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“[With] Russell’s music … there’s a danger in patronizing his home-made approach to playing and he was inconsistent, but his best music is exceptional.” – Richard Cook & Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Sixth Edition.
“Pee Wee Russell’s ballad playing is one of the glories of Jazz. Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz. [paraphrase]
At first hearing, a Pee Wee Russell solo tended to give the impression of a somewhat inept musician, awkward and shy, stumbling and muttering along in a rather directionless fashion. Upon close inspection, such peculiarities – the unorthodox tone, the halting continuity, the odd choice of notes – are manifestations of a unique, wondrously self-contained musical personality, which operated almost entirely on its own artistic laws.” Gunter Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945. [paraphrase]
“Some have suggested that Russell’s eccentric style of improvisation defies description. Not true. … Yet, whether his music is viewed as a Delphic utterance laden with secret meanings, an expression of eccentricity, or simply a style built around various limitations, Russell ultimately succeeded where it counted most: in attracting a devoted following, one that lived vicariously through his embrace of the unorthodox. For those fans who became part of the cult of Pee Wee, there was no other clarinetist half so grand.” Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz.
Richard Sudhalter, in his Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915 – 1945 [
: New York , 1999] offers a number of excellent observations about the evolution of Pee Wee’s style. Oxford
One point Sudhalter stresses about Pee Wee’s approach to Jazz was that he had a tremendous affinity for the blues. And yet, ironically, “if there is any single figure that helped shape Russell’s musical outlook directly in those early years it was Bix Beiderbecke, a musician clearly without much noticeable affinity for the blues.” [p. 711]
“Russell clearly found something compelling in Bix, a set of governing aesthetic principles that stayed with him, and in later years he called the short-lived cornetist ‘one of the greatest musicians who ever lived. He had more imagination and more thought than anybody else I can think of … Everything he played I loved.’” [p. 712]
In his early years, Pee Wee’s style was also compared to another of his short-lived compatriots, clarinetist Frank Teschemacher. Sudhalter’s opinion of this comparison is
“To be sure, both men phrased in an angular manner favoring a gritty, ‘non-legit’ tone and technique … and used pitch in unconventional ways. But recorded evidence suggests that any similarities between them is no more than a nexus, an intersection of two individual trajectories.
By the time of Teschemacher’s death in 1932, …. records made between 1928 and 1932 …. Show more polished technique, introduction of a liquid, almost Jimmy Noone-like tone, increased regularity of phrasing, more ‘Conventional’ pitch sense.
Russell, by contrast, seems in the same years to be moving in the opposite direction. Where his sound and approach on his first records are balanced, even Bix-like, in their symmetry and sense of order, he very soon began a process of what can almost be termed deconstruction.
His work on records from 1928 on, in fact, conveys the sense that he is systematically dismantling that sense of order, then reassembling the pieces according to some new inner imperative.” [p. 712; paragraphing modified; emphasis mine].
To paraphrase Sudhalter, it would seem that the evolution of Pee Wee’s style of clarinet playing went through a number of metamorphoses ranging from one of capturing the inner spirit of Bix with his clear tone and poised phrasing to a later vocabulary that included a wide range of squawks and growls, cries and whispers. [p. 713]
What we also see evolving in his style over the years is more assertiveness and individualism or as Sudhalter describes it:
“punching, trumpet-like attacks alternating with sotto voce mutterings; raps and growls; lightning shifts of dynamics and tonal texture; a rubber-band stretching of pitch and rhythmic emphasis; and, perhaps above all; a keening quality rare in hot solo work of the time [c. 1925-1935], white or black, as different from the majesty of Bechet and Armstrong as from the thoughtful symmetry of Beiderbecke.” [p. 717]
Pee Wee Russell: Jazz Original [Commodore CMD-404] contains, according to clarinetist Joe Muranyi, recordings that represent “… a creative high point in Pee Wee’s middle years." Muranyi continues, in his excellent insert notes, to offer a number of compelling reasons why he holds this opinion of these Commodore recordings.
In the jazz world he was popular and well-known - in 1942, '43 and '44 he'd even won the Down Beat poll as best clarinetist. Quite an achievement for a guy some considered a drunken clown. He had a lifelong battle with the bottle, that's for sure, and so did many of the guys he ran with - Eddie Condon and his "Barefoot Mob," the barrelhouse crowd that appears on these records. Pee Wee wasn't musically defeated by alcohol. In some strange way, he might have used it. Sober, he was a good musician, musically schooled. Early on, he read well enough to work in saxophone sections. But he was a quiet, shy person, and possibly drinking dulled his inhibitions and freed him to create. In any case, something drove him into unusual musical channels, where his ear and his own feelings were his only guide.
Luckily, Pee Wee was a natural and it all worked out. But the eccentric aspects of his style are often explained away by saying that he drank too much. I know that’s wrong, that the truth is that Pee Wee’s music speaks for itself – and yes, he did drink.
Teagarden, Bobby Hackett, Bud Freeman, and Russell form a musical ‘murderer's row’ of soloists on several numbers here recorded under the nominal leadership of Eddie Condon. Their collaborations are not at all dated; the background arrangements (uncredited, but very possibly by Hackett) are subtle and the recording balance is particularly helpful to Pee Wee. His two spike-y choruses on “Love Is Just Around the Corner’ place him in front of the band in a sort of loose ensemble/solo mode that's just right, and his half chorus on ‘Embraceable You’ still lives!
