Sandi Russell (Sandra Anita Russell, Harlem, New York City, January 16, 1946 - June 23, 2017) was an American jazz singer.
She was born to James "Jimmy" and Gazetta "Etta" Russell. She was a descendant, through her mother, of the Native American tribe who befriended the first English settlers in Virginia, and the African slaves who helped create America. Sandi grew up in Harlem during the U.S. Civil Rights era.
Sandi was educated at the New York City High School of Music and Art; Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York; and Hunter College of the City of New York. She trained as a classical musician before becoming a professional jazz singer. Sandi spent her first thirty-odd years in New York City, becoming a teacher, and then a superb jazz singer, performing in Manhattan's finest venues.
Sandi moved to England in 1984. She continued to perform and record with other outstanding musicians, while developing a parallel career as a journalist and writer. Her highly praised book, Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present appeared on both sides of the Atlantic in 1991, (2nd edition in 2002), and was the basis for an acclaimed one-woman show that Sandi performed throughout Europe and the U.K. ELLA! , her one-woman show about the life and music of Ella Fitzgerald, also united Sandi's exceptional gifts as a singer and writer. Her major recorded albums Incandescent and Sweet Thunder , were released in 2001 and 2007, respectively. Sandi's novel, Color , set in Tidewater County, Virginia, was published in 2013, and favourably compared with the work of William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.
Sandi published essays, poems, and short stories, and contributed interviews and reviews to The Women's Review (London), and Wasafiri (Canterbury). She contributed to Daughters of Africa (Jonathan Cape) and Glancing Fires (The Women's Press), and co-edited the Virago Book of Love Poetry . She guest lectured at many universities and conferences in Britain and Europe and appeared on British (BBC) and American (Voice of America) radio. Sandi was a jazz vocal instructor at Durham University, Durham, England, and an Honorary Fellow of St. Chad's College, Durham.
Sandi Russell died on June 23, 2017.
Hearing Martin Luther King preach and Malcolm X speak on her own street shaped the identity of the jazz singer, writer and educator Sandi Russell, who has died aged 71.
Born in New York City, she grew up in Harlem during the civil rights era. Her mother, Etta (nee Adkins), was descended from Native Americans who befriended the first English settlers in Virginia; her father, James, was descended from enslaved Africans.
A voracious reader in a home without books, she had a Saturday job in the library of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, from which she could borrow. A passionate listener, she tuned her ear to improvisatory jazz: Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and the great divas Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae.
Sandi’s own gift for music gained her scholarships to the New York City high school of music and art, where she worked with the composer Leonard Bernstein and performed at Lincoln Center, then to Syracuse University where, in the first cohort of black students at a previously white university, she was trained to sing the classical western repertoire. After a postgraduate course at Hunter College, New York, Sandi taught for eight years in the tough South Bronx.
Aged 30, she became a professional jazz singer, touring with a mixed band in the south. Humphrey Lyttelton would later describe her phrasing as “hair-raising” – like her life on the road. She was adored by audiences and praised by critics; in Philadelphia, where she shared a bill with Oscar Peterson, the Inquirer wrote: “Sandi Russell is strictly superb.”
In 1984, Sandi moved to Britain, where she performed at festivals and in London clubs. Her two major albums, Incandescent (2001) and Sweet Thunder (2007), demonstrate her vocal range, rich musicality, emotional commitment and exceptional scat singing.
Sandi had meanwhile developed a parallel career as a journalist and writer, initially with the Women’s Review, then in collections such as Daughters of Africa. In 1991, her groundbreaking book Render Me My Song: African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present appeared on both sides of the Atlantic and was the basis of a powerful one-woman show that engaged a new generation and identified Sandi as a vital interpreter of African-American culture to the wider world. She followed up with ELLA!, about the life and music of Ella Fitzgerald, which toured the UK.
From her early 40s onwards, Sandi was treated for congenital kidney disease but continued to sing and broadcast until the physical demands of travel, rehearsal and performance became too much. Latterly from her home in Durham she was a voice tutor for the university’s music school, she initiated the city’s jazz festival, and published a novel, Color (2013), set in Tidewater County, Virginia.
Sandi’s was a life lived for music, language, integrity, humanity and for enriching the lives of others.
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