Whitney Balliett writes of the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell:
“No jazz musician ever played with the same daring and nakedness and intuition. He took wild improvisational chances and when he found himself above the abyss, he simply turned in another direction, invariably hitting firm ground.”
The sound of few musicians, even in so renegade yet tradition-minded a form as jazz, is so instantly identifiable as Russell’s. He was accused of being a primitive, of not knowing the fundamentals of his instrument, yet he was the only musician to perform and record with both Bix Beiderbecke and Thelonious Monk (against whom critics made similar accusations). He was never Benny Goodman in his command of technique – who was? -- but as an improviser he was peerless. In an obituary written for Down Beat, pianist Dick Wellstood describes Russell’s sound as “that crabbed, choked, knotted tangle of squawks with which he could create such woodsy freedom, such an enormous roomy private universe.”
A life of prodigious drinking and generally dubious habits almost killed Russell in 1950, after his wife left and his alcohol consumption became methodically suicidal. He lived, Mary returned and Russell experienced a second career as a “Dixieland” player in the age of bop. Robert Hilbert tells the story in Pee Wee Russell: The Life of a Jazzman (Oxford University Press, 1993).
In 1965, Russell’s wife, frustrated with his habitual melancholy and refusal to promote himself, bought a set of paints, brushes and canvases. Russell had never painted before or expressed interest in any art other than jazz, though he befriended the great American modernist painter Stuart Davis. He completed his first painting on Nov. 30, 1965, and in the next year and a half finished another 60 “bold and powerful abstract canvases,” in Hilbert’s words. Go here to see one. In rereading Hilbert’s biography, I was struck by something he quotes Russell saying about his work with the brush:
“Like my playing, it’s a challenge to get in and get out of certain choruses. I start with certain colors and when it starts getting too dull for me, I say how will I get out of this and what color will I use?”
This reminded me of something the novelist William Gaddis said to me during an interview in 1990:
“For me, writing is about solving a problem, usually a technical problem. I start with a problem and the book is my solution.”
Russell was a more instinctual artist than Gaddis and took “wild improvisational chances,” as Balliett says, in his music and, presumably, his paintings. But any serious artist, certainly any serious writer, knows the anxiety and bliss of problem-solving. Writing is an endless chain of decisions, small and large, as to consonants and vowels, tone, dynamics, rhythm – all the qualities language shares with music, each the solution to a minute problem. On a less grand scale, each of us is trying to “get out of certain choruses.”
As a sad coda, it should be added that Russell’s wife Mary died of pancreatic cancer on June 7, 1967, at the age of 56. Russell never painted again. His dedicated drinking resumed and though he played and recorded occasionally, Pee Wee died at age 62 on Feb. 15, 1969.