Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Pee Wee Russell by Bill Crow

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Some have suggested that Russell's eccentric style of improvisation defies description. Not true. Jazz writers have had a field day articulating and analyzing its mysterious essence. "Half B flat, half saliva," was Leonard Feather's characterization of the classic Russell tone, which was all part of a manner of phrasing that resembled "the stammering of a woman scared by ghosts." "Much of the time, his sound was astringent," Nat Hentoff has explained, "as if it had taken a long time to find its way out of that long contorted body and was rather exasperated at the rigors of the journey" A number of commentators have looked for different levels of intent in Russell's work, almost as though it were a literary text in which the surface meaning and the symbolic meaning were at odds. "He sounded cranky and querulous," Whitney Balliett has asserted, "but that was camouflage, for he was the most plaintive and lyrical of players." Gunther Schuller goes even further in expostulating this theory of "the two Russells": "At first hearing one of these Russell solos tended to give the impression of a somewhat inept musician, awkward and shy, stumbling and muttering along in a rather directionless fashion. It turns out, however, upon closer inspection that such peculiarities—the unorthodox tone, the halting continuity, the odd note choices—are manifestations of a unique, wondrously self-contained musical personality, which operated almost entirely on its own artistic laws."20 

Bud Freeman offers a far different interpretation of Russell's muse, reducing it to the classic Aristotelian concepts of pity and fear— with a slightly different twist: "He became a world famous figure because people would suffer with him. They'd say 'O my God, I hope he gets through this chorus.'"” 

- Ted Gioia, from the first edition of his History of Jazz [1997]

“Russell is the ensemble musician par excellence. . . . Forsaking the undulating lines of more conventional Dixieland clarinetists, Russell adds a cutting edge to the top of the ensemble sound with a powerful but flexible rasping attack. His unusual sensitivity to ensemble harmony is a joy to trumpet players, for it permits them to depart from the melody without fear of crashing head-on into clarinet notes. Russell touches the traditional third above the lead note often enough to construct a "proper" clarinet part, but more importantly he stretches the ensemble fabric with fourths, fifths (this requires an alert trombonist, for the fifth is traditionally his territory), sixths, and ninths, while spinning elastic counterlines that are closer to second trumpet parts than to the arpeggio-dominated filigrees that one is accustomed to hearing in Dixieland and military bands. It is largely his skillful handling of his very personal ensemble role that gives these old … recordings … an exhilarating vigor undiminished by time”

- Richard Hadlock, Jazz Review as quoted in Robert Hilbert,- - Pee Wee Russell, The Life of a Jazzman 

"His was the pure flame," Robert Hilbert writes of Pee Wee Russell. "Hot, gritty, profane, real. No matter what physical or mental condition Russell was in, night after night he spun wondrous improvisations. No matter how disjointed his life, how scrambled his mind, how incomprehensible his speech, his music remained logical and authoritative, elegant and graceful, haughty and proud." 

- In Pee Wee Russell, The Life of a Jazzman 

“I don't mean to sound egocentric, but if I were to practice five or six hours a day for a few weeks, I could have that degree of technical fluency too. But I don't need it for what I want to say. Some players tend to substitute technical bravado for ideas when they run out of imagination. . . . I like to gamble differently— gamble with the inner music and its possibilities. Harmonically, for example. Bix and I had the same feeling about chords. We'd hear something, and say, "That chord just has to be there, whether it's according to Hoyle or not." You have to hear for yourself, and keep trying new ideas.”

- Pee Wee speaking with critic Nat Hentoff about another clarinetist who was known as a virtuoso

Two of my all-time favorite “Jazz people” are clarinetist Pee Wee Russell [1906-1969] and bassist Bill Crow [b. 1927].

In our efforts to commemorate 100 Years of Jazz by looking back at the music’s earliest developments in the 1920’s, Pee Wee came to mind as he was a part of the fledgling New York Jazz scene along with other Early Jazz luminaries including cornetist Bix Beiderbecke, trumpeter Red Nichols, trombonist Miff Mole and saxophonist Frank Trumbauer.

Of course, Bill, in addition to being a stalwart bassist in the modern Jazz era is also a fine writer and the author of two excellent Jazz Books - From Birdland to Broadway: Scene From a Jazz Life [1992] and Jazz Anecdotes [1990] - as well as this fine essay on his relationship with Pee Wee Russell which first appeared in the January 1990 edition of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter [Vol. 9, No. 1].

“I met Pee Wee Russell in Boston in 1956 when I was working with Gerry Mulligan’s quartet at Storyville, the jam club that George Wein operated in the Copley Square Hotel. Pee Wee was playing in the basement of the same hotel in another of George’s clubs, Mahogany Hall, where traditional jazz was featured. I think Sidney Bechet was leading the band down there at the time. 

Pee Wee and I were both early risers, so I often met the tall, cadaverous clarinetist at breakfast in the hotel coffee shop. A Pee Wee was talkative at that hour, but it took me a while to catch everything he said. His voice seemed reluctant to leave his throat. It would sometimes get lost in his mustache, or take muffled detours through his long free-form nose. 

