Portrait of Pee Wee Russell, Dave Tough, and Max Kaminsky, Eddie Condon’s, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 1948
Remembering Pee Wee Russell
(March 27, 1906 – February 15, 1969)
By Don Rouse
These are remembrances that Jimmy Hamilton, a clarinetist and long-time friend of Pee Wee Russell, has of the time when he knew Mary and Pee Wee, and of jazz in the District of Columbia. They are from taped and written notes that Jimmy made, as well as additional information provided orally. What follows expands on anecdotes that Jim provided to the late Robert Hilbert for his fine, comprehensive biography Pee Wee Russell (Oxford Univ. Press, 1993). It provides corrections and amplification to some of those anecdotes, as well as information not previously published. – Don Rouse
Table of Contents
Let’s see, I used to go up to New York and sit at Nick’s. And Pee Wee sat in a corner there, and I used to look up at him and listen to him play and watch his fingering-see how he was doing all those weird things.
BROWN DERBY. In February 1953 I was the clarinet player with Little Bobby Conway and his Dixie Sextet. [In addition to Jim, the band had Bobby Conway, piano, Walt Gifford, drums, Mac McCurdy, trumpet, Rudy Vozzola, bass, and Leo Hackley, trombone.] We had the house band at a place called the Brown Derby in Washington., DC, and the policy was to bring in a guest star each week. Our first guest star was Pee Wee Russell (I have it down here for the week of February 10th through the 14th, that would be five days). Other stars were Coleman Hawkins, Hot Lips Page, and others. I didn’t stay with the band too long. I went off to other things. But I was there when Pee Wee was there, and of course, it was a great thrill for me. We got to talking. He told me he was staying at the Franklin Park Hotel, and I said, “Well, I could drop you off there,” which was in the opposite direction for me, but what difference does that make? I mean, who gets a chance to drive Pee Wee anyplace? So I said, “I’ll be glad to take you down and drop you off.” He accepted and I said, “I’ll be glad to pick you up the next night if it’s all right with you-saves you cab fare.”
The next night I showed up and he was waiting out there in front of the hotel. I remember, don’t know if it was that night or one night, I picked him up and he opened the car door and he threw his clarinet case in. When it hit the seat he went “bang” and said “ohhhh baaby,” and he got in the car and we drove off to work. I had my clarinet, but who in the hell wants to play clarinet when Pee Wee is there? I was embarrassed to tears. So I think it was the second night Pee Wee was having trouble with his horn. Anyway, I said, “Well, Pee Wee, go ahead, try mine.” Of course, my clarinet was out, so he tried mine and he said, “I like it.” I said, “Go ahead and play it.” Every night Pee Wee would bring his clarinet to the job, but he would use mine from that point on. He told me he liked my clarinet but it didn’t like him
He’d get in the car and he’d have a bottle with him, and he’d have a couple of quick shots. He’d offer me some and I’d say no. I really didn’t want to start drinking that early and I really didn’t like whiskey. I remember his wife, Mary, told me he was very impressed that I didn’t take a drink because he was afraid to ride with people who drank. I guess it was a holdover from what happened to Teschemacher when Davison was driving. He invited me to come up to New York and visit him. He told me I could stay at his place. He said, “I know where to go and everybody knows me so we’re sure to get out.” He wasn’t eating too well, and he blamed all of this on the fact that Mary had the flu. When something was wrong with her he didn’t take care of himself.
When he was working with us in 1953 Mary told me that he was so impressed and she was, too-because all the guys in the band were so nice to him. Apparently, at that time, he was having a little difficulty finding places to work and he was accepting jobs like ours. He’d go to a town and he’d play for a week with the local band. This had been such a pleasure for him with us because, she said, most of the other local bands that he had played with had used him. They made fun of him and they belittled him, whereas we were so kind to him. We thought he was so great. We just couldn’t imagine anybody thinking otherwise. Anyway, she was very impressed that we were so “kind to him,” as she put it.