Pee Wee's explorative mind is documented on two differently detailed versions of a traditional style blues, ‘Serenade to a Shylock’ (that was the now-forgotten slang term for the pawnbroker in whose shop many instruments spent much of their time). The clarinet accompaniments behind Jack's vocals are quite dissimilar, and Take 2 boldly uses the major seventh and flat five - notes that would first be used this way in modern jazz around 1941, and this is 1938!
Later in Pee Wee's life it become an axiom that he had been ill-served by Dixieland and the Condon crowd. Well, I don't think so. The music on this CD can serve as a good definition of Dixieland. A rousing, collectively improvised ensemble is a perennial source of joy, and Charlie was the best of clarinetists for that. As in all jazz, the style is as good as the practitioners, and our man was among the greatest Dixieland players - as well as being more, lots more. Without giving a single thought to it, he had a foot in both worlds, although he never lost his Dixieland feel. He had already been a ‘modern’ stylist in the Twenties, and had he stayed with Condon-type groups all his life (as in a way he did), he would have ended up with the some degree of recognition - for he brought his modernism to his Dixieland work.
The trio and quartet sessions feature Russell's magnificent blues playing. The date with Joe Sullivan and Zutty Singleton harkens back stylistically to the Twenties. “The Last Time I Saw
” is a delicious blues and when Pee Wee plays in the low register, with Zutty press-rolling and Joe tremoloing a la Earl Hines, all is righteous! Among the later quartet sides we find three versions of something basically titled ‘D. A. Blues’ (although the last take earns a slightly different title, presumably because of its different tempo) that bring everything to an appropriate close. Pee Wee's chalumeau choruses after Jess Stacy's piano solos are hair-raising journeys into a surrealistic subterranean world of the blues. By the third try, Russell has really wormed to his task and starts with a remarkable chromatic phrase, using the flat and major seventh, the ninth, the sixth and the augmented fifth intervals([!). Quite melodic, it swings, too. It's in his full-bloom sotto voce mode. He even plays games with the phrase that was to become his "Pee Wee's Blues." On other tracks in this compilation, if you pay close attention, you can hear him use this sequence in many ways. Chicago
… Russell was a master of mood … and was most effective on slow ballards and blues, using a sub-tone that tapped a deep emotional wellspring. It was his greatest achievement, quite a contribution to the voice of jazz clarinet.
We’re in another world with him, a kind of slow-moon minimalist universe. It’s akin to a particularly forceful speaker who lowers his voiced to a hushed tone so he can whisper his story even more effectively.
Pee Wee Russell was an innovator, and an appreciation of his rugged individuality … is an acquired taste. He doesn’t just blow the horn and express himself with conventional good notes and tone. No, he often chooses to use the tone itself as a means of expression: he’ll growl, squeal or drop down into a croaking, spooky, sewer-pipe lower register; or he’ll hum one note while blowing another, resulting in a third note with an unholy life of its own – and another kind of growl. …
His choice of notes and rhythm could be quite unconventional. His red (and blue) notes mostly resolve nicely and, if analyzed, can be explained as the upper notes of a chord – as in bebop. But sometimes he misses and gets involved with a glaring red note; such a moment to me is part of his charm. Man this barrelhouse cat takes chances.
Pee Wee was a great ear player and he was always seeking. In essence, the search was his style.”
According to Mr. Sudhalter, “Pee Wee’s later career was a time of fulfillment and exploration, and for many fans and critics, rediscovery: enough so to almost warrant a chapter of its own. … Reluctant to spend the rest of his days in the lockstep of ‘That’s a Plenty’ and ‘Royal Garden Blues,’ the clarinetist reached into new areas – new repertoire and, in many cases, new musical companions. …
Suddenly it seemed, Pee Wee Russell was the man of the hour, who had always been ‘modern.’ For the 1957 TV show ‘The Sound of Jazz,’ he played the blues in duo with Jimmy Giuffre, whose low-register clarinet style owed much to Russell but lacked its unpredictability and complexity. He recorded such numbers as Billy Strayhorn’s ‘Chelsea Bridge,” John Coltrane’s “Red Planet,’ and the old bop standard ‘Good Bait’ … in a quartet with arranger and valve trombonist Marshall Brown [New Groove: The Pee Wee Russell Quartet , Columbia LP CL 1985; CS 8785].
The new Pee Wee mania reached its peak in 1963, when jazz impresario George Wein paired the clarinetist with Thelonious Monk at the Newport Jazz Festival … and at one concert he played a clarinet duet with Gerry Mulligan who afterwards commented that Russell ‘was inclined to be further out – harmonically and melodically than I am … He was fearless, I never thought of him [strictly] as a clarinet player – it was more like a direct line to his subconscious.’ [emphasis mine].
Let’s conclude this excursion into Pee Wee Russell’s “
” – one that we earlier described as singular, scintillating and shuddery – with the following summary from Richard Sudhalter [paraphrased]: Land of Jazz
“Admiration of Russell’s work centered on three qualities: his highly expressive and frequently un-clarinet-like tone; his free and defiant rhythmic sense and, perhaps, above all, his ceaseless daring. His playing was immediate, warm, musically intelligent and naturally swinging.
His inimitable ways represent the highest form of creativity available to a jazz improviser. Far from being ‘eccentric,’ ‘maverick’ or ‘idiosyncratic,’ Pee Wee belongs at the very center of stylistic distinction.
Perhaps the ultimate tribute is to try and imagine Jazz without him.”