photo by William Gottlieb
Pee Wee Russell, 1946
“Music aside, Pee Wee was a lovable man. A few hours in his company could light you up for days to come. He was no saint, but he was holy.”
The honored jazz writer Dan Morgenstern’s liner notes to the Pee Wee Russell Memorial Album are important for his tender tribute to the character and musicianship of a colorful and complex figure in jazz history. The notes are also an excellent example of Morgenstern’s passionate, accessible and persuasive criticism.
The music recorded was originally released on the 1960 Swingville album Swinging with Pee Wee, but Morgenstern’s notes for Memorial were written for the Prestige reissue seven months following Russell’s February, 1969 death.
Liner Notes by Dan Morgenstern
In the early evening of March 29, 1960, I walked into Beefsteak Charlie’s, a midtown Manhattan bar frequented by jazz musicians. With some surprise, I spotted a familiar figure at the bar – familiar, but not at Beefsteak’s.
Pee Wee Russell, who’d turned fifty-four two days before, didn’t hang out there – or in any other bar, for that matter. He’d done his share of that sort of thing – more than his share – but after his miraculous recovery from a near-fatal illness some years before, he had stopped.
But here he was, by himself, having a quiet drink. I didn’t yet know Pee Wee well in those days, though I’d been enthralled by him for years, and Pee Wee was shy with people he wasn’t familiar with. But I sidled up to him and ventured a greeting.
“How do you feel, chum” he acknowledged in that unforgettable sotto voce way of his. “Have a drink.” Pee Wee was in a mellow mood, and it soon became apparent why. “We just made a record,” he told me, “and it was a good one – I think.”
That was almost as surprising as finding him there. Pee Wee was not as self-effacing as some people think, but he was his own severest critic, prone to shaking his head and waving a hand “no” when his solos were applauded, and only very rarely satisfied with his recorded efforts.
But about this session, he was not at all apologetic. In particular, he was pleased with the rhythm section. “It was modern,” he pointed out. “And the piano player is one of the best I’ve ever played with.” Pee Wee was particular about piano players. He was, in fact, particular about everything concerning music, but years of enforced association with contemporaries he’d overgrown decades ago had made him adaptable. He had learned to endure, and hold his head above the water.
No such problem this time out, though. No liabilities in this band. And no Dixieland chestnuts on the program, either. Not even a traditional front line. It had been more than a year since his last date as a leader, and in this kind of setting, Pee Wee was ready to do some serious playing.
As for most of the great jazzmen we call, for lack of a better term, mainstreamers, the ‘50s and early ‘60s were problematic for Pee Wee. As often as not, he had to play in settings far from perfect. Buck Clayton, that sensitive and elegant stylist of classic swing trumpet, was making a living playing at Eddie Condon’s, where the staples on the musical menu were “That’s A Plenty” and “Muskrat Ramble,” with an occasional ballad medley for respite. Oh, there was some good music made there, to be sure, and I wish the club were still around, but Buck deserved a less restricting framework. He had it here.
Pee Wee had given up the Condon routine years before, and led some good bands of his own, but the tribulations of leadership soon became more than he was willing to cope with, and so the gigs were infrequent and often less than congenial. Things were to get better in a couple of years, but the time this record was made, it provided a welcome relief.
Now that Pee Wee’s gone, it has become a precious gift. Every note he put on wax is something to be treasured, and fortunately, he managed to get quite a few things down for keeps. This album, however, is special; there are no dull spots to wade through. It’s all of a piece.
It has been almost seven months, at this writing, since the bad news. If you love jazz and the people who make it, and have been with the music for a while, you get used to bad news – some expected, some not – and learn to live on as the ranks thin, accepting the inevitable.
Yet it is difficult to be resigned about Pee Wee’s death. Every being is unique and irreplaceable, but he was more so. And he still had so much music in him to give. At sixty-two, he was not a shadow of former greatness, but rather the substance of new discoveries; as good as he’d ever been – perhaps even better. And music aside, Pee Wee was a lovable man. A few hours in his company could light you up for days to come. He was no saint, but he was holy.
Some unfortunates couldn’t dig Pee Wee’s music. Among them are some noted sages of jazz, one of whom only recently complained that Pee Wee spoiled a record that in fact was salvaged from mediocrity by his presence.
To me, he was a permanent revelation. In my early listening days (those days when you first discover the things that make the music part of you), I found a record of “Hello Lola” and “One Hour” by the Mound City Blue Blowers. I picked it up because I’d read Coleman Hawkins’s name on the label, and the ballad side made me fall for Hawk for good. But there was something else on that side that made me play it over and over – a solo by a clarinetist named Pee Wee Russell.
