I wish that the title of this posting referred to some newly unearthed recordings that had both of these jazz poets improvising together. Unfortunately, although such a meeting might have taken place, the recorded evidence may not exist.
Newton, whom I’ve written about before, remains beautiful yet shadowy. The sensitivity we hear in his playing also made him one of jazz’s revered yet most elusive figures. That same sensitivity apparently made him a man greatly burdened by the injustices around him: racial prejudice coupled with the inartistic nature of “the music business.” Surely the frequent periods of illness he suffered were not merely the result of a frail constitution: he had power and self-assurance. But they seem to be necessary periods of retreat from a world that repelled him.
Pee Wee Russell lived longer and had more opportunities to play and create alongside everyone from Arthur Schutt to Bobby Hackett to Thelonious Monk. But he, too, was hampered by factors that he must have found demeaning: the musicians who had once cherished him treated him more as a clownish spectacle, someone who made freakish sounds and faces.
But there’s good news — so remarkable that only italics are suitable:
The Jazz Museum in Harlem will be devoting a Saturday afternoon to Newton and Russell.
On March 28, from 10 to 4, they will be celebrating the lives of these two creative improvisers. Not, mind you, in the usual way, by simply playing their records. I would guess that they would show us Newton and Russell on film (Pee Wee shows up in a variety of contexts over the years; Newton, I believe, is only visible once, if that). But we will get to hear about these two men from people who were there. Readers of this blog will know the value I place on first-hand testimony, especially since the original players and the people who witnessed their miraculous work are becoming fewer.
Here’s the list of esteemed, eloquent testifiers: Nat Hentoff, Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, and George Wein.
The panel will be held at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem Visitors’ Center, at 104 East 126th Street. And it’s free. “Don’t miss it!” is a real cliche when the event doesn’t warrant it, but it means something for an event like this. And in the meantime, I hope readers can remind themselves of the beauties Newton and Russell created for us to hear.