Sandi Russell obituary

Other lives: Jazz singer, writer and educator

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.

Diana Collecott

The GuardianTramp

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