Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Russell, Pee Wee (Charles Ellsworth)

Pee Wee Russell took the clarinet from New Orleans out into the world. Still today, he stands as one of its most expressive and innovative players. His wide range of techniques - from shouts to whispers, squeaks and growls - forged an easily identifiable style, and his improvised lines, created with contrasting rhythms, made him stand out from his peers.

In his early career, the adventurous aspects of his playing were sometimes heard as mistakes, and were later judged an attempt by an aging Dixieland musician to “go modern.” However, anyone who was there – or who listens carefully to his prolific recordings - knows Russell played very much the same throughout all the phases of his professional life. His career began in the music’s infancy, and he remained an important voice in jazz through the emergence of swing and modern music.

Pee Wee Russell

Pee Wee (Charles Ellsworth) Russell was born outside of St Louis in Maplewood, Missouri on March 27, 1906. He was the only child of Charles and Ella Ballard Russell and his parents, while not affluent, saw that young Charles lacked for little, including his first musical instruments.

The family eventually moved to Muskogee, Oklahoma, as Russell reached school age. There, he began to study a series of instruments starting with the piano and ending with the violin, on which he showed some promise. But any dreams the boy may have had of becoming the next Paganini were cast aside in 1918, after his father took him to see the Louisiana Five, the band led by Alcide "Yellow" Nuñez, a New Orleans clarinetist and one of the founding members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB).

The young boy was captivated by Nuñez’s ability to improvise. He now knew which instrument, and what kind of music, he wanted to play. Soon, the twelve-year-old had a clarinet, was taking lessons, and in no time was playing his first gigs. He was notably fond of the clarinet work of Larry Shields, who replaced Nuñez in the ODJB.

Russell's focus on music and merriment in his high school years was derailed when his father intercepted him on the way to a riverboat gig in 1920. He soon found himself enrolled in Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois while the family returned to St. Louis.

Military life, however, did not suit Pee Wee, and in 1922 he undertook the life of an itinerant musician. He worked regularly on riverboats and otherwise traveled wherever opportunity took him. He worked with Herbert Berger, first in St. Louis and then Mexico in 1923, with Floyd Robinson in El Paso, again with Berger in Arizona and California, and in Houston with Peck Kelly’s Bad Boys, alongside trombonist Jack Teagarden, all in 1924.

Some claim Russell cut his first record on a trip to New York with Berger's band in 1922. Berger did record at that time, but the clarinetist would have been all of 16 years old. Others suggest it is more likely he first recorded with Berger in Saint Louis in November of 1924. Unfortunately, in light of the poor quality of recordings from this period and the lack of records kept about the personnel at these sessions, we may never know for sure.

In any case, by 1925 he was back in St. Louis, where he worked with saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer’s band, which featured the innovative cornetist Bix Beiderbecke. That next year, all three men had joined Jean Goldkette’s band in South Bend, Indiana.

Russell and Beiderbecke soon established a close friendship, and spent much of their free time together, drinking and listening to music which ranged from the latest jazz to modern classical works. The band played a long summer engagement in Hudson Lake, Indiana, which attracted a great deal of attention from musicians passing through the area as well as the usual customers. At the end of the engagement Russell headed back to St. Louis.

In 1927, Russell moved to New York to perform and record with one of the era's most musically progressive bandleaders, cornetist Red Nichols. He would work with Nichols throughout the twenties and the early thirties, as well as a host of others, and was by now performing on a wide range of reed instruments, which included the clarinet, soprano, alto, and tenor saxophones, and bass clarinet.

During this period Russell played with the era's best musicians, including Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, Eddie Condon and Red Allen.

1935 found Russell at the Famous Door on 52nd Street working with trumpeter Louis Prima. The band eventually made it’s way to Hollywood where it did some short films for Paramount and Vitaphone. In addition they recorded for Brunswick and were a popular club act. After recovering from a brief illness Russell relocated to Chicago working with Parker’s Playboys in April of 1937 before returning to New York where he began playing in a Dixieland band formed by Red McKenzie at Nick's in Greenwich Village. In 1938 he joined Bobby Hackett’s Big Band then moved on to Bud Freeman’s Summa Cum Laude band as well as working with Eddie Condon whom he would be associated with for the remainder of his life.