On February 13th, 1953, just before we left the job, Pee Wee remembered that he had forgotten it was his and Mary’s wedding anniversary. So he got two bottles of champagne from the guy who owned the Derby and walked out with a bottle in each hip pocket, very proud of himself. We got to the hotel and he said, “Come on up, meet Mary, and we’ll have a drink and talk.” I parked-in those days you could find a place to park very easily-and we went upstairs. And the first thing Pee Wee wanted was to order ice and cigarettes. Mary said, “There’s cigarettes all over the room.” No, Pee Wee had to have more cigarettes. He said, “I smoke a lot;” and then said, “Mary, would you get Jimmy some ice so we can have a drink,” and he kept this up while we were drinking. I said, “That’s all right, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it,” and we were drinking warm champagne, and he was worried about me not being able to have some ice and get a decent drink.
Finally, the ice came and Pee Wee was happy, and we could have a real drink and we didn’t have to drink warm champagne; but meanwhile Mary was peeved about the domestic champagne and she said, I remember her saying in a very sarcastic way, “Want to play the ‘Anniversary Waltz’?” However, she was a very kindhearted person, warm person, but sharp, and she kept Pee Wee going. She would needle him. They were always talking. They had learned their marriage would last as long as they kept talking and she stimulated him. She would get his goat and she would stimulate him and he would counterpunch; and I guess if you walked in on it you’d say jeez these people hate each other. They didn’t. They got along beautifully. It was a wonderful relationship. So Mary started in then on Christmas of 1952, which was the Christmas that had just occurred. She said Pee Wee had to hock his horn for $15 to buy her a Christmas present from the pawnshop. He went to a liquor store and bought $13 worth of whiskey. Then he had to borrow 25 cents from Mary to buy her stockings for $2.25 as a present. The stockings were the wrong size, and she said that Pee Wee always bought her stockings and they were always the wrong size. So she went on back, started talking about their wedding night. (She said that Pee Wee cried at the wedding.) Danny Alvin was their best man. According to her, on their wedding night, there was a Condon recording session. Mary wanted Condon to use Rod Cless, but Condon insisted upon using Pee Wee. (When Rod Cless died, Pee Wee was given his clarinet, which he used for a while, but Mary persuaded him to return it to Rod’s widow. She felt that the family and not Pee Wee should have the horn.)
Mary jokingly referred to herself as Pee Wee’s child bride. She was younger, I think, by 11 years. Mary first met Pee Wee when he rented a room at her parents’ home. She said her maiden name was Goodman. She was a good friend of Benny Goodman’s but no relation. (Kenny Davern disputes that her maiden name was Goodman, but it’s to be noted that Mary had a nephew, Lee Goodman.) Of course, she knew Eddie Condon very well. The doctor that delivered Mary was Dr. Edward Condon, once again no relation to Eddie. As I say, she knew Benny Goodman, who told her that “Pee Wee is the only clarinet player I’m afraid of,” and then she started laughing. She said, “You know, Benny plays classical, swing, backroom, and all that bum can play is back-room clarinet,” pointing to Pee Wee, who was lying on the bed while she was saying this. “Benny could go into a back room and outblow 50 Pee Wees. He could blow Pee Wee out the back door.” Pee Wee said in his guttural voice, “I’d like to get Benny in a back room.”
One of the nights, I guess it was the following night, I got home around 5, 6 in the morning. My wife was up. She was expecting our first child and I hadn’t come home, so she panicked and called my mother. She told my mother where Pee Wee was staying, so my mother called Pee Wee at the Franklin Park hotel and Pee Wee assured her that I was alive and well and on my way home.
The following night I took along a couple of pictures that I had drawn of Pee Wee. I wanted to get him to autograph them for me. We got back to the hotel and he said he would sign them. The first was a caricature, and he started writing around the picture, dotting the “i” in Jim three times, and started to write off the page, and Mary said, “Pee Wee, you’re ruining it, don’t do that.” I told her, “Leave him alone”-I wanted him to do it-“I don’t care how he writes as long as he does it.” Well, anyway, he signed the one and she said, “Well, wait on the other one. Let him do that tomorrow night.” He was in bad shape. Later, when I started to go, he couldn’t talk and seemed paralyzed, and Mary got frightened and said, “Do you want me to get a doctor, Pee Wee?” She told me, “I haven’t seen him like this in a long time.” She was scared, but he said, “No, no.” Then he said, “Don’t forget we have to go to work at 8 o’clock tomorrow.” Tomorrow was Saturday, and at that time Washington nightclubs had to close at midnight on Saturday, so they would start earlier. Pee Wee was not from Washington, and yet he knew our schedule, and as bad a shape as he was in he remembered that the hours were different. So I picked him up the following night. We got there at 8 o’clock. My wife was with us, and Pee Wee spent much time apologizing to her for keeping me out late.
