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 Luis learned to play guitar, piano, and violin. He had begun playing professionally, accompanying silent films by 1917 and later at a casino in Colón, Panama.

He won $3,000 in a lottery and used it to move to the U.S. with his mother and sister, settling in New Orleans, Louisiana, where he worked as a pianist. He moved to Chicago in 1925 and worked with Doc Cook and King Oliver. The Oliver band moved to New York City, and Russell left to form his own band. By 1929, Russell’s band became one of the top jazz groups in New York City. It had several former Oliver sidemen. 

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