He turned the scene around when he started to play on that. It had been recorded in 1929, the year I was born, and I was sixteen when I heard it. But it sounded “modern,” strange at first, then as clear and inevitable as something by Louis or Pres [Lester Young]. I still love that solo, and it still sounds as fresh to me as it did those many years ago. It was my real introduction to Pee Wee’s world, a world complete in itself and full of rare delights. He was a jazz musician to the core, and he never played an untrue note. Some wrong ones, maybe, though he could make wrong sound right, but never a false one.
He was often called odd, and there were people who considered his way of playing something to patronize. Belittling Pee Wee, however, only revealed the smallness of the belittler. It hurt him, nonetheless, as when a younger clarinetist, whom he sometimes sat in with (and without meaning to, played rings around), said, not softly to escape Pee Wee’s acute ear, as his guest had left the stand (addressing his pianist), “Well, now we can play some real music.”
Pee Wee didn’t let on, but he never came back, and he never played with that cat again. What hurt him more than the insult was that he had liked the man and considered him his friend.
Among the many peculiar theories about Pee Wee was the one that he was some sort of natural musician who played his instrument in hit-or-miss fashion, a kind of happy accident. In fact, he was a thoroughly skilled professional, who’d done his share of session work in more or less jazz-flavored dance bands, doubling alto and tenor saxophones. He played the way he did because he wanted to, not because he was without legitimate skills. He was good enough at that sort of thing to have become a studio hack, but he was an artist by choice and temperament, and he cherished his freedom.
Pee Wee was one of the survivors of a generation of white jazzmen (though he was inordinately proud of his Indian ancestry) who discovered, without help or handbooks, the beauty of the black man’s music and became part of it. All of these men were (or are) true originals. Some garnered more fame or notoriety than Pee Wee, but in some ways he was the most remarkable of them all. From the start, his music was unique, yet it could fit almost any surrounding. In later years, he never looked back. He was totally uninterested in re-creation, only in spontaneous creativity. While others palyed the old songs, Pee Wee taught himself new ones, and thus he found new listeners. His work of the last decade, I think, will stand with the finest music from that time, and of the time. When this record was made, Pee Wee, as always, was caught in the act of reinventing himself.
We have here one of the most compatible and relaxed rhythm sections imaginable. Any horn player with a liking for swing could not help but be inspired by such backing, and Pee Wee Russell and Buck Clayton are swingers.
Osie Johnson, whose playing sometimes could be a bit choppy, is flowing throughout; Wendell Marshall plays the right notes in the right places with the right time; and Tommy Flanagan is a jewel.
Buck Clayton is an ideal partner for Pee Wee. Both are melodists, but of pleasantly contrasting styles. Buck is symmetrical and lucid, Pee Wee asymmetrical and oblique. And they both listen as well as play.
There are two great blues on this LP, both originals by Pee Wee (who could write marvelous pieces). “Midnight Blue” is a happy blues, climaxed by some fine 4-bar exchanges between the horns. “Englewood” is a mean blues, opening and closing with splendidly funky clarinet. Each hornman takes a pair of brilliant choruses, and in the last ensemble, Buck’s vocalized trumpet essays “West End Blues.” This track alone is worth the admission price.
The other pieces are all standards, none of them shopworn. “The Very Thought of You” is the only ballad, and Pee Wee’s soulful solo is beautifully complemented by Buck, muted and tender. This song was recorded by Billie Holiday, with a clarinet spot for Lester Young, my second-favorite clarinetist. Pee Wee and Pres had a lot in common – in respect to feeling – and Pee Wee’s solo here ends on a Lesterish note. Dig his coda, too, and Tommy Flanagan’s half-chorus.
“What Can I Say,” etc., starts with some remarkable ensemble playing. All three soloists have spots, and Pee Wee opens his in his special trumpet bag.
“Lulu’s Back in Town” has a nice tempo, and Pee Wee displays his lower register, leaping into high for part two of his solo. Buck saves some great glisses for his climax The closing ensemble demonstrates the virtues of intelligent interplay – no arranger could improve it.
On “Troubles,” Flanagan sounds remarkably like a modern Jess Stacy. Buck reaches for some high ones, while Pee Wee goes into his second chorus with a growl that is like a signature.
“Anything for You,” a tune Pee Wee liked and recorded several times (once on tenor), has a remarkable clarinet solo, almost entirely based on the opening phrase. Buck is particularly strong and joyful in the collective finale.
Well, those are some things I especially enjoy about this record. It captures some happy moments in the life of a great jazzman. He liked it and so will you.
Dan Morgenstern, in 2012
“Dan Morgenstern has been a major figure on the jazz scene for more than four decades. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, he was the editor of Down Beat, then the premier jazz magazine. His comments, criticisms, reviews of records, and reports on live jazz activities were central to the discussion of jazz at the time. Since 1976, he has been the director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey, which he has made the central repository of jazz archives and research in the world. With his wide experience and knowledge, he has advised and directed a generation of jazz scholars and broadened the discussion and range of the discipline.”
– Sheldon Mayer, editor of Living with Jazz, by Dan Morgenstern