Although there were a lot of orchestras around in the late 1920s and they were playing everything from ballroom music to dixieland, a new style was beginning to evolve. Ironically, ‘hot’ jazz became the coolest thing around, and its rising popularity soon led to the beginning of the big band era, a period that would see many bandleaders attain the kind of fame that made them the rock stars of their day. But some seemed to miss the express to big-time fame.
Luis Carl Russell was born in Panama in 1902, and as the son of a music teacher he grew up proficient on a number of instruments, including violin, guitar, trombone, and piano. He was still in his mid-teens when he first began working professionally by playing piano for silent films, but his fortunes rose when he won some money in a lottery, allowing his family to emigrate to America.
Newly relocated in New Orleans, Russell was in the perfect spot to immerse himself in a rich mix of just about every kind of music, and for several years he did just that. By the mid-1920s he’d earned his chops working as a pianist in the area and subsequently decided to move to Chicago, where he soon joined the legendary King Oliver’s band. Russell was never a virtuoso as a pianist but he fit in well with the group and gained a lot of experience along the way. When Oliver relocated to New York a couple of years later he went along, but shortly thereafter left the group to start his own band.
Over the next few years Russell was one of the biggest stars of early jazz, leading a highly-respected band and working with guys like Louis Armstrong and Red Allen, not only in clubs but also on dozens of good records. But as the 1930s got underway, Russell seemed to begin to fade from sight. Armstrong eventually took over leadership of his dynamic band, and Russell scuffled along for several years while occasionally forming short-lived groups. He resurfaced in the late 1940s to lead a band for club dates and the occasional record, but never really made much of a splash. By late in the decade he was pretty much out of music, although he played the occasional guest spots — including one appearance he made late in life in his native Panama. He died at age 61 in 1963.
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