Pee Wee’s playing often had an anguished sound. He screwed his rubbery face into woeful expressions as he fought the clarinet, the chord changes, and his imagination. He was respectful of the dangers inherent in the adventure of improvising, and never approached it casually. 

Pee Wee’s conversational style mirrored the way he played. He would sidle up to a subject, poke at it tentatively, make several disclaimers about the worthlessness of his opinion, inquire if he’d lost my interest, suggest other possible topics of" conversation, and then would dart back to his subject and quickly illuminate it with a few pithy remarks mumbled hastily into his coffee cup." 

It was always worth the wait. His comments were fascinating, and he had a delightful way with a phrase. Pee Wee’s hesitant and circuitous manner of speaking, combined with his habit of drawing his lanky frame into a concave shape that seemed to express a vain hope for invisibility, gave me a first impression of shyness and passivity. I soon discovered that there was a bright intelligence and sense of humor behind the facade. Also a determined resistance to being pushed in any direction he didn’t want to go. 

I’d heard stories of the many years Pee Wee had spent drinking heavily while playing in the band at Nick’s in Greenwich Village. Like many of the musicians of his era, Pee Wee as a young man found that liquor was an integral part of the jazz life. The quantity of booze he put away eventually wore him down so badly that once or twice he had been thought to have died, when in fact he was just sleeping. His diet for years was mainly alcohol, with occasional "meals" that consisted of a can of tomatoes, unheated, washed down with a glass of milk. On the bandstand he always looked emaciated and uncomfortable. 

A friend told me that in those days Pee Wee came to work sober only once, when his wife, Mary, thought she was pregnant. That night Pee Wee arrived at Nick’s in good focus, didn’t drink all night, and actually held conversations with friends that he recognized. A couple of days later, when Mary found out her pregnancy was a false alarm, Pee Wee returned to his routine, arriving at work in an alcoholic fog, speaking to no one, and alternately playing and drinking all night long. 

His health failed in 1951. Pee Wee was hospitalized in San Francisco with multiple ailments, including acute malnutrition, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, and internal cysts. The doctors at first gave no hope for his recovery, and word spread quickly through the jazz world that he was at death’s door. It was reported in France that he had already passed through it. Sidney Bechet played a farewell concert for him in Paris. 

When they heard of his illness, and that he was broke, musicians in California, Chicago, and New York gave benefit concerts that raised $4,500 to help with his medical expenses. Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden visited his hospital room in San Francisco and told him about the benefit they were planning. Pee Wee, sure that he was expressing his last wish, whispered, "Tell the newspapers not to write any sad stories about me.” - 

Eddie Condon described the surgery that saved Pee Wee’s life: "They had him open like a canoe!“ Condon also was quoted as saying, "Pee Wee nearly died from too much living." Pee Wee miraculously rallied, and limped back to New York. 

He changed his ways. He began eating regular meals, with which he drank milk or, sometimes, a glass of ale, though nothing stronger. He began to relax more and, at the urging of his wife, tried to diversify his interests. 

"I haven't done anything except spend my life with a horn stuck in my face," he told a friend. He began to turn down jobs that didn’t appeal to him musically, staying home much of the time. For a while Mary wasn't sure she knew who he was. She said she had to get used to him all over again. "He talks a lot now," she told an interviewer. "He never used to. It’s as if he were trying to catch up.” 

After our first sojourn together in Boston, I played with Pee Wee on a couple of jobs in New York with Jimmy McPartland. Then the following Christmas I was at Storyville again with the Gerry Mulligan quartet and Pee Wee was once more at Mahogany Hall downstairs. Both jobs extended through New Year’s Eve. 

George Wein planned to have the Mahogany Hall band come upstairs before midnight to help us welcome the New Year with a jam session. Gerry offered to-write an arrangement of Auld Lang Syne for the combined groups, since there would be six horns in the front line. George was enthusiastic about the idea. 

Gerry finished the arrangement on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve and called a rehearsal. Pee Wee made a lot of suffering noises because he was worried about having to read music. He sounded fine at the rehearsal, but he continued to worry. 

That night both bands got together on the Storyville bandstand to jam a few tunes before twelve o’clock. As the hour approached, Gerry asked us to get up his» chart. Everyone got out his part, but Pee Wee couldn’t find his. We searched everywhere. With midnight only seconds away, the clarinet part was still missing, so we just -faked Auld Lang Syne. Gerry was disappointed, but the audience, unaware of the arrangement we hadn’t played, was content. 

As we left the stand after the set, I passed the chair where Pee Wee had been sitting. There lay the missing part. The crafty bastard had been sitting on it all the time. 

In New York I lived on Cornelia Street in the Village. Pee Wee and Mary lived nearby on King Street, so I saw him occasionally around the neighborhood, usually walking his dog Nini up Seventh Avenue South. We’d stroll along together and chat about this and that while Pee Wee let the dog sniff and mark the tree trunks. Once in a while Pee Wee would invite me over to the White Horse Tavern for a beer. He’d tell me stories about growing up in Missouri or playing with bands in Texas or Chicago, but I was never clear about the chronology. I got the impression that he remembered life in the twenties and thirties with much more clarity than the forties. 

