Charles Ellsworth Russell, much better known by his nickname Pee Wee Russell, (27 March 1906 - 15 February 1969) was a jazz musician. Early in his career he played clarinet and saxophones, but eventually focused solely on clarinet.
Russell was born in Maplewood, Missouri and grew up in Muskogee, Oklahoma. In Muskogee about 1919 his father took young Ellsworth to a dance given by the then famous touring band The Louisiana Five featuring New Orleans jazz clarinetist Alcide Nunez. Russell was amazed by Nunez's improvisations. While he had ambitions to play music before, the event made Pee Wee decide that his primary instrument would be the clarinet and the type of music he would play would be jazz.
His family moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1920, then Pee Wee was enrolled in the Western Military Academy in Alton, Illinois. On the side he played clarinet with various dance and jazz bands. He began touring professionally in 1922 and travelled widely with tent shows and on river boats. Russel's recording debut was in 1924 with Herb Berger's Band in St. Louis, then moved to Chicago where he began playing with such notables as Frankie Trumbauer and Bix Beiderbecke.
From his earliest career, Russell's style was distinctive. The notes he played were somewhat unorthodox when compared to his contemporaries, and he was sometimes accused to playing out-of-tune. Though often labelled a dixieland musician by virtue of the company he kept, he tended to reject any label.
In 1926 he joined Jean Goldkette's band, and the following year left to New York City to join Red Nichols. While with Nichols' band, Russell did frequent freelance recording studio work, on clarinet, soprano, alto, and tenor sax and bass clarinet. He worked with various bandleaders (including Louis Prima) before beginning a series of residences at the famous jazz club Nick's in Greenwich Village, Manhattan in 1937.
He played with Bobby Hackett's big band and began playing with Eddie Condon, who he would continue working regularly for most of the rest of his life.
From the 1940s on, Russell's health was often poor, exacerbated by alcoholism - which led to a major medical breakdown in 1951 - and he had periods when he could not play.
He played with Art Hodes, Muggsy Spanier and occasionally bands under his own name in addition to Condon.
In his last decade, Russell often played at jazz festivals and international tours organized by George Wein, including an appearance with Thelonious Monk at the Newport Festival in 1963, a meeting which has a mixed reputation (currently available as part of the Monk 2CD set Live at Newport 1963-65). Russell formed a quartet with valve trombone player Marshall Brown, and included John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman tunes in his repertoire.
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. Coleman Hawkins, who considered Russell to be color-blind, at the time of the 1961 Jazz Reunion (Candid) record date - they had originally recorded together in 1929 - dismissed any idea that Russell was now playing modern, saying that he had always played that way.
By this time, encouraged by Mary, his wife, Russell had taken up painting abstract art as a hobby. Mary's death in the spring of 1967 had a severe effect on him.
His last gig was with Wein at the inaugural ball for President Richard Nixon on 21 January 1969. Russell died in a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia.
The greatly imaginative improvisations of Russell when at his best remain an inspiration to later jazz clarinetists.
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