Pee Wee Russell Day
March 27, 1906 – February 15, 1969
A birthday tribute to the unique clarinetist
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Clarinetist Charles Ellsworth “Pee Wee” Russell was born on March 27, 1906 in Maplewood, Missouri.
Russell, who grew up in St. Louis and Muskogee, Oklahoma, had lessons on violin, piano and drums before switching to clarinet where he was originally inspired by Yellow Nunez of the Original Louisiana Five.
Russell freelanced in the Midwest including on riverboats, with tent shows, and with Peck Kelley’s Bad Boys in Texas.
He worked with Herbert Berger in 1924 and the following year was in Frank Trumbauer’s band where he became god friends with Bix Beiderbecke.
Russell was with Jean Goldkette’s orchestra during part of 1926, moved to New York in 1927, and worked and recorded with Red Nichols’ Five Pennies (including taking a notable solo on “Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider), making records with the Charleston Chasers, Miff Mole, the Red Heads, Trumbauer, Irving Brodsky, the Louisiana Rhythm Kings, the Hotsy-Totsy Gang, the Whoopee Makers and the Mound City Blue Blowers.
During that era, Russell (who had picked up the lifelong nickname of “Pee Wee”), while sounding a little like Frankie Teschemacher, was already developing his own style which became increasingly personal and eccentric as the 1930s progressed.
Russell participated in sessions in the early 1930s with Jack Teagarden, Jack Bland, Adrian Rollini and Billy Banks, met Eddie Condon, did studio work (sometimes playing tenor), and was a member of Louis Prima’s popular band on 52nd Street during 1935-37.
Russell began working regularly at Nick’s in New York in 1937 and became closely associated with Eddie Condon, and was one of the stars of Condon’s freewheeling jobs and recording dates.
Pee Wee Russell was on many record dates in the 1940s (including with Bud Freeman, Wild Bill Davison, Art Hodes and Muggsy Spanier), starred on Eddie Condon’s Town Hall concerts during 1944-45, barely survived his alcoholic lifestyle (being seriously ill in 1951), and in the 1950s was heard more often as a leader in addition to playing with George Wein’s Newport All Stars.
During 1962-63 Russell had an intriguing group with valve trombonist Marshall Brown that found him exploring much more modern material including songs associated with John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman in an unchanged style; he also sat in with the Thelonious Monk Quartet at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival.
After his wife’s death in 1967, Russell’s health went downhill and he passed away two years later.
Here is an intriguing television broadcast from December 17, 1963 at Eddie Condon’s club that features Pee Wee Russell with cornetist Wild Bill Davison, pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith, guitarist Condon, drummer Maury Feld and singer Helen Ward.
1 I’ve Got A Crush On You
2 Love Is Just Around The Corner
3 Struttin’ With Some Barbecue
4 I’m Confessin’ That I Love You
6 Pee Wee Blues