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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Pee Wee Russell

Charles Ellsworth Russell, much better known by his nickname Pee Wee Russell, (27 March 1906 – 15 February 1969) was a jazz musician. Early in his career he played clarinet and saxophones, but he eventually focused solely on clarinet. With a highly individualistic and spontaneous clarinet style that "defied classification", Russell began his career playing Dixieland jazz, but throughout his career incorporated elements of newer developments such as swing, bebop and free jazz. In the words of Philip Larkin, "No one familiar with the characteristic excitement of his solos, their lurid, snuffling, asthmatic voicelessness, notes leant on till they split, and sudden passionate intensities, could deny the uniqueness of his contribution to jazz." Pee Wee Russell was born in Maplewood, Missouri and grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. As a child, he first studied violin, but "couldn't get along with it",then piano, disliking the scales and chord exercises, and then drums – including all the associated special effects. Then his father sneaked young Ellsworth into a dance at the local Elks Club to a four- or five-piece band led by New Orleans jazz clarinetist Alcide "Yellow" Nunez. Russell was amazed by Nunez's improvisations: "[He] played the melody, then got hot and played jazz. That was something. How did he know where he was or where he was going?" Pee Wee now decided that his primary instrument would be the clarinet, and the type of music he would play would be jazz. He approached the clarinettist in the pit band at the local theatre for lessons, and bought an Albert-system instrument. His teacher was named Charlie Merrill, and used to pop out for shots of corn whiskey during lessons. His family moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1920, and that September Russell was enrolled in the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois. He remained enrolled there until October the following year, though he spent most of his time playing clarinet with various dance and jazz bands. He began touring professionally in 1922, and travelled widely with tent shows and on river boats. Russell's recording debut was in 1924 with Herb Berger's Band in St. Louis, then he moved to Chicago, where he began playing with such notables as Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke. From his earliest career, Russell's style was distinctive. The notes he played were somewhat unorthodox when compared to his contemporaries, and he was sometimes accused of playing out of tune. In 1926 he joined Jean Goldkette's band, and the following year he left for New York City to join Red Nichols. While with Nichols's band, Russell did frequent freelance recording studio work, on clarinet, soprano, alto and tenor sax, and bass clarinet. He worked with various bandleaders (including Louis Prima) before beginning a series of residences at the famous jazz club "Nick's" in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, in 1937. He played with Bobby Hackett's big band, and began playing with Eddie Condon, with whom he would continue to work, off and on, for much of the rest of his life – though he complained, "Those guys [at Nick's and Condon's] made a joke, of me, a clown, and I let myself be treated that way because I was afraid. I didn't know where else to go, where to take refuge". From the 1940s on, Russell's health was often poor, exacerbated by alcoholism – "I lived on brandy milkshakes and scrambled-egg sandwiches. And on whiskey ... I had to drink half a pint of whiskey in the morning before I could get out of bed" – which led to a major medical breakdown in 1951, and he had periods when he could not play. Some people considered that his style was different after his breakdown: Larkin characterized it as "a hollow feathery tone framing phrases of an almost Chinese introspection with a tendency to inconclusive garrulity that would have been unheard of in the days when Pee Wee could pack more into a middle eight than any other thirties pick-up player". He played with Art Hodes, Muggsy Spanier and occasionally bands under his own name in addition to Condon. In his last decade, Russell often played at jazz festivals and international tours organized by George Wein, including an appearance with Thelonious Monk at the 1963 Newport Festival, a meeting which has a mixed reputation (currently available as part of the Monk 2CD set Live at Newport 1963–65). Russell formed a quartet with valve trombone player Marshall Brown, and included John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman tunes in his repertoire. Though often labeled a Dixieland musician by virtue of the company he kept, he tended to reject any label. Russell's unique and sometimes derided approach was praised as ahead of its time, and cited by some as an early example of free jazz. Coleman Hawkins, who considered Russell to be color-blind, at the time of the 1961 Jazz Reunion (Candid) record date (they had originally recorded together in 1929) dismissed any idea that Russell was now playing modern, saying that he had always played that way. By this time, encouraged by Mary, his wife, Russell had taken up painting abstract art as a hobby. Mary's death in the spring of 1967 had a severe effect on him. His last gig was with Wein at the inaugural ball for President Richard Nixon on 21 January 1969. Russell died in a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, less than three weeks later.

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