When Pee Wee was signing the picture and Mary was convinced he was making a mess of it, she said, “Speaking of Pee Wee, he is half-literate. He can read a little.” They talk about Pee Wee attending the University of Missouri when you read his biography. According to Mary, he was not a student. He stayed at a frat house because they liked his clarinet playing, but he was not a student. [However, Chilton and Leonard Feather state that Pee Wee did attend Western Military Academy in Alton, IL – dr.]
In 1953, years before he took up oil painting, Pee Wee told me that when he quit music, he wanted to move to a beach and paint pictures. The Time-Life book shows a cartoon of Pee Wee. It’s the clarinet with Pee Wee’s face, and, according to Time-Life, it was done in 1952. Now, like most writers, they got things screwed up. Actually, the story behind that cartoon is, after I worked with Pee Wee in February of ’53, at Christmas of ’53 I wanted to send him a Christmas card. So I drew one that was a clarinet with Pee Wee’s head on it, and I put a Santa Claus hat on his head, which was kind of trailing out in the wind because his clarinet body was running down a path of piano keys. Well, they really loved this, so it gave them an idea to have a friend of theirs make up a cartoon-like it, which was just the one you see in Time-Life. The head with the body and the alcohol bubbles and so forth. I received a Christmas card from Mary and Pee Wee every year from 1953 until the Christmas of ’64 (she died in the spring of ’67). The first time this cartoon was used on their Christmas cards was 1956, not 1952, and it came originally from my idea. Now, we did not get a card in 1965, so in ’66 when I ran into Pee Wee I said, “Did you know we didn’t get a card,” and he said, well, nobody got cards. I didn’t know that Mary was sick at the time. The Christmas of ’66 we did get a card with her handwriting and it was a picture of one of Pee Wee’s paintings. That was the last card we got.
As I recall, Pee Wee, Mary, and I got on the subject of Pee Wee’s death and funeral arrangements. This was when Pee Wee was sick in San Francisco and he and Mary were separated. They were having problems. Pee Wee went through a period before he got sick, and he told me he didn’t remember a lot of things he did. He just was drinking and he was sick, and he didn’t remember what he was doing. He ended up in California and he got sick. Now, according to what I just recalled reading, I think it’s in the Time-Life thing, Helen “Daisy” Decker is the one who got this on the wire so that everybody knew about it. But before that happened apparently someone called Eddie Condon. Mary was living at the time with a musician and his wife. Condon called her at home before she went to work that night she was working as a hat-check girl someplace-and said, “Our boy is going to go tonight. I think we ought to make arrangements tonight for the funeral and burying him so as not to get in a hassle tomorrow after he’s dead.” Mary answered, “Yes, Eddie, don’t drink up all the whiskey in New York.” Well, the couple she was living with were sleeping when the phone rang, and the man woke up and thought Pee Wee had died. Mary said, “He turned white and he started to get the shakes.” Mary went to work that night and they kept the lines open, so the whole town then got the word and they were all set to go on a big drunk when Pee Wee died. The band at Nick’s was Phil Napoleon’s band. So the press came in. They put a picture of Pee Wee up on the piano. I recall Mary saying they put some black crepe over it or something, and the whole band was gathered solemnly around this picture of Pee Wee. And they took a photograph of that for the next day’s newspapers, which would be in there because they were going to get it printed as soon as Pee Wee died. Well, the question came up as to where to bury Pee Wee. He was a Presbyterian and he was not religious. Mary was Jewish, so they were thinking of burying Pee Wee in a nonsectarian cemetery. Mary said her father would like to have Pee Wee buried next to him. But Pee Wee not being religious seemed to rule this out, so they made a decision to bury him next to Nick, so Nick would have a friend. When Nick bought a cemetery plot for himself he also bought one for Pee Wee. Now, Pee Wee was lying on the bed listening to all of this [Mary’s story], and he said that Nick was an Italian. Mary looked at him and said, “No, Pee Wee, he was an American.” “Italian,” Pee Wee said. “American,” “Italian,” and Mary yelled at him, “American.” “All right, chum, American.” Mary said, “Don’t call him anything else but American.” Once again Pee Wee said, “Italian.” So Mary said, “Shut up, you crazy Indian,” and he looked at her and said, “I was here before you were, chum.” Mary looked at him and said, “And that bum didn’t die. He disappointed everybody.” According to her, Condon hadn’t spoken to her since, but I’m sure she was just joking.
