To have the man you consider one of the greatest photographic artists capture your heroes at work and play . . . what could be better?
I am happy to present three of Charles Peterson’s on-the-spot portrait studies of Bobby Hackett and Pee Wee Russell in their native habitat. Hackett met Russell when Bobby was quite young, and, much later, credited Pee Wee with “teaching him how to drink,” not the best lesson.
But if you listen to their playing — captured on records for more than twenty-five years — they were busy teaching each other more salutary things. Standing next to Russell on a bandstand would have been a joyously emboldening experience: “Here, kid, close your eyes and jump off. Nothing to be afraid of!” Pee Wee’s willingness to get himself into apparently impossible corners was always inspiring. “What could possibly go wrong?” And, for Russell, having Hackett nearby, that sound, those lovely melodies, that sensitivity to the harmonies, would have been soul-enhancing: “Listen to the beautiful chorus the kid just played!”
The portrait above was taken at one of the Sunday afternoon jam sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s, January 19, 1941, and it presents another Ideal Moment in Time and Space that Peterson captured. It’s possible that Brad Gowans (playing his “valide,” a combination slide / valve trombone of his own manufacture). Bobby, and Pee Wee are doing nothing more adventurous than holding whole notes behind someone else’s solo: they seem remarkably easy, effortless. But that would have been enough for me.
They all look so young. And — adopting the slang of the period — spiffy. Pee Wee’s crisp suit, folded pocket handkerchief; Brad’s bowtie; their hair, neatly slicked back. Of course, the combination of Pee Wee’s height and the low ceiling — as well as the angle of Peterson’s shot — makes the three men seem too big for the room. Which, in terms of their talent, was always true.
As always with Peterson’s work, I find the details I didn’t catch immediately are as enthralling as the big picture. There’s another musician on the stand — a drummer I can’t immediately identify. Is it Zutty Singleton? He is hidden behind Gowans, both the man and the instrument, and less than half his face is visible. But from what we can see, he is taking it all in, delighted.
This photograph, with Eddie Condon’s taciturn caption, “TRIO,” appears in the irreplaceable EDDIE CONDON’S SCRAPBOOK OF JAZZ, assembled and edited by Hank O’Neal — one of the many things we have to thank Mr. O’Neal for.
The next view comes from a rehearsal for a Commodore Records date a few years earlier — I believe in the rather claustrophoblic Brunswick studios. (It seems that every studio of that time except for Victor’s Camden church and Columbia’s Liederkrantz Hall stifled both the sound and the musicians. That so much stirring jazz was captured in such circumstances makes me agree with Norman Field who said, “Can you imagine what those guys sounded like live?”). The recognizable figures are again Bobby and Pee Wee, with Bud Freeman to the right. The man I didn’t recognize until Don Peterson identified him, second from left, is jazz enthusiast and amateur drummer Harry Ely. This is a rehearsal rather than a jam session, so it’s possible that the three men are trying out chords for a background, Russell and Freeman are intent, but Hackett is at his ease. His shirt-sleeve is neatly rolled up (revealing his boyish, thin arm), he holds the horn casually. Musicians dressed beautifully for recording sessions even when no photographers were present — their habit and custom! — thus the neckties and suspenders, the fresh white shirts.
Here, again, the photograph can’t convey the sound these men made. And if you were new to the art and had been handed the photograph, it would just seem reasonably antique: three men in archaic dress with instruments to their lips, a metal folding chair, its paint worn off in spots, in front. But look at Ely’s face! Head down, a mild smile, eyes closed to block off any visual distraction — although he never got to make a record, he is IN the music, serene and thrilled.
Finally, a photograph from one of the “Friday Club” sessions at the Park Lane Hotel, circa 1939, with an unusual lineup.
Of course, that’s Eddie Condon on the left, Hackett, Zutty Singleton at the drums, Jimmy Dorsey on alto sax, left-handed Mort Stuhlmaker at the bass, and the intrepid Mr. Russell on the far right. Condon is exhorting as well as strumming, and everyone else is floating along (Dorsey watching Condon to see what will happen next).
Pee Wee has struck out for the Territory, jazz’s Huckleberry Finn, and where he’s going is not only uncharted and exciting but the journey requires every bit of emotional and physical effort. I can hear a Russell wail soaring above the other horns. And — perhaps as a prefiguring? — Russell’s face, almost cavernous with the effort, is an unearthly echo-in-advance of the famously skeletal man in the hospital bed in 1951, when Jack Teagarden and Louis Armstrong came to comfort and solace him.
After Russell’s death, Hackett wrote of his friend, “Pee Wee and I were very close friends for many years and what little musical knowledge I may have I owe plenty to him. He was truly a great artist and a very honorable man. His music will live forever, along with his wonderful spirit. I’m sure we all miss him, but thank God he was here.”
I feel much the same way about Charles Peterson, who saw, recorded, and preserved marvels for us.