One summer afternoon I invited Pee Wee to accompany me for a swim at the city pool between Carmine and Leroy Streets that was my spa in those days. He gave me an excruciatingly pained look and said, "The world isn’t ready for me in swim trunks." 

In 1960 George Wein called me to play in a sextet he was putting together for a few weeks' work. George played piano and Mickey Sheen was the drummer. The front line was wonderful: Harold "Shorty" Baker on trumpet and Lawrence Brown on trombone, two old colleagues from Duke Ellington’s band. And Pee Wee. 

I was used to hearing him in a more traditional setting, where all the horns in the front line improvised together contrapuntally. On this band, Lawrence fitted beautiful parallel harmony lines to Shorty’s melodic lead, leaving Pee Wee free to play whatever counter figures he chose without having to dodge anything else. His inventions were a wonderful surprise to us all, quite different from his usual ensemble playing. 

Our first gig was at the Embers in New York. Then we played Storyville in Boston, a concert in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and a couple of college concerts. While I was sitting in a restaurant in Boston with Pee Wee, a nice looking couple came over and gave him a very warm hello. He looked a little uncomfortable as he acknowledged their greeting. "Pee Wee, don’t you remember us?“ Pee Wee looked apologetic. "You stayed at our house in St. Louis for six months!" Pee Wee shook his head mournfully. He didn’t have to clear a memory of his drinking years. 

"If you say so," he said sorrowfully. 

Lawrence Brown told George Wein, "For God’s sake get some work for this band! Or I’ll have to go back with Duke and play those damned plunger parts!" Lawrence had always played open horn with Ellington’s band, and evidently didn’t appreciate Duke having conned him into taking over the plunger passages that had begun with Charlie "Plug" lrvis and Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton and had later been passed on to Tyree Glenn and Quentin Jackson. Unfortunately George didn’t get any more work for us. Lawrence went back with Duke and played those damned plunger parts. 

Pee Wee surprised everyone in 1962 when, in collaboration with valve trombonist Marshall Brown, bassist Russell George, and drummer Ron Lundberg, he began to use some modern jazz forms. Marshall pushed Pee Wee into learning some John Coltrane tunes and experimenting with musical forms he hadn’t tried before. He made the transition with the same fierce effort with which he’d always approached improvisation, and the group made some very good records. 

Marshall was a so-so soloist who had been a music teacher at a high school in Farmingdale, Long Island. He was tremendously enthusiastic, but he was a terrible pedant, if a good-natured one. He couldn’t resist taking the role of the instructor, even with accomplished musicians. Pee Wee told interviewer Bill Coss: "Marshall certainly brought out things in me. It was strange. When he would correct me, I would say to myself, ’Now why did he have to tell me that? I knew that already.” 

Mary Russell told Coss, "Pee Wee wants to kill him." 

"I haven’t taken so many orders since military school," said Pee Wee. 

One day Pee Wee told me that he and Mary were moving out of their old apartment. A new development had been built between Eighth and Ninth Avenues north of Twenty-third Street, where several blocks of old tenements had been torn down. The Russells had bought a co-op apartment there. I got married around that time and my wife and I moved into an apartment building on the corner of Twentieth Street and Ninth Avenue, so I was still in Pee Wee’s neighborhood. I would bump into him on the street now and then. 

In 1965, Mary came home one day with an oil paint set and some canvases on stretchers. She dumped it all in Pee Wee’s lap and said, "Here, do something with yourself. Paint!" 

He did. Holding the canvases in his lap or leaning them on the kitchen table as he worked, he produced nearly a hundred pieces during the ensuing two years, painting in a strikingly personal, primitive style. With bold brushstrokes and solid masses of color he created abstract shapes, some with eccentric, asymmetrical faces. They were quite amazing works. Though he enjoyed the praise of his friends and was delighted when some of the canvases sold at prices that astonished him, he painted primarily for Mary’s appreciation. When she died in 1967, he put away his paint brushes for good. 

With Mary gone, Pee Wee went back to his drinking, and his health began slowly to deteriorate. In February, 1969, during a visit to Washington, D.C., where he thought he might relocate, he was feeling so bad that he called a friend, Tom Gwaltney, and had him check him into Alexandria Hospital. The doctors shut off his booze and did what they could to restore him to health, but this time he failed to respond to treatment. After a few days he just slipped away in his sleep. 

The Jersey Jazz Society has kept Pee Wee’s memory alive with their annual Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp, and there have been occasional showings of his paintings at art galleries. And, of course, there are still the records, reminding us of how wonderfully Pee Wee’s playing teetered at the edge of musical disaster, where he struggled mightily, and prevailed.”

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Bill Crow, for this wonderful tribute to Pee Wee. Not everyone understands his playing, but for those of us who are fans he is near and dear to our hearts. I love what the late clarinetist Kenny Davern said about hearing Pee Wee on Muggsy Spanier's "Memphis Blues": "I heard all these grunts and groans and sounds of spittle...I had no idea even what horn he was playing, but I said to myself, 'This is what I want to do with my life.'"


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