Jazz Birthday of the Month
Illustration by Gary Price
Charles Ellsworth “Pee Wee” Russell was born March 27, 1906, in Maplewood, Missouri. He spent his childhood in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where he variously studied violin, piano, and drums. It wasn’t until he heard New Orleans reedman Alcide Nunez playing at a local dance that he decided on the clarinet as his instrument—and that he wanted to play jazz.
Pee Wee took lessons on an Albert-system clarinet, favored over the Boehm system by many New Orleans musicians. When his family moved to St. Louis in 1920, he devoted much of his time to playing in local jazz and dance bands.
Pee Wee Russell worked with Herbert Berger’s Band in St. Louis, and recorded with Berger for Victor in 1924. After his stint with Berger, he moved to Chicago. There he mingled with such musicians as Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke.
Russell’s style was distinctive—though his playing was not to everyone’s taste. His intonation was somewhat unorthodox, and certain listeners accused him of playing out of tune. In 1927 he landed in New York City, where he joined Red Nichols’ Five Pennies, then at the peak of their popularity. He concurrently worked throughout the late ’20s as a freelance studio musician.
After sojourning as a sideman with various bandleaders (among them Louis Prima), Pee Wee Russell began a series of residencies at the Nick’s in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1937. He also played with Bobby Hackett and Eddie Condon. Russell’s professional association with Condon would continue for the rest of his life.
After 1940, Russell suffered poor health, exacerbated by his alcoholism—with a severe medical breakdown in 1951. His playing was affected by his illness; nevertheless, he recovered sufficiently to perform with Art Hodes and Muggsy Spanier, as well as Condon. In the 1960s, George Wein hired Russell to play at jazz festivals, including an appearance with Thelonious Monk at the 1963 Newport Festival.
Never constrained by genre, Russell’s unique stylistic approach began to be appreciated as being ahead of its time—even as a precursor to free jazz. His last performance was at Richard Nixon’s inaugural ball on January 21, 1969. Pee Wee Russell died on February 15, less than three weeks later. —Andy Senior
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