An Interview with Indigenous Artist in Residence Russell Wallace

This year, Coastal Jazz is thrilled to present Russell Wallace as the 2019 Indigenous Artist in Residence.

Please introduce yourself and what nation you are from.
My name is Russell Wallace and I am from the Lil’wat Nation. My parents were Ray and Flora Wallace.

What excites you about this residency?
I am excited by getting an opportunity to work with some great musicians. I am also excited by creating new work based on St’át’imc language, Salish music form, and investigating Indigenous contributions to Jazz.

Can you tell us a bit about your own creative practice?
I am a traditional singer of Lil’wat music and approach a lot of my compositions from that perspective. A lot of my composition comes from improvisation.

What guides or informs the music you make?
I originally started western music by playing the guitar. I sang with my mom when I was really young out in the community and had a knowledge of our traditional songs form back then. In the 80s I bought a synth and a sequencer and dabbled in electronic music. I still work with electronics and sequencing and that has helped me arrange and produce music for soundtracks.

Who were your influences, guides and/or mentors?
The first 2 albums I bought as a 12 year old really influenced my musical tastes and they were both so different from each other, one was Steely Dan’s Aja and the other was the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. I loved the chords and harmonies on Aja and loved the bass, beats, and repetitions I heard on SNF. Later on I would be inspired by Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, and house music. My mom was always my mentor but I would meet artists that really made me think about what I do as a singer and composer, people like Sadie Buck, Lee Maracle, Jennifer Kreisberg, Dana Claxton, Rosa John, and many more.

What were some of the barriers you faced on your artistic path, and what keeps you going?
Finances were always a barrier. One major barrier was Canadian history and its effects on my parents. There is very little documentation of Salish music and my mom suffered many abuses at residential school but her determination to keep on singing saved a lot of music from disappearing. Elders have kept our music alive when a whole country was trying to obliterate it. I am so thankful for my mom teaching me and also having the patience to see me grow as an artist. One of her final wishes was for my family and I to keep singing the songs and sharing our history. So my mom’s wish keeps me doing what I do.

What would you like to tackle next?
I would love to work on another draft of the musical I wrote years ago about Mildred Bailey. I believe it is important that we hear Indigenous people’s contributions to the arts. Mildred had a very Salish way of singing and that way of singing really impacted and influenced the way jazz is sung today.

What advice do you have for emerging artists?
Keep on doing what you want to do, nobody may understand what you are attempting but one day they will and try many things. I learned so much by working with many different people. Collaboration can be very exciting and mind expanding.

Tell us about The Tillicum Shantie Project and the inspiration behind it?
I wanted to share some traditional music on stage with a great jazz ensemble. I also wanted to highlight some Indigenous arts who have made some significant contributions to jazz such as Mildred Bailey and Jim Pepper. I will be writing new songs based on St’át’imc language and, with the help of Tony Wilson, arrange some traditional music.

Russell Wallace’s Tillicum Shantie Project performs June 21, National Indigenous Peoples Day, at noon on the Granville Island Public Market Stage.

Russell Wallace photos by Mark Mushet

The movement for reconciliation in Canada has spurred necessary and positive changes in the arts communities, and communities at large in Canada. Coastal Jazz has an opportunity to participate in reconciliation, by recognizing and supporting Indigenous artists.

Where to see other Indigenous artists at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival:

MYSTERY BAND (announced June 1)
June 22, Downtown Jazz 7:30pm

DJ Shub
Downtown Jazz
June 23 @ 7:30pm

Performance Works
June 23 @ 8:00pm

Eastern Medicine Singers
David Lam Park
June 30 @ 7:00pm

Blue Moon Marquee
Granville Island Ron Basford stage
July 1 @ 5:00pm