Saturday, May 4, 2013

Half A Motherfucker: The Legend of Pee Wee Marquette



Pee Wee Marquette and Count Basie
Pee Wee Marquette is another of those characters who, like Moondog, found a niche in New York’s cultural ecosystem and carved out a life for himself “back in the day.”
It was not probably what you’d call a very good life, but, what the hell, he’ll remain a sort of Jazz legend long after we’re all forgotten. Pee Wee was the 3 foot 9 inch announcer and MC at Birdland, the famous NYC nightclub, and can be heard on the intros to countless classic live Jazz records from the 50s and 60s. 
There’s even a complete CD that came out in 2008 consisting of nothing by Pee Wee’s intros, which are made all the more entertaining by Pee Wee’s deliberate mispronunciation of the names of key acts. You see, Pee Wee would pretty much make life miserable for Jazz acts at Birdland unless they paid him a “tip.” Thus, Horace Silver was “Whore Ass Silber” until Silver relented and paid ($5 in the later years, which was a lot for that time).
The diminutive, but cantankerous, Pee Wee would elbow a non-payer in the groin, blow cigar smoke in their faces, and do even less pleasant things (like telling Bobby Hutcherson to “pack your stuff and get on out of here, we don’t need you”). For this and other reasons he was dubbed by his “pal” Lester “Prez” Young as “half a motherfucker.”
According to legend (and I don’t think this story is on the Internet anywhere), trombonist Bill Watrous once caught up with Pee Wee, who was working the door of the Hawaii Kai restaurant on Broadway in his later years (dressed in a turban and a Nehru jacket, he’d stand outside and try to rustle up paying customers). Watrous saw Pee Wee getting dressed down by some tough guy, claiming that all sorts of harm would befall Pee Wee unless Pee Wee repaid the money he owed or whatever that matter entailed. Watrous saw the tough guy turn to leave and make for the stairs and then saw Marquette run over and stab the toughie in the ass several times with a switch blade before returning to his post, acting as if nothing had happened.
In the book Take Five: The Public and Private Lives of Paul Desmond, Mort Lewis, one-time manager of the Dave Brubeck Quartet recalled Marquette:
There was a black midget, Pee Wee Marquette, who was the master of ceremonies at Birdland. And every act that played there, the musicians had to give him fifty cents and he would announce their names as he introduced the band. Dave Brubeck gave him fifty cents, Joe Dodge gave him fifty cents, and Norman Bates gave him fifty cents. Paul Desmond refused to pay one cent. And when Pee Wee Marquette would introduce the band, he’d always say, in that real high-pitched voice, “Now the world famous Dave Brubeck Quartet, featuring Joe Dodge on drums, Norman Bates on bass,” and then he’d put his hand over the microphone and turn back to Joe or Norman and say, “What’s that cat’s name?” referring to Paul. Then he would take his hand off the microphone and say, ‘On alto sax, Bud Esmond.’ Paul loved that.
Some have questioned whether Marquette was actually female, and just passed as a male, but I’m pretty sure that, had that been the case, it would have made it into the legend somehow or another. Plus, his voice sounds distinctly male to my ears. Interestingly, Pee Wee was interviewed in the mid-80s by David Letterman, so somewhere out there there’s video of William Crayton “Pee Wee” Marquette, telling stories of the old Birdland from his point of view, but (Internet scrub that I am) I wasn’t able to find it.
A compilation of Pee Wee Marquette’s exuberant Birdland intros:
 
Posted by Em of Dangerous Minds *

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