Pee Wee then told me he had one cell working in his brain and he got sick of hearing people, everybody, saying he was dying. He remembered he was lying in a room, and he heard this nurse say that this man can’t make it through the night. So, he said, “I decided to fool them and live.” When he was later transferred to a New York hospital, Mary came to see him and the first words he said to her were “I fooled you.”
When he was in California, Pee Wee said, he got sick, he was swollen, he was throwing up. He knew where Muggsy Spanier was working, so somehow he got over to the nightclub where Muggsy was playing and he was a mess. He could not go inside a nightclub like that, so he sent word into Muggsy, who came right out. Muggsy gave the bartender $100 just to stay with Pee Wee while Muggsy went back on the bandstand to finish the set and make arrangements, starting the ball rolling, to get Pee Wee into a hospital. Mary said it was Muggsy who signed for Pee Wee, to get him into the hospital; and, according to Mary, Muggsy was a pretty tight man with a dollar. So this was an amazing thing for him to do, but it shows the esteem in which he held Pee Wee.
(Mary said that at one time Pee Wee and Muggsy were out together and they ran into Leonard Feather, and there was a fight. Muggsy beat up Feather, knocking him down, and she said, “and this brave man,” pointing at Pee Wee, “then runs over and spits on Feather.” [Feather’s paragraphs in his Encyclopedia of Jazz, by the way, are very complimentary to both Pee Wee and Muggsy.-dr.]
(Three albums with three records each were sold at Nick’s. Muggsy had one, Miff Mole had one, and Pee Wee had one. I happened to mention something, I don’t know how it came up, about the one where Nick played piano. Mary said it was her idea for Nick to play piano on one tune. So Pee Wee asked Nick to play. Muggsy heard about it and said if Nick played piano it was to be in his album. So that’s why it was in Muggsy’s album and not Pee Wee’s.
Getting back to this illness in California, according to Mary they raised $10 thousand for Pee Wee’s hospital bills, and it was the most ever raised for a jazz musician, and it took all of it to keep him alive.
I asked Pee Wee about Jimmy Lord, a clarinet player who played a lot like Pee Wee. He was on the Billy Banks Rhythmakers records and played clarinet when Pee Wee was on tenor. Lord was unbelievable, the closest man I ever heard sounding like Pee Wee at that time. Jimmy Lord fascinated me, but there is very little known about him. Howard [Waters] dug up some stuff on him. According to Pee Wee, Jimmy Lord had TB, and he needed a special diet and had a weak constitution, and his mother was there to help him and feed him milk. “But he wasn’t a mother’s boy,” Pee Wee said. “Don’t get me wrong. He just needed help.” Lord died in October 1936.
Somehow we got from Lord’s TB to Pee Wee’s sickness in California. He said, “I have a powerful set of lungs. The doctor said they were in perfect condition. The doctors were amazed-in perfect condition despite eight packs of cigarettes a day. If you live halfway normal, you’re good for a long time.”
When we were talking one time, Mary said, “You know, he won’t say anything bad about musicians he works with. He thinks they’re all his friends. He won’t say anything bad about them but I will. Some of them I just don’t like.” If she didn’t like ’em she’d tell ’em, and this embarrassed Pee Wee.
Pee Wee had a lot of bitter feelings about Condon. He felt that Condon made fun of him, made sport of him, and that he was trapped. He was afraid to go anyplace else. With Condon was the only place he could make a living and he just put up with it, but it galled him. Condon loved him and didn’t realize how it upset Pee Wee, but Condon had a way about him. Everything was fun with Condon, a lot of drinking, a lot of fun, always this, that, and so forth. Pee Wee was a sensitive man and things that Condon said about him Pee Wee didn’t like, but he was afraid to say anything about it. So he really had a falling out with Condon. But in ’67 he told me, “We’ve had our differences but now we’re speaking. It’s ”Hello, Eddie, hello Pee Wee,“ but we don’t work together now.” Once again, I think if you look around there was a tour to Japan around that time and so forth with Condon. So that kind of contradicts what Pee Wee said. Nevertheless, he did say that.
