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Discovering Wardell Gray: An Interview with Biographer Richard Carter

Victor L. Schermer By

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[This is one of two interviews and an article intended to bring readers' attention to the under-recognized tenor saxophonist, Wardell Gray, whose brief career spanned the transition from swing to bebop and whose life was cut short by sudden and tragic circumstances.]

Richard Carter is a London writer and jazz aficionado who, as a college student, was first taken by Wardell Gray's recordings in the 1950s, around the time of Gray's passing but while his records were still popular. Three decades later, in the 1980s, Carter felt that the time had come for a biography of this great but neglected musician. Since then, in the midst of many other responsibilities, he has been collecting information and interviews for the biography, which he hopes to complete in the not too distant future. He remains a passionate Wardell fan, and he has a treasure trove of information and observations about the man and his music. All About Jazz, seeking to fill in some of the gaps and mystery about Wardell Gray, interviewed Carter by phoning him up in London.

All About Jazz: How did you become interested in jazz, and specifically, Wardell Gray?

Richard Carter: In the mid-1950s, I was a teenager in boarding school in England, and a friend had had some British traditional jazz records so we started with them. But he also had a radio that could pick up the Voice of America station from Europe as well as a jazz program from Paris compered by Sim Copans; and that was how we were first introduced to more modern music like Charlie Parker, etc. Later, when I was in University, a lecturer friend named Derek Moore (a mathematician who followed a distinguished academic career, later becoming an FRS, a Fellow of the Royal Society) used to play records for me, and he'd test me to see if I could recognize the performer (he once threatened to throw me down stairs if I didn't recognize Bunny Berigan. Luckily, I did) [Laughter]. Then he played a record of a tenor saxophonist whom he said I wouldn't recognize but ought to hear: it was Wardell with a small group in a 1947 concert recording of "Blue Lou." I felt it was wonderful. I immediately loved the relaxation and fluency in his playing. After that, I was hooked on Wardell.

AAJ: I had a similar reaction the first time I heard the initial bars coming from his horn on one of his recordings. And many other listeners have responded similarly. His fluency and sonority are very impressive even today.

RC: Especially in recordings made during that period from about 1947 to 1949 when, I believe, he was at his peak musically: the ideas kept flowing and he was playing on the whole in very sympathetic contexts. One of his great musical signatures was playing an arresting opening phrase. It grabs you immediately

Pursuing a Biographical Account

AAJ: What led you to take up the daunting task of writing Wardell's biography?

RC: In the mid-1980s, a number of new biographies of jazz musicians were published. There was one of Dexter Gordon, for example, and I just thought, "Hang on, Wardell Gray has been neglected, and he's a better musician than many who became well-known, yet they had books written about them and he didn't." So I thought I'd make a start on it, while at the same time suspecting that someone else must be working on it somewhere, and if so, I could pass the information I gathered on to them. When I discovered no one else was working on it, I decided to put more effort into it. I wrote to many people who knew Wardell, but didn't get any replies, except for Don Schlitten, the CEO of Xanadu Records, but he was very discouraging, suggesting there was no one around who could tell me anything and I was wasting my time. I was beginning to think he was right, when, out of the blue, I got a post card from Vienna from Art Farmer, who said he would be in London next week, and if I could come to his hotel, we could meet. That made a big difference, because I found out through him that Wardell's first wife and his second wife, now his widow, were still alive, and he put me in touch with Dorothy, Wardell's widow, who in turn put me in touch with the first wife Jeri, and those contacts made a huge difference in what I was able to learn about him.

In Summer 1989 my wife and I took a holiday in California, where we did a house swap in a small town east of Los Angeles. Armed with the contact information I had from Art Farmer, I went to meet Dorothy Gray as well as Jeri, who had re-married by that time. In addition, I came across an article by Mark Ladenson in the magazine Coda about Wardell. Ladenson was from East Lansing, Michigan, and wrote about Wardell's younger days in that neck of the woods. He put me in touch with some people there. So, a year later, I went to Detroit and was able to meet a lot of people who knew Wardell in his very early days. I was able to fill in many of the details of his early life. Until then, I had only a skeleton of the period. I knew he was at Cass Technical High School, where many well-known musicians had studied, that he played with local bands led by Benny Carew and Jimmy Raschel, that he was spotted by Earl Hines, and that that was his big break. But through the interviews in the Detroit area, I was able to fill in many gaps from the early period.

Coming Up in Detroit and the Sojourn in Los Angeles


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