Few people, even dedicated readers, share more than one of my enthusiasms. Samuel Johnson, Alec Wilder and Coleoptera? To think otherwise would be delusional, self-centered and ultimately frustrating. Interests accumulate across a lifetime and come to define us. Some we shed, others intensify and grow more sophisticated and lasting. These are among the reasons we have no right to complain of boredom.
Michael Steinman was not a name I recognized though I’ve read two books he edited, and on Monday linked to a post about the clarinetist Pee Wee Russell on his blog Jazz Lives. In an e-mail thanking me, Steinman writes:
“I was even more pleased to see your comments on Whitney Balliett (someone I admired almost without reserve -- and met -- and sent tapes to!) and Richard M. Sudhalter (whom I read, heard on record, and had a very brief email correspondence with when he could still use a computer) and William Maxwell…I knew WM at the end of his life, met him in person three or so times, did three books that involve him . . . and am his literary executor. A nice constellation of tastes and experiences, I'd say.”
Thanks to the internet, another “nice constellation of tastes and experiences” is no longer so rare an experience. In a biographical note on his blog, Steinman says he saw Louis Armstrong perform in 1967 and that his “heroes include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Eddie Condon, Frank Chace, Jo Jones, Pee Wee Russell, Ben Webster, Frankie Newton, Hot Lips Page, Lester Young, Dave Tough, and Big Sid Catlett” – a list representing a significant chunk of my favorite music.
That a Pee Wee Russell admirer should also be Maxwell’s literary executor is a gift almost beyond reckoning. That he knew Balliett, Sudhalter and Maxwell to varying degrees stirs my usually dormant sense of envy. The books Steinman edited that I have read are The Happiness of Getting It Down Right: Letters of Frank O’Connor and William Maxwell 1945- 1966 (1996) and The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & William Maxwell 1938 – 1978 (2001). He also edited The Music At Long Verney: Twenty Stories (2000) by Warner with an introduction by Maxwell. Thank you, Michael. Let me return the favor in a small way by adding a passage from the tribute to Pee Wee Russell written by Balliett after the musician’s death in 1969:
“His style – the chalumeau phrases, the leaps over the abyss, the unique why? tone, the use of notes that less imaginative musicians had discarded as untoward – was paradoxically, his final snare and his glory. People laughed at it. It was considered eccentric, and because eccentricity, the kindest form of defiance, baffles people, they laugh. But those who don’t laugh understood that Russell had discovered some of the secrets of life and that his improvisations were generally successful attempts to tell those secrets in a new, funny, gentle way.”