A Fickle Sonance

a column by
Art Lange

By now, I suppose, everyone knows that YouTube is the place to go to watch 40-somethings trying to out-Page Jimmy Page on “Stairway to Heaven” and kittens stealing Grandma’s teeth while she sleeps, or to post the Hokey-Pokey from your wedding reception for future generations to enjoy. For a long time, that’s all I thought it was used for. But lately I’ve discovered that YouTube is something else, something more – at its most valuable, it’s a museum of cultural artifacts, a repository of not only the odd and the insignificant, but also the precious and otherwise ephemeral. Of course, there’s absolutely no discrimination involved, so those cute animal videos are on equal footing with, say, a lecture on Dante’s Divine Comedy. But there are fascinating discoveries to be made. For a time, I was hooked on watching clips from the ‘50s tv show What’s My Line?, an intelligent and civilized “reality-based” (long before the present-day concept existed) game show, with participants ranging from an unknown postal worker with an unusual hobby to Salvador Dali (one of the weirdest episodes had a young Paul Butterfield, Chicago blues harpist, stumping the panel about his occupation, then getting up to jam with some anonymous CBS in-house musicians). In the realm of music alone, YouTube houses hours of amateur home demos and at least four complete concert performances of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. There’s Sesame Street’s Elmo and Elmo Hope, Honey Boo Boo and Pierre Boulez. But, perhaps best of all, there’s plenty of Pee Wee Russell.

At this point I should confess that my two favorite jazz musicians are – and have been for decades – Thelonious Monk and Pee Wee Russell, primarily for the same musical reasons. If you’re unfamiliar with Russell’s career, I recommend you take a look at the section Gunther Schuller devotes to him in The Swing Era (Oxford University Press); “Even His Feet Look Sad” by Whitney Balliett, from American Musicians (Oxford as well); and, if you can find it, John McDonough’s booklet included in the box of LPs devoted to Pee Wee in the Time-Life “Giants of Jazz” series (that way you can listen to the incomparable music too). Throughout his lifetime, critics praised and disparaged Russell’s unique clarinet style on the same grounds – his wildly variable, unorthodox tonal qualities; unpredictable, often outrageous sense of pitch; evasive, uncontained phrasing; and surreal, yet deeply emotional, manner of solo construction (Schuller called him “one of the great storytellers in jazz, an Edgar Allan Poe, a Wilhelm Busch, and Charles Schulz all rolled into one.”). To my ear, Russell’s improvising (like Monk’s) was based, simply and totally, on taking risks – from note to note, phrase to phrase, song after song – and in the enormous breadth of his continually self-challenging music I hear courage, vulnerability, imagination, and more than a hint of melancholy.

And so, on a whim, I spent a recent Sunday morning navigating through the treacherous channels of YouTube looking for films of Pee Wee playing, and was duly rewarded. As might be expected, the oldest examples are the most eye-opening, if not ear-opening. In a 1929 Vitaphone short (click here to view), Pee Wee is a member of cornetist Red Nichols’ Five Pennies. Nichols, an uneven but sometimes tantalizing player who has been much maligned for not being as good as Bix Beiderbecke, looks a little like Danny Kaye (who played him some years later in a Hollywood bio-pic). The music, for the most part, is tight and polite, so Pee Wee’s brief, bluesy asides stick out like the one red sock in a drawer of white socks. It seems that Eddie Condon didn’t take the music too seriously either; he’s front and center singing “Nobody’s Sweetheart” and “Who Cares,” but watch the way he sashays back to the bandstand, and punctuates the end of a relatively hot “China Boy” with a foot kick. Next up, a 1937 short, “Swing It!” (click here to view), featuring  trumpeter/vocalist Louis Prima, who was then fashioning the exuberant, jivey shtick – part Satchmo caricature, part paisano frolic – that would make him famous in Las Vegas a few years hence. This one has a plot: Prima’s band is hired to boost the popularity of a local club. Lucille Ball, in her first screen appearance, plays a blonde waitress, and the Russell clarinet sounds much looser and livelier alongside Prima’s Armstrong-inspired trumpet. But the best part is when the band does a comedy routine in a car, centered around the boss’ bad driving. Pee Wee even has a punchline, and his rubbery face and reaction shots have an animated, Stan Laurel quality. (In later life, his creased and glum countenance epitomized the term “hang-dog,” though while playing his facial expressions were frequently compared to Buster Keaton.) Then, circa 1938, he can be found in a top-hatted, circus tuxedo’ed Bobby Hackett-led septet lip-synching a rousing “At the Jazz Band Ball,” barely able to contain his mirth as trombonist George Brunies hams it up – but his pre-recorded solo is full of his own brand of whimsy (click here to view).

