Pee Wee Russell: The Life of a Jazzman

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9780195074031: Pee Wee Russell: The Life of a Jazzman

"No jazz musician has ever played with the same daring and nakedness and intuition," Whitney Balliett wrote in a New Yorker profile of Pee Wee Russell. "He took wild improvisational chances, and when he found himself above the abyss, he simply turned in another direction, invariably hitting firm ground." Gunther Schuller, America's preeminent jazz historian, also had high praise for Russell, saying that "he defined and exemplified what it is to be a true jazz musician.... The unorthodox tone, the halting continuity, the odd note choices--are manifestations of a unique, wondrously self-contained musical personality.... He was also one of the most touching and human players jazz has ever known." Clarinetist Pee Wee Russell was indeed one of the great innovators in jazz history. Now, in Jazzman, Robert Hilbert provides the first full-length biography of this unique jazz stylist.
Based on hundreds of interviews with musicians and friends, Pee Wee Russell fills in much that was not known about Russell's life, illuminating his fifty year career from his early days as a teenage dance band musician, to his final work with musicians such as Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan. Hilbert draws a vivid portrait of Pee Wee's early friendship with legendary Bix Beiderbecke (fond of Stravinsky, Debussy, and Ravel, both Bix and Pee Wee delighted in the new techniques of modern composers--dissonance, whole-tone scales--and their styles reflected this). The author describes Russell's early work in Chicago and Hollywood, his first taste of the big time in New York as a member of Red Nichols's band, Pee Wee's success as one of the first stars on "Swing Street" (52nd Street in New York City), as a member of Louis Prima's band, and his decade-long association with Nick's, a famous Greenwich Village jazz spot. In addition, Russell lived a bohemian existence, and Hilbert does an excellent job of capturing his colorful life and times. But we also see the down side of a musician's life--Russell was one of the monumental drinkers in jazz history, and after separating from his mercurial wife Mary in 1949, he lapsed into complete dissipation, landing in a charity ward of San Francisco County Hospital, with only 73 pounds on his six-foot frame. He recovered once his wife returned, and went on to his finest years, only to fall apart again when she died suddenly of cancer. Russell died in January, 1969, a few weeks after playing at President Nixon's inauguration.
"His was the pure flame," Robert Hilbert writes of Pee Wee Russell. "Hot, gritty, profane, real. No matter what physical or mental condition Russell was in, night after night he spun wondrous improvisations. No matter how disjointed his life, how scrambled his mind, how incomprehensible his speech, his music remained logical and authoritative, elegant and graceful, haughty and proud." In Pee Wee Russell, Hilbert does full justice to this remarkable figure in American jazz.

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About the Author:


About the Author:
Robert Hilbert is a jazz writer, a record producer, President of Pumpkin Productions, and President of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors.

From Kirkus Reviews:

From the president of the International Society of Jazz Record Collectors: a life of great jazz clarinetist Pee Wee Russell (1909- 69), who cut the figure of a legendary drinker and inspired player but who during his life was at once reviled for incompetence and respected for genius. The recorded works say genius. Born in St. Louis, Charles Ellsworth Russell (who grew into quite a big, lanky man) was cosseted by his parents and given every musical instrument he longed for--violin, piano, drums, sax, and, finally, a top-of-the-line clarinet. At age 12, he began both drinking and playing in bands. Beset by his lack of discipline, his family sent him away to military school, but the school dropped him after one year. Russell's final musical training was a brief course from a clarinetist in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; at age 16, he began a nearly 50-year solo. He was befriended and loved by greats, including bosom buddy Bix Beiderbecke, whose cornet style Russell adapted for a staccato clarinet attack but then gave up for a seemingly groping, hawking, rasping, often dirty personal style. Beiderbecke and Russell dug Stravinsky, Ravel, and the moderns and sought a new style of improvising along chordal rather than melodic lines. Russell kept up-to-date, not wanting to be locked into the past, and even wound up in one Newport concert with Thelonious Monk, where he acquitted himself knowledgeably. Meanwhile, he lived in an alcoholic hell. His long body moved fluidly as he played, but his long-nosed, big-eared basset-hound face bore agony through eyes staring querulously from a mass of hound-deep wrinkles and prison bars of alcohol. He died from brain edema and cirrhosis of the liver. Once underway, tremendously entertaining.

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Robert Hilbert
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