Members came and went from the house band at Nick’s, with Russell and Condon as the mainstays. The band also did some recording for Milt Gabler's Commodore label. Another highlight from this period was his participation in the all-star band Condon assembled for Fats Waller's 1942 Carnegie Hall debut.

Russell also participated in most of the concerts and simultaneous radio broadcasts that Condon staged at New York's Town Hall in 1944 and 45. Other key collaborators through the forties included George Brunies, Wild Bill Davison, Miff Mole, James P. Johnson, Art Hodes, and Muggsy Spanier. He also led his own small groups from time to time.

Russell met and married Mary Chaloff in March of 1943. She was decidedly different from her husband in temperament, being confident and independent versus his quiet demeanor and fragile ego. He developed a dependence on her that created a needed balance and lent more stability to his life.

Russell's health began to be more of an issue over the years, largely the result of the heavy drinking he had continued since his days with Bix. This culminated in his becoming critically ill with pancreatitis in December of 1950, soon after he moved to San Francisco. His weight had dropped to 73 pounds and he almost died. After he underwent major surgery, friends including Louis Armstrong, Teagarden, Condon, Hodes, and many others), rallied to his aid and staged concerts for his benefit.

After returning to New York in March of 1951, he didn’t resume regular work until October, when he fronted his own band in Denver, Colorado. He continued to do the same for the next couple of years and slowly began to play again with other leaders as well. Around this time Russell became associated with the promoter/musician George Wein, who assembled a band matching Russell with the cornetist Ruby Braff whose style memorably complemented the clarinetist.

Bobby Hackett led a band at the 1954 Newport Jazz Festival which featured Russell, who found time to play with some of the modernists, such as Stan Kenton, who were in attendance. To some, this was a surprising turn; but to musicians who had known Russell since the twenties, this was no surprise in this, as they knew that Russell’s unique approach to his instrument had often been considered ahead of its time. Coleman Hawkins for one, whom first recorded with the reedman in 1929, scoffed at the notion that Russell was suddenly adopting a modern approach, noting that his style hadn’t changed since they first met.

Eddie Condon now had his own nightspot in Manhattan, and Russell played there from October of 1955 through the end of 1956. Towards the end of 1957, CBS television aired a special program, The Sound of Jazz, hosted by John Crosby, which featured several contemporary jazz artists joined by jazz greats from the swing era including Russell. Russell was memorably paired in a clarinet blues with Jimmy Giuffre.

This broadcast led to some revived interest in Russell's playing, and new opportunities to record, such as the 1958 session in which he recorded "That Old Feeling" and other tracks. He also began touring as a solo act appearing at many major jazz festivals as well as playing in Wein’s groups (Newport All-Stars). That unit made its first trip to Europe in 1961.

In 1962, Russell formed a successful quartet with valve trombonist Marshall Brown. The pianoless aggregation also included bassist Russell George and Ron Lundberg on drums. They were a well-rehearsed unit when they debuted that fall playing repertoire from more contemporary jazz composers including works by Ellington, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, as well as more standard fare. This group recorded and played dates in Toronto and at New York’s Village Vanguard.

In 1963 Russell played a well-received set at the Newport Jazz Festival with Thelonious Monk. The following year he toured Australia, New Zealand and Japan with Eddie Condon’s All-Stars and then returned to Europe with pianist and promoter George Wein.

In 1965, at the urging of his wife Mary, he began to paint as a hobby. He eventually sold some works with Bud Freeman functioning as his representative.

In 1967 he worked with some old friends, holding forth under Bobby Hackett’s leadership at the Riverboat in New York and then later that year in California with Condon’s All-Stars. He headlined a concert at New York’s Town Hall in October of 1968 and worked in the Washington DC area.

Russell's final performance was as a member of George Wein’s All-Stars, playing at Richard Nixon’s inaugural ball on January 21, 1969. At the urging of a friend he entered Alexandria Hospital in Virginia where he died of chronic pancreatitis and cirrhosis of the liver on February 15, 1969.

Pee Wee Russell should be remembered as a true original as well as a survivor, whose career spanned the scope of jazz from its cradle days up through the dawn of modern music. Through it all, he remained an innovator, comfortable in many musical contexts and always ready to surprise with the sound of his horn.

Contributor: Frank Murphy