|This article relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (February 2010)|
Luis Carl Russell was born on Careening Cay, near Bocas del Toro, Panama, in a family of Afro-Caribbean ancestry. His father was a music teacher, and young Luis learned to play violin, guitar, trombone, and piano. He began playing professionally accompanying silent film by 1917 and later at a casino in Colón, Panama. In 1919 he won $3000 (USD) in a lottery, and used it to move to the United States with his mother and sister, settling in New Orleans, Louisiana.
He began performing with New Orleans bands, and took lessons on New Orleans style jazz piano from Steve Lewis. He played with Albert Nicholas's band, then moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1924.
Chicago and New York City
In Chicago he played with Doc Cook and King Oliver, in addition to occasional jobs under his own name and pick up bands in recording studios. With Oliver's band Russell moved to New York City in May 1927. In October of that year he left Oliver to start his own band.
By 1929, Russell's band became one of the top jazz groups in New York. It had several former Oliver sidemen. Noteworthy players in his band included trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen, trombonist J.C. Higginbotham and alto saxophonist Albert Nicholas; Armstrong wound up taking over the band as front man in 1935.
The band returned to Russell's name while Armstrong played in California and Europe in the early 1930s; Russell and Armstrong were reunited in 1935. They again split paths in 1943 when Russell formed a new band under his own name, which played at the Savoy and Apollo in Manhattan as well as in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Between 1926 and 1934, Russell recorded only 38 sides (mostly using his own name), plus those issued under Henry "Red" Allen (1929) and a handful where Louis Armstrong fronted his band. Of these, his 1929-1930 OKeh Records sides are considered jazz milestones.
After the OKeh contract ended in September 1930, Russell recorded a handful of largely unremarkable sessions for Melotone, Brunswick and Victor. An exception was the super hot "Saratoga Drag" b/w "Ease On Down" (mislabelled as "Case On Dawn" for Vocalion).
After no recordings under his name between late 1931 and late 1934, Russell recorded a session for ARC (Melotone, Perfect, Oriole, Banner, Romeo) in 1934 which yielded 6 very precise modern recordings (three featured Sonny Woods' novelty vocals, one featured the great, although obscure vocal group The Palmer Brothers. The two instrumental sides, "Primitive" and "Hokus Pokus" are amazing examples of hot jazz precision. (Sonny Woods' vocal of "Old Man River" was something of a hit.)
In 1935 Louis Armstrong took it over the orchestra altogether and for the next eight years they functioned as back-up band for Armstrong with Russell acting as the musical director. Russell led a new band from 1943-48 that played at the Savoy and Apollo and made a few recordings. The most notable of those recordings was his 1946 version of the pop standard, "The Very Thought of You".
In 1948 Russell retired from full-time music and opened a notions shop, with irregular band gigs and teaching music on the side. In 1959 he visited Panama where he gave a piano recital of classical music. Luis Russell died in New York City, aged 61.
His daughter, Catherine Russell, is a jazz singer. Russell also had two children from a previous marriage, Luis and Penelope.
- 1929-1934 (2-CD, Retrieval Records )
- Saratoga Shout (ASV Living Era )
With Louis Armstrong
- Louis & Luis, 1929-1940 (ASV Living Era )
- Scott Yanow, Luis Russell http://www.allmusic.com/artist/luis-russell-p7896/biography