by Ted Gottsegen
Clarinetist Pee Wee Russell is one of those unique players that comes
along only once in a lifetime. Known as much for his unique style
consisting of squeaks and overtones as for the mournful expression on
his face, Pee Wee was born in St. Louis and began playing clarinet in
Muskogee Oklahoma which is famous for giving the jazz world pianist Jay
McShann. Pee Wee's career in jazz began in the early 1920's in Chicago
with Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, cutting his first sides with
Red Nichols and his Five Pennies in 1929. The band also featured Glenn
Miller and Jack Teagarden on trombones, Bud Freeman on tenor sax and
Eddie Condon on guitar.
By the early 1930's, Pee Wee moved to New York where he found a steady
home in the bands of Eddie Condon and jamming with a roster of hot jazz
players including Bobby Hackett, Red Allen, Edmond Hall, Hot Lips Page,
Jack Bland, Buster Bailey and Vic Dickenson. Pee Wee played in the
all-star band put together by Eddie Condon for Fats Waller's Carnegie
Hall debut in 1942, which also included Bud Freeman and Gene Krupa.
Throughout most of the 1940's Pee Wee could be found playing at Nick's,
the popular Greenwich Village restaurant/club that was a mainstay for
hot musicians as the swing era evolved into bop. During this period Pee
Wee was recording sides for Milt Gabler's Commodore label under his own
name and as a sideman.
In 1951 after years of heavy drinking and not taking care of himself,
Russell fell ill and so near death that a benefit concert was held in
his honor. After weeks in the hospital, including several blood
transfusions and three square meals a day, Pee Wee returned to New York
and played a well received set at the Newport Jazz Festival with
Thelonious Monk thus proving his talent for all music whether
traditional or bop.
Pee Wee was a consummate small group player. Although he was offered jobs with many of the top-name big bands of the day, Pee Wee preferred the small group swing that he had been playing all his life, and with the exception of a short stint with Bobby Hackett's Big Band played exclusively in small groups. Russell was a mainstay in traditional jazz bands along the east coast until his death in 1969.