Eddie, Pee Wee, Wild Bill and The Lion: “Elysium glimpsed briefly”

March 21, 2014 at 1:54 am (jazz, Jim D, United States)

Here are some of my jazz heroes, caught on good-quality film: Eddie Condon (guitar), Wild Bill Davison (cornet), Pee Wee Russell (clarinet), Wille ‘The Lion’ Smith (piano), Morey Feld (drums) and an unexpected but welcome guest, ex-Goodman vocalist Helen Ward (note how she insists upon her ending to I’ve Got A Crush On You)

The date is 1963, which is relatively late in the careers (and lives) of most of those present. Pee Wee died in 1969, Condon and The Lion in 1973. This seems to be an informal jam session at Condon’s club, and the relatively high-quality film gives the engaged viewer a tremendous sense of intimacy: the close-ups of Pee Wee are, alone, priceless. And, please note: with a two-fisted pianist like The Lion, a solid rhythm guitarist like Condon, and a capable drummer like Feld, you don’t need a bass in order to swing:

This latter-day Condon jam session puts me in mind of something the late Richard M. (“Dick”) Sudhalter wrote twenty years ago, about these musicians and their friends (the “Condon gang”) in their heyday in 1940’s New York:

“it’s all an awfully long time ago. All the incomparable one-off characters who light up those records are gone now, their voices stilled. A world without Pee Wee? Without Bobby [Hackett] and Brad [Gowans], Bud [Freeman] and Ernie [Caceres] and Jack Teagarden? Who’d have thought it possible?

“All this brings thoughts of Gentleman George Frazier, and some words he wrote in a 1941 Down Beat. The subject was Nick’s [jazz club], but George was really talking about the music it housed, and the incomparable guys in the dark suits up there on the stand.’Nick’s is a small place,’ he wrote, ‘but there are those who love it … The beers are short and there never is a moment when you can’t cut the smoke with the crease in your pants, but still there are those of us who … in days to come will think of it and be stabbed, not with any fake emotion, but with a genuinely heartbreaking nostalgia. We will think of this place at 7th Avenue and 10th St., and all of a sudden the fragrant past … will sneak up on us and for a little while we will be all the sad old men.’

“Perhaps we never know until it’s too late, that nothing is forever. By the time we realize that, there’s often little left save the ache, the regret, and the sense, as in that medieval phantomland of Daphne Du Maurier’s The House on The Strand, of Elysium glimpsed briefly, then lost in the glow of some heartbreaking sunset.

“But the music. Ah, the music: ever fresh and penny-bright, as new as tomorrow, all the more because it owes nothing to time or to the tin god Novelty. It perseveres and prospers, outliving the moment of its creation, the circumstances — even the creators themselves. Promise and proclaimations it affirms; and in doing so it reminds us, as did that lost New York, of just how good things — and we, all of us, –can be.”

H/t: Roger Healey


  1. Eddie, Pee Wee, Wild Bill and The Lion: “Elysium glimpsed briefly” | OzHouse said,

    […] Mar 21 2014 by admin […]

  2. rennatgk said,

    Of these I only saw Wil Bill fronting the Smoky City JB in I think it was Rochdale on a one night stand in the 1980s.
    With his first blast Wild Bill almost blew the Smokey City’s regular trumpeter Bill Smith of the stage. After Sheila Collier’s first song he looked at the audience and said “Gee that girl can sing.” It was a memorable night with a living legend still at the height of his powers.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Yes, I too had the pleasure of some personal encounters Wild Bill. I played with him in the mid-1970’s and then heard him again (and had the opportunity for some brief chats, though he clearly didn’t remember me) on a couple of occasions in the 1980s. The last time was about a year before his death and he was by then, finally, beginning to show some signs of decline, but even so there was still enough of the old fire left for him to put on a respectable performance.

      Somewhere, there’s a tape recording of the session that I (as a member of the Stoke-based Mardi Gras Jazz Band) played with Bill, but I’ve searched high and low and can’t find it.

      By the way, some people say Bill was an abrasive and even downright rude man. No doubt there was that side to his personality, but I found him humorous, friendly and easy-going. A joy to work with.

      Btw: is the Bill Smith you mention the chap who now plays with the Savannah Band?

  3. rennatgk said,

    I think that might be THE Bill Smith. I will see if I can find a photograph of him. I too had the opinion the Wild Bill could be pretty sharp but what a horn!

  4. jamesldavis said,

    “she became the most important woman in the History of jazz- Wynton Marslis of Billie holiday 2 the Title of the decade is ” Kansas city Lightiing by Stanley Crouch! Veejay records is the Colored firm 1st tosign the and Record the Beatles I seen Bob hope ms world (of India) mrs Phyllis Diller Yuletide Eve 66-67 Vietnam and we were Very Impressed they gave up their Holiday season to be with the Troops

  5. rennatgk said,

    Jim Yes it is one and the same Bill Smith, see the notes here: –

  6. rennatgk said,

    JIm Just realised – in the notes Bill misses out him and the Smokey City backing Alton Purnell on one memorable evening at The Band on the Wall

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