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Making a Mark Away from the Bandstand.

Pee Wee Russell

John Robert Brown

Pee Wee Russell

Known to jazz lovers as 'Pee Wee' Russell, Charles Ellsworth Russell was born in 1906. He grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. In 1925, clarinettist Pee Wee met two influential musicians, cornettist Bix Beiderbecke and saxophonist Frank Trumbauer. Immediately, Pee Wee and Bix became friends, and played together in Trumbauer's band. They listened to all types of music, including compositions by Delius, Ravel and Stravinsky. In 1927 cornettist Red Nichols invited Pee Wee Russell to New York.

The day after Russell arrived in Manhattan he recorded with Nichols' Five Pennies, that session being the start of a procession of recording dates that continued throughout Russell's career. The clarinettist recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. By 1935 Russell was playing on 52nd Street at the Famous Door, in the band of trumpeter Louis Prima.

Russell was the mainstay at Nick's (also on 52nd St) for nearly a decade. The ever-changing group recorded regularly, particularly for Milt Gabler's Commodore label. In 1938, Life magazine featured the Hackett band in a lavish spread, with photos. Pee Wee, thanks to his expressive wrinkled face as much as his music, became famous.

In 1943 Russell married Mary Chaloff. She supported Pee Wee's fragile self-image, tried to build his self-confidence, and brought moderation to his antics. Now he experienced some of the fame and regard that his abilities deserved. Musicians and critics realised that Russell was an original. An established regular at the Newport Jazz Festivals, in April 1961 Russell accompanied promoter and pianist George Wein on a European tour, visiting Essen, Berlin, Copenhagen and Paris. Russell's reputation had preceded him. The reception buoyed his spirits.

A surprising side of Russell emerged in 1965. At Mary's urging, he took up oil painting. "Mary went to Macy's one day," explained jazz critic Dan Morgenstern. "They had a sale on a paint set, with canvasses. She bought the whole thing, came home, dumped it in his lap and said: 'Here, do something with yourself. Paint!" So he took up painting.

"A documentary film (Portrait of Pee Wee Russell) was released in 1998, showing him in the process of painting. He was totally unorthodox," said Morgenstern. "Just like his clarinet playing, but he really enjoyed it. Much to his delight, he sold a few canvasses. Bob Haggart (the bassist), who was also a painter, very conventional but very good, very nice landscapes and pastels, bought a painting of Pee Wee's. There were a few jazz-minded art collectors. Pee Wee really enjoyed doing it. But when Mary, his wife, died he lapsed, started drinking again, and he just stopped painting."

Audience by Pee Wee Russell 1966

Morgenstern recalled that the paintings all had names. "I suspect that some of the names were Mary's rather than Pee Wee's," he says. One, which used to hang in Morgenstern's office at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, is called Lightning on the Mountain. Another is The Twins from Mars. In the film of him working Pee Wee has a cigarette in his mouth. He's talking while he's doing it. But he keeps the canvas flat. He knows exactly what he wants to do. He had an eye for design, obviously. He claimed that he never went to a museum, didn't study with anybody.
His friend the drummer George Wettling studied with Stuart Davis. He was very serious about it." [Stuart Davis (1892-1964) was a major American painter who had his work exhibited alongside the work of Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. He named his son (b. 1952) 'George Earl' after George Wettling and pianist Earl Hines.]

Russell brought to his painting the same degree of inventiveness that characterised his music. Saxophonist Bud Freeman acted as an agent for Russell's paintings. As also happened later with Miles Davis, Pee Wee's painting was so good that some people around the world identified more with the idea that he was a famous painter than a great jazz musician. "He sold something like 54 paintings for not less than seven hundred dollars a painting," said Bud Freeman.

With recognition on two fronts, Russell entered into a period of relative stability, buoyed by his devoted wife. He accepted fewer jobs to spend more time at home with Mary and his painting. He re-visited Mexico on a tour arranged by George Wein. He played at the Montreal Expo 67.
In May that year Mary was admitted to St. Vincent's Hospital suffering from a long-standing undiagnosed internal disorder. Pancreatic cancer was the final diagnosis. She died in June 1967.

Mary's death had a severe effect on Pee Wee. His last gig was with George Wein at the inaugural ball for President Richard Nixon, on January 21, 1969.

Russell died in a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, less than three weeks later.

John Robert Brown

First published in Jazz Journal, May 2014. Used by kind permission of the editor. Reproduction forbidden.
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