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Saturday Panels
We Remember Frankie Newton and Pee Wee Russell
March 28, 2009


These two jazz originals have yet to receive their due. Respected in their time as idiosyncratic and immediately identifiable, they never had the commercial success many of their peers enjoyed. Fortunately for us, they both left recorded legacies that make it possible for subsequent generations to properly assess their significance. Please join us for a celebration featuring four people who knew both Russell and Newton, as well as listening sessions to their recordings and live jazz in their mode.

Clarinetist Pee Wee Russell was born Charles Ellsworth Russell in St. Louis and began playing clarinet in Muskogee Oklahoma, famous for giving the jazz world pianist Jay McShann. After early associations with Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, Russell wound up in New York in the late 20’s, and worked with Red Nichols and began appearing on soon-to-be classic recording dates. During the 1930’s, Russell worked with Louis Prima and Bobby Hackett, and became known for his craggy, idiosyncratic and completely cliché-free style. Eddie Condon featured Russell in his various projects throughout the 40’s, a decade that saw the clarinetist reach peaks of expressivity, and also gradually self-destruct.

By the mid-50’s, Russell was back in shape and until his death in 1969, continued to tour and record prolifically. Highlights included a set recorded at the Newport Jazz Festival with Thelonious Monk, an appearance on the Sound of Jazz TV broadcast, an album with Oliver Nelson, and quartet recordings that found him dealing with the challenges of contemporary jazz.

Admired by both Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, trumpeter Frankie Newton had a relatively brief but artistically rewarding career. He had stints with Lloyd Scott (1927-1929), Cecil Scott (1929-1930), Chick Webb, Elmer Snowden, Charlie Johnson, and Sam Wooding, and appeared on Bessie Smith's final recording session in 1933. Newton worked with Charlie Barnet's short-lived integrated band in 1936 and with Teddy Hill, before briefly becoming closely associated with bassist John Kirby and his associates. The eventual John Kirby Sextet would have been the logical place for the trumpeter, but a falling out in 1937 ended up with the younger Charlie Shavers getting the spot in the commercially successful group. Newton instead played for Mezz Mezzrow and Lucky Millinder, led a few record dates (including participating in a set for Hugues Panassie), and worked at Cafe Society, accompanying Billie Holiday on several of her records (most notably "Strange Fruit"). As the 1940s progressed, Newton became less interested in music and gradually faded from the scene, painting more than playing.

Nat Hentoff has written that Newton was “matched only by Miles Davis for intimately evocative and lyrical storytelling.” Morgenstern has declared that “he was no ordinary man, and the music he made was no ordinary music. He was a poet; his recorded solos have a poignant lyricism of their own.” Come hear and witness the proof, as Loren Schoenberg and his venerable guests delve into the archives of their memory and record collections.


10AM – 1100AM
Why Not?

Classic recordings of trumpeter Frankie Newton (incluing Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Bessie Smith, and others) and clarinetist Pee Wee Russell (with Zutty Singleton, Eddie Condon, Thelonious Monk and others), with a discussion led by NJMH Executive Director Loren Schoenberg.

1100AM- 1200PM
Pee Wee’s Blues: The Clarinetist as the Artist

Russell’s individuality found expression on the canvas as well as through the clarinet. Photographer/historian Hank O’Neal presents Russell’s work in person with a rare film of Russell painting.


1230PM – 130PM
Panel discussion: George Wein and Nat Hentoff

An extended discussion with George Wein, iconic jazz entrepreneur, who played piano with both Russell and Newton, and Nat Hentoff, jazz journalist and renowned First Amendment scholar/advocate. Both Hentoff and Wein were profoundly affected by their early friendships with our subjects.

Live music

The National Jazz Museum in Harlem Allstars perform a warm tribute to Frankie Newton and Pee Wee Russell.

Jamming with Pee Wee

Films of clarinetist Russell with Lester Young, Eddie Condon, Louis Prima, Gene Krupa and others

Panel Discussion: George Avakian and Dan Morgenstern

An extended discussion with Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies Dan Morgenstern and legendary record producer George Avakian, both of whom knew Russell and Newton and bring their memories to bear on the legacies of these two jazz giants.

General Discussion/listening

Bill Crow and George Avakian
NJMH Board Member Jonathan Scheuer and guest
Will Friedwald, Loren Schoenberg, Loretta Abbott
Morris Hodara, Peter Bockman, Dan Morgenstern
NJMH Board Member Hank O'Neal
Dan Morgenstern and George Avakian

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