This week in the series on Jazz instrumentalists, William Price King shares the life and music of Pee Wee Russell, whose unique style as a clarinettist was later recognised as innovative and an early example of ‘free jazz’.
Charles Ellsworth “Pee Wee” Russell (March 27, 1906 – February 15, 1969), was a jazz musician. Early in his career he played clarinet and saxophones, but he eventually focused solely on clarinet.
With a highly individualistic and spontaneous clarinet style that “defied classification”, Russell began his career playing Dixieland jazz, but throughout his career incorporated elements of newer developments such as swing, bebop and free jazz
Pee Wee Russell was born in Missouri and was raised in Muskogee, Oklahoma. He was encouraged to play violin as a child, but disliked it, moving onto the piano that he also found onerous, particularly having to learn scales and chord exercises. This was followed by a period of learning to play the drums, before his father took him to see a band playing locally, led by New Orleans Jazz clarinettist, Alcide ‘Yellow’ Nunez. Pee Wee was captivated and he decided that his primary instrument would be the clarinet.
He approached the clarinettist at his local theatre called Charlie Merrill for lessons until the family moved to St. Louis in 1920. The now 14 year old Pee Wee was enrolled in the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois and he stayed there for a year, although he spent much of his time playing clarinet with a number of dance and jazz bands. At 16 he began touring professionally in tent show and on the river boats, with his first recording in 1924 with Herb Berger’s Band in St. Louis. This was followed by a move to Chicago where he began to play with some of the better known musicians of the time such as Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke.
“The Very Thought of You” is from the album “Swinging with Pee Wee” with Buck Clayton on trumpet, Tommy Flanagan on piano, Wendell Marshall on double bass, and Osie Johnson on drums. This song was written in 1934 by Ray Noble and used in the film “Lost Lady” (1934) starring Barbara Stanwyck. As you can hear in this piece, Russell has a soft, caressing, breathy tone which he produced in the chalumeau* range of his clarinet and his solo is beautifully complemented by Buck Clayton, muted and tender. He was a master of mood and quite effective with slow and mid-tempo ballads.
*The chalumeau is a folk instrument that is the predecessor to the modern-day clarinet.
His style was always distinctive and unorthodox and he was sometimes accused of playing out of tune. At 20 he joined Jean Goldkette’s band and after a year left for New York to join Red Nichols. While with Nichol’s band, Pee Wee also freelanced with studio work on the clarinet, soprano, alto and tenor sax and bass clarinet. As well as working with the top bands of the day he also began a series of residences at the famous jazz club, ‘Nick’s’ in Greenwich Village in 1937.
“That Old Feeling” was composed by Sammy Fain and Lew Brown in 1937. The song first appeared in the film “Vogues of 1938” and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song the same year. Russell’s interpretation of this piece with his un-orthodox, un-clarinet-like tone, is warm, expressive, and musically intelligent, with a very natural sense of swing.
He began to play with Eddie Condon and would do so until the end of his life although he did comment on their association at one point which gives an insight into his lack of self-esteem. “Those guys [at Nick’s and Condon’s] made a joke, of me, a clown, and I let myself be treated that way because I was afraid. I didn’t know where else to go, where to take refuge”.
“Englewood”, composed by Pee Wee Russell is a strong blues. Russell gets to show how funky his clarinet can be in this video and the horn solos are brilliant, sustained by a stringy bass and slapping drums. Check out Russell’s high hard notes and airy lines. He uses his tone as a means of expression as he growls, squeals and then drops down into his lower register with an occasional sotto voce.*
*Sotto voce – In music, sotto voce is a dramatic lowering of the vocal or instrumental volume — not necessarily pianissimo, but a definitely hushed tonal quality.
From the 1940s onwards, Russell’s health was often poor, exacerbated by alcoholism – “I lived on brandy milkshakes and scrambled-egg sandwiches. And on whiskey … I had to drink half a pint of whiskey in the morning before I could get out of bed” – which led to a major medical breakdown in 1951. In his last ten years he often played at jazz festivals and on international tours and he formed a quartet which included trombone player Marshall Brown.
