and am influenced by, many styles of music. People might be surprised to hear that I love classic country music. Patsy Cline and George Jones are two of my favorite singers, and I also love Dolly Parton. They all interpret a lyric like nobody else, and their singing styles are very soulful. I also love harmony singing such as The Louvin Brothers and The Stanley Brothers. It’s beautiful to hear great family harmony singing.
Catch Russell, Thomas and Wade at Ladies Sing the Blues on Saturday, April 8 at 8 p.m. at the Strathmore. Tickets start at $35.
The Music Center at Strathmore: 5301 Tuckerman Ln. North Bethesda, MD; 301-581-5200; www.strathmore.org