I asked Pee Wee what he knew about Teschemacher. Pee Wee said, “I was in New York two years before Tesch. I never copied Tesch. That is a story dreamed up by writers trying to start something. Tesch was a Chicagoan. I never even held a union card in Chicago. That’s not to say Tesch wasn’t any good. He was a hell of a good musician.”
This thing about Teschemacher reminds me of Pee Wee’s idol on clarinet, Omer Simeon. He adored Simeon. Mary told me that Pee Wee heard that Omer was doing a recording session and he wanted to go in the worst way. “He was like a little kid.” He just begged her to take him and she said, “I had to take him by the hand over to this recording session.” He wanted to go and listen, but he was afraid. So, she said, when they got there, Pee Wee was just like a bashful little boy. He asked Omer, “Can I sit and listen?” Lou Byers knew Omer and Mary and Pee Wee. I told him this story about Pee Wee and Omer. He said, “Yes, Mary would invite Omer over for Sunday dinner. Every Sunday Omer would come over and have dinner with them, and they got very close.” That was a good relationship, a very closes relationship, between Omer and Pee Wee and Mary. Mary’s favorite clarinetist was Edmond Hall, and she said that Pee Wee’s playing embarrassed her.
She told me a story about Brad Gowans. She said, “That man was a genius, a mechanical genius. He designed his own trombone, and he completely rebuilt his automobile on the streets of New York.” You know, lying under the car, working on it, overhauled it completely and the thing was on the street. He was a genius, had parts all over the place, I guess.
Mary told me this story, and it is also written up in the Time-Life book that comes with the records of Pee Wee, but perhaps this will add a little more to it. She said it happened about 1947. Pee Wee came home one day or night, early one morning it had to be. Yeah, 5 a.m. in the morning, and he wanted to make a long-distance call. So she said, well, Brad Gowans is in California. Pee Wee said that wasn’t long enough. Well, she said, Eddie Gilmore is in Moscow, Russia. Pee Wee asked, how far is that? Mary said about a million miles. Pee Wee said, “Call him.” So they called Eddie Gilmore in Moscow, and he answered the phone and he wanted them to come right up. He thought they were downstairs in the lobby. They played “Ballin’ the Jack” over the phone for him. There was Bill Miles on baritone sax and Pee Wee on clarinet and Mary sang, and the long-distance call to Moscow cost them 64 bucks. Some of that is in the Time-Life thing, but how it came about is just as I’ve said.
I had a talk with Raymond Burke, the old New Orleans clarinet player who loved Pee Wee. Raymond said he never played with Pee Wee, “but he heard me play once.” And if you listen to Raymond there’s a lot of Pee Wee there. Burke said, “I’m no technician, that’s not my style, that’s for other guys. The best I can do is my little dance-and throw in a little Pee Wee now and then. I can’t play a Boehm-I have enough to handle with the Albert System.”
PEE WEE’S PERSONA
Mary began to give me a little insight on Pee Wee. She said that he was moved to tears by barbershop quartets; that that was his favorite music. She said he would listen to them and tears would roll down his cheeks. He’d blubber like a baby. And she said he liked chamber music. His favorite song was “Sentimental Journey.” He disliked “Sweet Georgia Brown” the most and refused to play “High Society.” He wouldn’t play anybody else’s chorus. She said that he would keep the radio on all the time listening to all kinds of music because he wanted to hear what everybody else was doing.
I remember Mary saying one time that people thought Pee Wee was a very gentle person. She said, “He’s not. He can be a real bastard.” (I think she meant if pushed.) My impression was he was a bashful person. If you wanted to talk to Pee Wee, you couldn’t start by asking him a bunch of questions. If you did that the man would panic and run the other way. He would get away from you as soon as he could-he just couldn’t cope with that. Every time I’d start talking to him, if I hadn’t seen him in a long time it was almost like I had to start all over again. And he was afraid of people, anybody, like when he’d leave the bandstand if they’d say, “Come on over and have a drink, blah, blah, blah, blah,” he just would make an excuse. One time he held up his clarinet. He said, “I have to put this someplace.” And they said, “Well, just lay it on the table.” He said, “No, no I have to burn it instead, I think I’d better burn it instead.” To get away from them we ended up freezing to death at Blues Alley, standing in the alley in December because he didn’t want to be bothered with these people. And they’d ask him silly questions like, “Who is your favorite musician?” Questions like that turned him off. He was very hard to get to know. But once he trusted you, he would open up and start talking. When the patrons applauded a chorus of Pee Wee’s, he would get embarrassed and try to tell them to stop. “I don’t deserve it,” he would mumble.
