Charles Ellsworth "Pee Wee" Russell (1906-1969) was a real-life "original." Nobody else played like Pee Wee. Nobody else looked like Pee Wee. Others will say that nobody drank like Pee Wee although many tried.
The legendary clarinetist originally studied violin, piano and drums before settling into the reed family. An early influence was the New Orleans clarinetist, Alcide "Yellow" Nunez, who was a founding member of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Due to a disagreement with Nick LaRocca, Nunez left the band prior to its recording debut and immense popularity. Pee Wee’s formal training came under the tutelage of Charlie Merrill and finally under Tony Sarlie of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He also played soprano, alto and tenor saxophones and bass clarinet with a number of studio bands.
Pee Wee Russell’s credentials would fill a book. It’s probably easier to list the groups that Pee Wee didn’t
work with then to document those with which he played and recorded. As an incurable name dropper, I’ll mention a few of those bands. Ben Pollack, Don Voorhees, Louis Prima, Herbert Berger, Gene Rodemich, Bud Freeman, Wild Bill Davison, Jack Bland, Bobby Hackett, Frank Trumbauer, Red Nichols pre-dated his best-known period with Eddie Condon.
Pee Wee was the consummate jazz musician. He was an inventive and unusual soloist who often appeared totally lost in an unrecoverable musical quest. Inevitably, the sad faced clarinetist "always" seemed to find his way back into the melody one way or another.
Listeners who are unfamiliar with Russell should read Whitney Balliett’s essay in the New Yorker
titled Even His Feet Look Sad
. It’s the finest brief introduction to the personality of one of the most beloved figures in jazz. Fortunately, the essay is still in print and included in Balliett’s book "Collected Works: A Journal Of Jazz 1954-2001." Another insight into the clarinetist’s unique life appears on film and may be more difficult to uncover. In 1954, film maker Roger Tilton filmed a session at New York’s Central Plaza Dance Hall starring Pee Wee Russell in the company of George Wettling, Pop’s Foster, Jimmy Archey, Jimmy McPartland and Willie "The Lion" Smith. The 22-minute film is worth searching for.
Since this is a CD review, let’s look at the disc offered by Empire Musicwerks. This is a beautiful session featuring the clarinetist in a modern mellow mood. There are no "Dixieland" perennials on Portrait Of Pee Wee
. You’ll hear well-known popular standards by such folks as Jimmy McHugh, Harold Arlen, Lew Brown, Sammy Fain and others. With a front line of Ruby Braff, Vic Dickenson, Pee Wee and Bud Freeman, a session just has to swing. And swing, it does! Arranged by pianist Nat Pierce, the collected standards bring the veteran soloists to the forefront.
Produced at New York’s Beltone Studios
in February of 1958, the session was issued on the Counterpoint
label. A couple of Pee Wee Russell originals appear in the form of "Oh No!" and the haunting "Pee Wee Blues" co-written with pianist Nat Pierce. The latter features the clarinetist in front of the all-star rhythm section of Pierce, Charlie Potter and Karl Kiffe. Portrait Of Pee Wee
captures the artist a decade before his death and at a time when he was leaning toward a more modern approach musically. He would go on in the sixties to form a quartet with valve trombonist Marshall Brown, a college concert with Henry "Red" Allen and even an appearance with Thelonious Monk at Newport in 1963.
There are no weak points on this recording but there are a few highlights. We liked the clarinetist’s solo version of "If I Had You" and the band’s swinging reading of "I Used To Love You" featuring fine solos by Dickenson, Freeman and Braff. On the "pretty" side, it’s hard to beat "That Old Feeling" and "Out Of Nowhere." Sound samples are available at the label’s website. Highly recommended!