CELEBRATING FRANK NEWTON AND PEE WEE RUSSELL

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.

9 responses to “CELEBRATING FRANK NEWTON AND PEE WEE RUSSELL

  1. I hope to see you at the Pee Wee Stomp on March 1 at the Birchwood Manor in Parsippany, NJ…..you know and love most (if not all) the musicians who will be performing!

  2. I hope someone records this! Any details we young folk can pick up about great players like Frankie Newton deserve to be preserved!!! The fact that a whole day is devoted to Newton and Pee Wee is, in a word, kickass!

  3. wow–very cool!

    (pinching myself–did i dream this?!)

  4. dang, I’ll be outta town. Hope someone DOES record this (hint hint).

  5. Am I alone in thinking that these two are NOT
    cut from the same cloth? I love Frankie Newton
    and everything I’ve ever heard by him. On the other hand, I don’t get most of Pee Wee Russell.
    Surely this is a failing of mine but I wonder whether I share this point of view with anyone else.

  6. Dear Bob,
    We know you have excellent taste — that’s beyond question — so your feeling deserves a serious reply. Not everyone “gets” Russell; some, perhaps because they find it hard to separate him from his contexts (for me, the Condon Commodores are the height of art). However, I would hold up his MARIOOCH (with Hawkins, Jo, Berry, and Brookmeyer, 1961) or his work alongside Buck Clayton in 1960 as extraordinary. Russell always went his own way, whether he was playing with Hackett on a Teddy Wilson session in 1938 or exploring a ballad any time in his life. The Condon EMBRACEABLE YOU, for instance, has a solo that deserves to be assessed alongside Lester’s greatest playing of the period — but when people see Russell typecast as someone tonally freakish, they miss the point. Not that you do. What do you hear when you hear Russell?

  7. Pee Wee Russell has had a strong and lasting influence on me, and I’m thrilled to see this event taking place. I hope I can make it there. While he is one of the most obvious persons to single out as a “misunderstood” jazz artist, it is clear to me that Parker and Armstrong are also greatly misunderstood. And I do put Pee Wee on the same plateau as those two, in terms of a unique innovator. The fact that he, as a youth, was formally trained with great effect, and then, still in his teens, rejected all of it in favor of the pursuit of pure improvisation; this, I believe, is extremely rare, if not completely unique.

  8. Thank you for your perceptive words! Two mini-comments. About being misunderstood: the odd relations between jazz, as a highly creative and demanding artistic endeavor, and the way it is perceived as entertainment in the marketplace, I believe inevitably leads to such misreadings of an artist’s worth and his or her striving to make something new and lasting — and an improvised solo, if not recorded, is the most ephemeral kind of art! Emerson writes in “Self-Reliance” that “To be great is to be misunderstood,” which may or may not be a comfort to the artist. Second, I applaud your point about Russell being classically accomplished and then “turning away” from that to improvise in his own fashion. I can’t provide a list of jazz musicians whose training and careers took similar paths, but I believe that this was more often the case than we assume. Many listeners hold to the mythic saga of the youthful genius who has no lessons or only a few, who toddles to the piano to pick out melodies on his own . . . but I think many more of the jazz musicians we revere had such training in their youth. But — as for your comment — praise to you and to Charles Ellsworth Russell, someone whose name should be up in the highest ranks! (Some day, this might happen: I’m waiting for more people to recognize that his solo work is of the same character as Lester Young’s!)

  9. Pingback: Pee Wee Russell | My Music Notes

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