Mary died in the spring of ’67, and in December of ’67 Pee Wee came to Blues Alley and we had several long talks about various things. I told him how badly I felt that Mary had died and he said, well, he was very lonely after her death and all he did was sit around in the apartment. He said he didn’t even go out. “I tried to drink up all of the booze in New York for a while, and straightened out, watched TV, and got bored.”
He said he was all right now, but he really wasn’t. He just worked every other set. He and Tommy Gwaltney would play clarinet duets, and Tommy would, I guess, play the other set by himself. Pee Wee had been sick with the flu and a virus infection. He had diarrhea and he didn’t want to sit down and talk to anybody because he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get up. So once he’d get off the bandstand he wanted to getaway. Somebody came up and asked him about Hoagy Carmichael writing in one of his several books that Bix was secretly married, and he asked Pee Wee about it. Pee Wee got very upset and denied the marriage. He said, “I knew Bix better than anybody and longer. We got drunk together, slept on the same park benches, and even dated sisters.” Well, the sisters part is borne out by [Richard]Sudhalter’s book. Pee Wee said, “What would Hoagy know? He hardly knew Bix. Just at the end.” Now I know that history says Hoagy knew Bix at the beginning of Bix’s career. But Pee Wee says just at the end. This is the way Pee Wee felt, and this is what he said, rightly or wrongly. I asked, “Pee Wee, why don’t you put down the truth?” And he refused. He said, “Nobody wants the truth. I know the truth but they won’t ask me, when I die all goes with me.” He was very bitter about that.
In ’67 he was disturbed that he didn’t have a lip. He said he hadn’t had any work for a year except for some recording dates, and he said, “I still don’t have a lip. I have to watch what I play.” He said, “I can’t do too much, but maybe after three days here I’ll get some lip and maybe find a good lead.” He told me about a year or so before he died that he was afraid people would think he couldn’t play. Of course he could play, and he played very well.
Getting back to Pee Wee’s makeup or whatever you want to call it, I had the impression that Pee Wee was the kind of guy who would fiddle around with mouthpieces and adjust his own horn and was always looking for some better way of doing something. He said, “No, no, I can’t do any of that. I can’t even change a light bulb. As far as mouthpieces are concerned, I just get a mouthpiece that’s wide open and I play it until it plays. When there’s something wrong with my horn, I give it to this guy who does my work for me, and I just leave it with him and I say fix it, I don’t know what’s wrong with it, just fix it.” He told me, “I have several horns. I can’t do any of this myself.” And I was surprised because it was just exactly the opposite of what I assumed.
I asked Pee Wee how well he could read music and he got a little bit perturbed, but then he said, “Of course I can read music. I didn’t get this far on my good looks.” He said, “Look at my nose”-and he pushed it over to one side to show how it was oversized and crooked-“it’s been broken. I can read anything you put in front of me. Of course, I can’t read symphonic stuff, but I can read anything else.” [This is confirmed by implication by Chilton, Rust, and Howard Waters’s Jack Teagarden’s Music, which indicates that Pee Wee played his entire early career, at least 15 years in all, in reading-band reed sections. – dr]
Once he told me, “Playing music is 90 percent listening and 10 percent playing. Always listen to the other fellow, then fill in.” And “Never be afraid to try anything. The worst you can do is fall flat on your face, and I have, many times”.
Pee wee's Last Days
Tommy Gwaltney wrote an article in the July 12, 1969, Downbeat called “Pee Wee’s Last Days.” Now, Tommy is the man who got Pee Wee in the hospital. Pee Wee came down to Washington and got in touch with Tommy, told Tommy he had to dry out or he had to go into the hospital, and Tommy wrote this article which tells about how he got Pee Wee into the hospital and Pee Wee died. It’s a good article. Later on, when I was working down at The Place Where Louis Dwells, in April 1970, Tommy came in with his wife, Sue. I sat at the table talking with them during the intermission. Tommy said that he didn’t think that Pee Wee was as sick as he turned out to be. Sue said that they visited him and his feet were filthy. So Tommy washed his feet the day before he died. Pee Wee complained that he didn’t want them washed. I’ve got a theory that Pee Wee’s life was one long nervous breakdown, and the hospital saw Pee Wee and said, my god, this man’s got to be tranquilized. They didn’t realize that this was the way Pee Wee had survived. He was like this all the time and they kept tranquilizing him.
