Born in 1982 in a small town outside St. Petersburg, Katerina Brown was drawn to music as an infant. Jazz and American records were still hard to come by in the waning years of the Soviet Union, but she soaked up her father’s albums by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. Studying classical music throughout her adolescence, she started performing in local clubs as a teenager, singing mostly blues and standards. Ambitious and eager to learn more, she moved to St. Petersburg at 19 and quickly fell in with a cadre of young musicians who loved and played jazz.
A savvy bandleader by 21, she started performing regularly at the Red Lion Blues Club, which was owned by an American, and spent the next five years working steadily around the city as a blues singer. Her next big break came when she joined one of the region’s top acts, touring and recording with the Old Fashioned Blues Band. She spent about six years with the group, performing in Moscow and Ukraine and all around Russia.
Brown wanted more musical challenges, richer harmonies, and more avenues for improvisation. By 2010 she had enrolled in the Saint-Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts, delving into harmony, theory, and romance. A saxophone player she started dating, Sergey Nagorniy, gave her dozens of albums to listen to, which inspired a deep dive into YouTube. With her background in blues, she was drawn first to Dinah Washington, but before long she was smitten with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan too.
The featured vocalist with a jazz orchestra that performed under the auspices of St. Petersburg’s Cultural Centre of General Directorate of Ministry of Internal Affairs, Brown became of the city’s most visible jazz artists. Famous Russian jazz critic Vladimir Feyrtag included her name in his popular jazz encyclopedia, Jazz in Saint-Petersburg: Who Is Who, in 2014.
Her life took another turn in 2013 when she met bassist and future husband Gary Brown, who was touring in Russia with renowned Latin jazz pianist Rebeca Mauleón. He stopped by a St. Petersburg jam session where she was performing and was very complimentary about her voice; the two stayed in touch.
Eager to study jazz directly from the source in the United States, she applied for a visa and took lessons with leading creative figures such as Berklee’s Gabriel Goodman, JD Walter, and Raz Kennedy. During a monthlong stay in New York City she made the rounds, hitting jam sessions and hanging at Small’s and Birdland into the wee hours.