The U.S. first celebrated Negro History Week, the brainchild of historian Carter G. Woodson, in February 1926. Woodson started Negro History Week to fill some gaps in U.S. history as it was then written, absent any mention of the accomplishments of African Americans. Fifty years later, Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the sponsoring organization, expanded the weeklong commemoration to a month. Now, each February the federal government, employers, politicians, and civic leaders in the U.S. acknowledge the importance of African American History Month. This February, several singers—each a history-maker in her own right—will pay tribute to our country’s African American heritage.
As the daughter of trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s arranger/bandleader Luis Russell and singer/instrumentalist Carline Ray, Catherine Russell grew up in and amongst jazz nobility. This pedigree makes her the perfect host for Who Is Louis Armstrong?, an hour-long family concert at JALC Rose on Feb. 4. In the concert Russell will sing, tell stories, and play recordings as she walks the audience through the life of one of our greatest jazz musicians. Trumpeter Anthony Hervey, already an accomplished musician for his 19 years, will join Russell in recalling Armstrong’s legion contributions to American culture as a singer, musician, actor, and jazz innovator.
Russell’s own path as a musician has led her to collaborations outside of jazz with artists like David Bowie, Steely Dan, Cyndi Lauper, Jackson Browne, Michael Feinstein, and Paul Simon. But she’s received most of her acclaim for her work as a jazz singer. In 2012 she won a shared Grammy Award for her rolling rendition of “Crazy Blues,” which appeared on the soundtrack album for the hit TV show Boardwalk Empire. This year she’s nominated again—this time for Best Vocal Jazz Album. Harlem On My Mind (Jazz Village), released September 2016, is an elegant album that digs deep into the vocal jazz tradition and reveals Russell’s tremendous versatility as a singer. (See the September VoxNews column for a review.) Two days after the Grammy Awards broadcast on Feb. 12, Russell will be at Birdland for a Feb. 14-18 run.
The Code Noir was a nasty bit of legislation in the late 17th century that legitimized the horrifying treatment of slaves in the French colonies of the Caribbean and North America. Singer/composer Carmen Lundy borrows the title of her latest album from this oppressive code; in so doing she reclaims the power of the African diaspora and its influence on modern music. The 12 originals on Code Noir (Afrasia Productions) cut a swath through the musical genres that derive from African-based rhythms and styles—bossa nova, funk, the blues, swing, jazz, and the avant garde. These songs “encompass the many emotions that are prevalent in the country right now,” writes Lundy on her website. “We are going through tough times, with a country that is sorely divided, and many of these tracks reflect the feelings that we...are going through on an individual level.” Lundy will offer a preview of the album at Birdland Jan. 31-Feb. 4 before the release of the recording on Feb. 17.
One of Lundy’s followers is innovative singer Charenee Wade, who leapt into prominence with the release of her debut album, Love Walked In (s/p), in July 2010. Subsequent to this album, in October 2010, Wade placed for the second time in the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition—something that no singer had done before. But it was with her 2015 album, Offering: The Music of Gil Scot-Heron & Brian Jackson (Motema) that Wade established herself as one of her generation’s finest arrangers of jazz compositions for voice. Wade, the first woman to record the music of Gil Scot-Heron, “represents the future,” says drummer Alvester Garnett, who worked with her on the album. On Feb. 18 Wade will appear with her regular band to perform in Monk in Motion, a program at Tribeca Performing Arts Center that showcases former Monk competition finalists.
The Count Basie Orchestra is one of the longest-living jazz institutions in the world. Basie started the jazz big band in 1935 in Kansas City, and it has stayed together in one form or another almost without interruption since then. The band has furthered the careers of some of the world's most iconic jazz singers—Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams, and Billy Eckstine among them; modern-day jazz icon Dee Dee Bridgewater will participate in this tradition when she fronts the band at Blue Note on Jan. 31-Feb. 5.
(Reprinted from the February 2017 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)