Tommy said that before Pee Wee got sick or went in the hospital he played his record “Billy Plays Bix” for Pee Wee. I think Tommy is on it. He said to Pee Wee, “I want you to hear this.” Pee Wee could not guess who the trumpet was. Tommy said Pee Wee cried when he listened to the LP; he could not believe it was Billy Butterfield when Tommy told him.
Pee Wee promised he would give me one of his old clarinets. He said, “You write me and be sure you give me your phone number because I don’t write,” and this was true. He said, “Mary used to do all of my writing for me. I still sign checks and so forth as I have to, but all my correspondence is handled by telephone.” He said he didn’t know what kind of horns he had, that there were some back in a closet. “I think there’s an old Selmer,” he said. “They can’t be played or anything.” But I never wrote for one.
I did one of the Manassas concerts with Kenny Davern. I spoke with Kenny-I knew he had known Pee Wee-and I said, “You know, Pee Wee told me one time that he was going to give me a clarinet.” Kenny replied, “Well, you know, I have his clarinet. It was given to me when he died, and I don’t know what to do with it. I’m afraid something will happen to it. I’m looking for a museum or someplace to put it. I have had the serial number recorded and all that.” He said he really wished that he hadn’t been given this burden.
Pee Wee's Recordings
There are tapes made at Blues Alley with Pee Wee, including tapes made in March 1966 and December 1967. Personnel are Pee Wee, clarinet; Tommy Gwaltney, clarinet and vibes; Steve Jordan, guitar; John Phillips, piano; Keter Betts, bass; and Bertell Knox, drums.
There is a recording done for the Washington Jazz Club at the Bayou on December 1, 1957, Eddie Diamond, piano; Charlie Byrd, guitar; Keter Betts, bass; and Eddie Phyfe, drums. The guy who organized this was a fellow who died, Beale Riddle; we all called him Bill. Bill was quite a jazz buff. and he was a good drummer, too. He knew them all. He used to go up and spend time talking with Jelly Roll Morton when Jelly had his club in Washington, DC.
I remember Beale telling me that during the concert, Pee Wee was unhappy with his clarinet and finally took it and hit the bell on the floor (or something as hard, probably the piano) and it cured the problem. Beale asked me what I thought this could do to cure the problem (whatever it was). My only answer was that it could crack the clarinet. Anyway, it made Pee Wee happy, and from then on he really blew.
(I knew Beale for years. We put together a trio, and he acted as an agent for it. Piano, drums, and me at Sam’s Place, which used to be the Brown Derby, where I spent the week with Pee Wee in 1953. The trio was called The State Street Three, and we played five or six nights a week during May and June 1956. Partway through the job the drummer quit, and Beale replaced him.)
There was a recording done in Helen Decker’s apartment. Helen Decker was a life-long friend of Pee Wee’s, and it seems she was after Pee Wee to make a tape in her apartment. When she lived in Alexandria and after Mary died, he would come down here and visit with Helen, and one time three of them, Pee Wee, Bob Greene on piano, and Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee on vocals and kazoo, got together. This was on January 23, 1968. Pee Wee didn’t even bring a clarinet with him, so he was reluctant, but he finally agreed if Johnson would stop by Blues Alley and pick up Tommy Gwaltney’s second clarinet. It seems that Pee Wee had a thing going for this horn and liked it better than his own. According to Johnson, the second horn was a LeBlanc. Johnson thought Pee Wee had his own mouthpiece, though. I don’t recall Tommy ever using a LeBlanc, so I was surprised; as I recall, Tommy always played a Selmer-in fact, he sold one of his old Selmers to Wally Garner.
Pee Wee died just a little over a year later, and I don’t think he did much recording in that last year. In 1967, when he was at Blues Alley, Pee Wee had with him a test pressing of a recording with Oliver Nelson. He was eager to find a record player so he could hear it. We were unable to find one near Blues Alley. He was very proud of his work at that recording session. It was almost as though he felt it was his best performance.