JAZZMAN by Robert Hilbert


The Jazz Life of Pee Wee Russell
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 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.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-19-507403-3
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1993