As I mentioned in my previous post I have no recollection how I first learned that the jazz musician, Pee Wee Russell, had once lived in Maplewood. I suspected that he was a minor figure who had attained a little recognition and not much more than that. Probably not long after I began to be interested in Maplewood history, I searched for information on Pee Wee on the internet. In 2002 or thereabouts I didn’t find anything. There was not much information on the internet back then.
A year or so ago I subscribed to Newpapers.com. If you’re not familiar with that website, it contains the digital archives of, I suppose, hundreds of newspapers from around the country. Some of the files are massive. I noticed that the entire archives of just one newspaper, “The Tennessean”, from Nashville are reproduced. Every page from 1834 through 2019. That’s 2,659,705 pages! And that is just one newspaper.
Usually I’m searching for local historic data. I’ll restrict my searches to St. Louis newspapers or sometimes Missouri ones. Rarely do I search all of the newspapers on the site at once. To do so usually results in thousands of worthless references. But I did this with my last subject, Paul Christman. Paul was a national figure. I was rewarded with 498,415 matches!
I quickly learned that Pee Wee Russell was a national figure as well. Imagine my surprise when a search returned 330,676 matches! I don’t know of anyone with a Maplewood connection that achieved more fame than these two fellows. From these numbers I began thinking that Christman must be our most famous Maplewoodian and Russell, a close second.
But consider that Christman was an American football star from a time when there wasn’t a lot of interest in American football outside of our borders. Russell was a jazz superstar. The interest in jazz is global. If there were a way to search all of the world’s historic newspapers I think the hits for Russell might dwarf those for Christman. For this reason I think Pee Wee Russell may have been the most famous person (that we know about so far) to ever have lived in Maplewood.
I haven’t pinned any of the dates down firmly but maybe with the help of some of my talented readers, we’ll be able to do so. The Wikipedia entry for Pee Wee claims his birthplace is Maplewood. One of the newspaper articles I’ve read said it was Webster Groves. Another said he was born in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Many of them simply gave St. Louis as his place of birth.
Born somewhere ( I believe probably Maplewood) on March 26, 1906, and then settling on the clarinet as his instrument of choice early in his life, Pee Wee was recognized as a prodigy. He seemed to have a knack for producing innovative and unusual sounds with his horn.
His family moved to Oklahoma when he was very young. It was there that he became enchanted with the clarinet after listening to Alcide (Yellow) Nunez at the Muscogee Theater. When the family moved back to St. Louis he discovered the musicians that played on the riverboats that traveled on the Mississippi. They let him sit in and gave him his nickname.
It wasn’t long before he was playing with some big names in the jazz world. Bix Beiderbecke in St. Louis and Chicago and later Louis Prima in New York. Pee Wee knew and played with a whole lot of the greatest names in jazz. Google his discography.
At different times Pee Wee led groups of his own. Mostly he seemed to like playing in groups operated by someone else. He played with Eddie Condons’s group in Chicago for a good many years.
After decades of heavy drinking and generally disregarding his own well being, Pee Wee succumbed to the occupational hazard of many musicians – alcoholism. At the end of 1951, he checked himself into a hospital in San Francisco. He was in such poor condition he wasn’t expected to survive. A fundraising effort kicked off by Louis Armstrong and contributed to by his many friends raised enough money to cover his hospital bills.
He surprised everyone by managing to pull himself back together. Gradually he began to reinvent himself. He changed his style while staying on top of the game. In 1963, he achieved one of the high points of his long career. He had a much celebrated appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. He played magnificently with one of the all time giants of jazz – Thelonious Monk.
In the mid 1960s his wife, Mary got Pee Wee to experiment with painting. He produced 90 mostly well regarded abstract canvases in just a couple of years.
Mary passed away in June of 1967. Pee Wee died in February of 1969. He was much mourned by jazz fans the country over. I suspect there were many the world over who grieved for Pee Wee as well. I found one article on his passing in a paper from Sydney, Australia.
Pee Wee was a decent, likeable, flawed, human being. In the beginning he developed a style of playing that was uniquely his own. He played with and was admired by many of the very best jazz artists in the world. You just can’t do better than that, Pee Wee. We’re proud that Maplewood was part of your DNA.
This post required many times more research than one of my average ones. Too bad I only have room here for a short sketch of his life. If this article has sparked your interest in Pee Wee Russell, you’ll find a lot online. There are also several books that have been written about him. The link below is to a website that I found particularly interesting.
Can there be any doubt about it? Pee Wee Russell is definitely one of the Giants of Jazz. How could we in his hometown (well, one of them) possibly have forgotten about him? I think we should correct this oversight. We need a Pee Wee Russell Day complete with jazz musicians performing Pee Wee’s tunes on the sidewalk. What do you say?