Pee Wee Russell Biography

Charles Ellsworth Russell, 27 March 1906, Maple Wood, Missouri, USA, d. 15 February 1969, Alexandria. Russell began playing clarinet in the early 20s and by 1927, the year he came to New York, had already worked with luminaries such as Jack Teagarden, Frank Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke. In the late 20s and throughout the 30s and 40s, Russell played with numerous jazzmen working in the traditional sphere, among them Bobby Hackett, Wild Bill Davison, Louis Prima, Billy Butterfield, Muggsy Spanier, George Wettling and Art Hodes. He also enjoyed a long association with Eddie Condon, although enjoyed is perhaps an inappropriate term for what Russell later described as a time of sadness - thanks to his hangdog expression and idiosyncratic style of playing, he was often treated as a clown. In the 50s Russell’s health was suspect - he suffered from alcoholism - but by the 60s he was back playing at clubs, concerts and festivals around the world.

One of the most endearing eccentrics in jazz, Russell’s playing style was unique and on first and sometimes even second hearing might be thought primitive. Nevertheless, the sometimes grating sounds he produced on his instrument and the seemingly indecisive placing of notes during solo and ensemble passages had a cumulative effect that demonstrated the existence of an inquiring and adventurous musical mind. This became more overtly apparent when he blended easily with such diverse musical associates as Thelonious Monk, Henry ‘Red’ Allen and Coleman Hawkins. In the 60s he played in a pianoless quartet with Marshall Brown and on a big band album with Oliver Nelson, as well as working again in more traditional contexts. A totally original and often brilliant clarinettist, he inspired writer George Frazier to enthuse about ‘the bliss and the sadness and the compassion and the humility that are there in the notes he plays’. Finally, the liver condition that had almost killed him in the 50s returned to finish the job, and he died in February 1969.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.