Fast-forward to the 1950s, a good decade for jazz on television, especially in local markets. The benchmark was The Sound of Jazz, the 1957 CBS network special that placed Russell in the company of peers like Red Allen and Coleman Hawkins, as well as the experimentally-leaning Jimmy Giuffre. (One wonders if his confrontation with the more tonally adventurous Russell induced Giuffre to push further into uncharted waters. Meanwhile, for a fuller account of this remarkable show, see “A Fickle Sonance,” Point of Departure 12.) Russell’s solo on “Wild Man Blues,” especially, is mesmerizing; a piping lament, with several amazing mid-phrase swoops and a potentially disastrous reed squeak casually woven into the fabric of his line (click here to view). Not long after this milestone, for seven months in 1958 East Coasters were treated to Art Ford’s Jazz Party, which originated in a Newark warehouse and offered weekly jam sessions, drawing from the same New York community of world-class musicians. The September 25th show, in particular, brought together Pee Wee, Hawkins, and Lester Young, with stride master Willie “The Lion” Smith, Sonny Greer on drums, and others, but viewing it requires piecing it back together from several sources. Russell seems a bit uncomfortable with the galumphing rhythm Smith sets for “I May Be Wrong” (click here to view), there’s a rambunctious rumble through “Runnin’ Wild” (click here to view), and the incomparable sight of Hawk and Lester trading fours on “Jumpin’ with Symphony Sid” (click here to view).

In the early ‘60s, Pee Wee was adopted by George Wein for his touring Newport All-Stars, and a 1961 stop in Baden-Baden resulted in an extended appearance on German television. The full program can be seen in three parts at the tail end of a larger bundle of clips (click here to view), among them a luxurious, simmering rendition of “Meet Me in Chicago” from a 1967 Chicago-based tv show, Art Hodes’ Jazz Alley, that deserves to be seen in its entirety. (An aside: Hodes was a distinctive, deceptive, often underrated pianist, and here he devises a solo that references some of the oldest blues phrases in a modern context, including a tension-building riff a la Mal Waldron. When Russell re-enters with a sweet & sour tone, gradually growing quieter and quieter, the tune winds down to a hold-your-breath ending.) As for the All-Stars, they look a little silly standing on a stage elaborately decorated like a train engine, complete with a vaguely obscene moving piston driving the rear wheel, and must deflect host Joachim Berendt’s well-intentioned but inane interviews; still, the music has its redeeming moments, like Pee Wee’s descending line on the self-explanatory “Jazz Train Blues.” Ruby Braff and Vic Dickinson have their featured spots, brash and frisky respectively, but to my taste Pee Wee’s fluid, circuitous spin through “Sugar,” where he hems and haws his way towards the melody, takes the cake.

Saving the best for last, there’s a healthy slice of a documentary made in 1963 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called Twice As Nice As Paradise: After Hours at Eddie Condon’s (click here to view), which is as advertised, an informal jam in an otherwise empty club, open bottle on the piano, the musicians entertaining themselves. The director likes to focus on faces, Sergio Leone style – is he that bearded guy, not a musician, who insinuates himself into half the shots? There are a few awkward cuts that interrupt the music, especially a frustrating snippet of “Pee Wee’s Blues,” but the visual details tell their own story: amazingly, you can see and hear Condon play his four-string guitar; Willie the Lion, hat tilted rakishly and cigar clenched between his teeth, strides impeccably; and Wild Bill Davison, with scarred upper lip, is typically vociferous on cornet, as befits a man who came from Defiance, Ohio. Russell looks dapper, almost plump (remarkable after a lifetime of alcohol abuse that nearly killed him in the ‘50s), and takes an indomitable chorus on “Love is Just Around the Corner” – reminiscent of the three takes of the same tune, with sublimely different solos, he recorded for Commodore 25 years earlier. But the highlight is when Pee Wee, by himself, starts pulling a tune out of thin air, starting with a few odd, fugitive notes that gradually coalesce into a phrase, then a line, then a melody set precariously on edge, finally a chorus that’s sheer gossamer, as the others scramble to find their place in his world.

In his helpful 1993 Russell biography, The Life Of A Jazzman (Oxford), Robert Hilbert bemoans the fact that “Since his death in 1969 Pee Wee’s work has largely been ignored, except by a handful of astute critics and writers who continue to champion his music.” I don’t believe that is the case today. More contemporary musicians and committed fans, especially younger ones, now pay attention to and appreciate his improvisational tightrope-walking, where with each solo he was, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Poet, “constantly risking absurdity / and death” in the ultimate pursuit of Beauty.

Art Lange©2013

> back to contents