“Midnight Blue” from the album “Swinging with Pee Wee” 1960, is a happy blues which climaxes with a fantastic exchange between the horns. But before that happens Russell makes his instrument whisper and rasp in a very intimate and sensuous manner.
Though often labeled a Dixiland musician by virtue of the company he kept, he tended to reject any label. Russell’s unique and sometimes derided approach was praised as ahead of its time, and cited by some as an early example of free jazz. At the time of their 1961 recording Jazz Reunion (Candid), Coleman Hawkins (who had originally recorded with Russell in 1929 and considered him to be color-blind) observed that ‘”For thirty years, I’ve been listening to him play those funny notes. He used to think they were wrong, but they weren’t. He’s always been way out, but they didn’t have a name for it then.“.
“The Blues in my Flat” is from the Earl Hines Album “Once Upon a Time” 1966. Russell accompanies Ray Nance who was one of the finest jazz violinists of the 1940s who played in the Duke Ellington orchestra. He was also an excellent jazz singer as you will hear in this video. As for Russell, he begins his solo in a cool swing with a pattern of staccato notes moving downward and then veers off into the falsetto register of his instrument. He reverses the pattern and breaks into a delicate rush of notes that become intensely multiplied improvisational phrases.
Pee Wee’s last gig was 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.
You can buy Pee Wee Russell Music HERE
Additional sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pee_Wee_Russell
About William Price King
William Price King is an American jazz singer, crooner, and composer.
His interest in music began at an early age when he studied piano and clarinet in high school. At Morehouse College in Atlanta where he grew up, he sang in the Glee Club and studied classical music. After graduation he went off to the Yale School of Music where he earned a Masters degree. From there he journeyed to New York where he created a jazz trio ‘Au Naturel’ which performed in some of the hottest venues in Manhattan including gigs on Broadway and the famous ‘Rainbow Room.’ These gigs opened doors for performances in Montreal and a European tour.
While touring Europe he met a lovely French lady, Jeanne Maïstre, who, a year later became his wife. King left the group ‘Au Naturel’ and settled in the south of France where he started a new life on the French Riviera, opening his own music school – the “Price King Ecole Internationale de Chant.” He has had the pleasure over the years of seeing many of his students excel as singers on a professional level, and some going on to become national celebrities. He continues to coach young singers today, in his spare time.
His debut jazz album was entitled “Home,” and was a collection of contemporary compositions he composed, with lyrics written by his wife Jeanne King. His second album was a Duo (Voice and Guitar) with Eric Sempé on the guitar. This album included original songs as well as well known standards from contemporary jazz and pop artists. The “King-Sempé” duo toured France and thrilled audiences for more than three years before going their separate ways. King has formed a new duo with French/Greek guitarist Manolis, and is now exploring new ideas, in a smooth jazz/soul/folk direction.
In addition to singing and composing, King has been collaborating with author Sally Cronin over the past few years on her blog “Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life,” with the series “A Man And His Music – Jazz, Contemporary, Classical, and Legends” and now, the “William Price King Music Column.” Working with author Sally Cronin has been an exhilarating experience in many ways and has brought a new dimension to King’s creative life. King has also created a micro blog, “Improvisation,” which features and introduces mostly jazz artists from across the jazz spectrum who have made considerable contributions in the world of jazz; and also artwork from painters who have made their mark in the world of art. This micro blog can be found on Tumblr.
His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé. King has a distinctive wide-ranging voice which displays a remarkable technical facility and emotional depth.
William Price King on Tumblr – IMPROVISATION – https://williampriceking.tumblr.com
Connect with William
Website – http://www.williampriceking.com/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/WilliamPriceKing
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Regular Venue – http://cave-wilson.com/
You can find all of the Music Column series in this directory: https://smorgasbordinvitation.wordpress.com/william-price-king-music-column/
Thank you for tuning in today and we hope you have enjoyed the music. We look forward to your feedback.. thanks Sally and William.