By Steve Provizer
Despite the fact that clarinet (and occasional sax) player Pee Wee Russell was one of the most distinctive voices in jazz history, his name remains unknown outside of infra jazz circles.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the first Pee Wee Russell Memorial Stomp, a benefit concert organized right after the 1969 death of Russell. Somehow, I don’t think you knew that. Despite the fact that clarinet (and occasional sax) player Russell was one of the most distinctive voices in jazz history, his name remains unknown outside of infra jazz circles. From my bully pulpit here at The Arts Fuse, I thought it worthwhile to bring him to your attention.
Born in 1908 in St. Louis, Russell was exposed to New Orleans musicians when he was ten and caught the jazz bug. He wasn’t much for school, got his first gig at eleven, and was fully employed as a musician by the mid-1920’s. Almost from the beginning, Russell’s playing polarized listeners and other musicians. Some loved it, hearing it as the highest expression of jazz creativity. Others thought it the fumbling of an amateur. It should be noted that Russell struggled with alcohol addiction; it’s not hard to imagine that there were nights when his playing slipped over the line from idiosyncratic to spaced-out or chaotic. In any case, the only other jazz musician to create a similar level of contentiousness is Ornette Coleman. Both were accused of not having mastered the lingua franca of jazz. In Ornette’s case, he did an end-around, essentially creating a kind of parallel language that drew on some parts of the prevailing jazz discourse and discarded others. Russell’s case is different.
From the start, Russell demonstrated that he know the basic jazz language as it was developed in the 1920s. He gigged and recorded with the musical cohort that was recognized as the most evolved mainstream (mostly white) branch of jazz, including Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Red Nichols, Miff Mole, and Jack Teagarden. He also played in early mixed race groups, which included Fats Waller, Henry Red Allen, and Coleman Hawkins. One of his first recordings, “Crying All Day” in 1927, was with Trumbauer and Bix. He is clearly in the Bix mold; his solo, coming right after Beiderbecke’s, shows that he is in complete control of his instrument. He proffers a distinctive tone and an incipient approach to melody and intervals that will become part of what separates him from other jazz musicians.
In this 1929 Louisiana Rhythm Kings recording of “Basin Street Blues,” you can hear more clearly Russell’s bent, stifled, even strangled notes and phrases of unexpected length; signs that Russell was leaving the Beiderbecke voice behind and moving toward asserting his own.
In this 1938 recording of “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” the voice continues on its singular, idiosyncratic way.
I’m not going to flood you with musical examples from the ensuing decades, if only because Russell retained many of the same stylistic elements he had developed early on. He remained himself whether he was playing in a more traditional (“Dixieland” or “Chicago”) context, in a swing-oriented group, or in a more “modern” context.
Here Russell is paired with Jimmy Giuffre in 1958, playing a blues. It’s a remarkable duet.
Lastly, here’s Russell with Thelonius Monk in 1963. Hear how he brings his idiosyncratic style and adapts it to Monk’s harmonic language.
Pee Wee Russell was one of the few jazz musicians who began recording in the ’20s and went on to play with new generations of jazz players well into the ’60s. Another was saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins was vastly and overtly influential; I think Russell’s influence was more subliminal. Russell’s approach did not generate legions of followers — as Hawkins’ playing did — but he was an important exemplar that the sine qua non of jazz is finding your individual voice. In Russell’s case, one part of this meant presenting a paradigm that gave other musicians a yardstick, a way to measure how far “in” or “out” they themselves wanted to go. Finally, I think that musicians could see that Russell, by pursuing his own vision, had avoided the vicissitudes of changing fashion and touched on the quality of timelessness that is the implicit goal of any jazz musician — indeed, of any artist.
Steve Provizer is a jazz brass player and vocalist, leads a band called Skylight and plays with the Leap of Faith Orchestra. He has a radio show Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WZBC, 90.3 FM and has been blogging about jazz since 2010.