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

AAJ: Do we know anything about his childhood and how he got interested in music?

RC: He left school in June, 1937 when he was sixteen. Surprisingly, he wasn't exceptional as a musician at that time. But he was very devoted to it. He'd been playing the clarinet for about two years, encouraged by Junior Warren, who told him it would give him a solid technical grounding that would be vital when he learned to play tenor sax. Then, he wanted to buy a tenor, but with no real income he couldn't afford one. He had a friend, Joe Tandy, the son of a pharmacist and quite well off, and Wardell borrowed his tenor saxophone and practiced on it for a long time. Finally, he got a job with a local part-time band led by Isaac Goodwin that played at dances, and that was Wardell's first real work. At that point he was influenced by Coleman Hawkins, but sometime during the summer of 1937, with a friend named Elmer Craig, he heard "One O'Clock Jump" by the first Basie big band and fell in love with Lester Young. He went to hear Basie live at the Graystone Ballroom, the premier ballroom in Detroit at that time (and there were many others); the Graystone, it was said, could take 3,000 customers at a time. He could only go on Monday nights because that was the only night they let blacks into the ballroom. When he heard Lester, his playing changed radically. He even held the saxophone at an angle, like Lester Young did.

AAJ: On some of his ballads you could almost mistake him for Lester Young.

RC: He went to an audition for a job, and the leader said, "Can you play 'Honeysuckle Rose?'" He could play it, but not transpose it, so he didn't get the job. But a young woman named Dorothy Patton was there, liked the way he played, and got him into her band in Flint, Michigan. After about a year with Dorothy, he went to work with a succession of local bands, starting with Anna Pearl, then with Jimmy Raschel and Benny Carew all around Michigan, especially Grand Rapids.

AAJ: Did he have any other career aspirations than being a musician at that time?

RC: He only wanted to be a musician. He didn't have any other plans at all.

AAJ: I understand that his first big break was with the Earl Hines band. Is that correct?

RC: Yes. He joined the Earl Hines band in Summer 1943, initially on alto, and stayed for about three years. They travelled to Los Angeles, and Wardell really liked the scene there, It was in the early stages of World War II (in America at least, it had been going on in Europe since 1939), and Los Angeles was really booming economically, with ship and aircraft building factories, Many black people came there from the South to find work. Central Avenue was buzzing, and there were many places to perform. Wardell didn't have a formal job after leaving Hines, but he played with pickup bands in the clubs. It was then that he met Dexter Gordon, and they had their famous "Chase" sessions. The beatnik writer Jack Kerouac heard Wardell and Dexter, and referenced them in his famous book, On the Road. So Wardell was working with various bands, and then the producer Gene Norman hired him for his concerts, from which we have the recording of "Blue Lou" that I mentioned earlier. Benny Goodman came to one of those concerts, and he really liked Wardell's playing and offered him a job. They went on tour, but working with Goodman was no picnic. He could be very difficult to get along with. To compound the trouble, at one point, they went on tour through the South, and since Wardell was one of the few black musicians in the band, that was particularly difficult. By then, he was married to Dorothy, who accompanied Wardell on the tour; they both found that very unpleasant: they joked between themselves that it was the Foreign Tour. That trip was one of the most discouraging experiences in Wardell's life.

Music and Recordings

AAJ: I know he played in Basie's small groups. Did he also play in the big band?

RC: He worked mostly with Basie's Sextet, but he was in Basie's big, 13-16 piece, band between March and August 1951, recording (in airshots) on a couple of occasions in April-May 1951 with Basie's big band.

AAJ: What are some of your personal favorite recordings of Wardell?

RC: "Blue Lou" from the Gene Norman concert was the first one I heard, and that's still my favorite Wardell track. And I love the original version of "The Chase," the 1947 version recorded by Dial, not the later one. It's interesting to note the difference in the way that Dexter Gordon interacted with Wardell in comparison with the other tenor saxophonist Vido Musso. Musso didn't seem to know what was happening, whereas Dexter was well aware of Wardell's genius, and he seems to be parroting Wardell's phrases at the end. It suggests he sensed how great Wardell was, because at the end, he's deferring to him. I also love the slightly later, December, 1947 Just Jazz concert when he has wonderful solos on Just Jazz All Stars (AFRS Jubilee 271, 1947): "Just You, Just Me" and "Sweet Georgia Brown." Wardell himself somewhere said that his solo on the latter was his favorite, but for me the "Just You, Just Me" solo is favorite: that lovely, relaxed tempo that, I think, suits his kind of playing best.

AAJ: Did Dexter and Wardell know each other aside from their record dates?

RC: Oh, yes, they worked and hung around a lot together.

AAJ: How about Wardell's playing of ballads?

RC: I must say that I'm not really that keen on the ballads. So I might not be the best person to ask about that. But there are some great quartet recordings with Al Haig.

AAJ: Wardell played with some of the great ones like Haig, Howard McGhee...

RC: McGhee was on the concert recordings produced by Gene Norman that I mentioned before.

AAJ: Did Wardell ever front his own bands?

RC: Not really. He did recordings under his own name, but he never really had a working band.

AAJ: Yet his discographies include recordings of "The Wardell Gray Quartet," "The Wardell Gray Los Angeles All-Stars," "The Wardell Gray Quintet," and so on.

RC: Those would be pickup groups for the recording, not an ongoing band. His most famous recording with a pickup band was "Twisted..."

AAJ: Which Annie Ross transcribed for her popular vocalese song about her psychoanalyst and her "twisted" mind.

RC: What a great job she did on that! Dodo Marmarosa is another important figure for Wardell. He was on the "Easy Swing" and "Dell's Bells" November, 1946 quartet session [much later released on Black Lion label—Eds.], which includes some interesting alternate takes as well, and there's some very nice playing there.

AAJ: My overall impression is that from around 1945, for about seven or eight years, until a couple of years before his death, he was really quite active, on the scene, and highly regarded as a player.

RC: And part of the reason for the decline is that the work dried up due to post-war economic changes which affected all the musicians.

AAJ: But something about him as a person comes through in his recordings. Just listening to the first few bars of his playing, I get a sense that something special is going on. And apparently many of his band leaders and peers felt the same way. He was capable of doing long, extended improvisations and never running short of ideas.

RC: I love his solos on the Dial recording session with "Relaxin' at Camarillo" session with Charlie Parker (Charlie Parker Septet: Dial, 1947). It was recorded in February 1947, and it was very good because Parker was very fit then. He'd been rehabilitated from heroin addiction at Camarillo State Hospital, got clean, and he plays in a much more positive, free way. And Wardell plays beautifully on that session.

Why Wardell Gray's Legacy Has Been Neglected

AAJ: You really bring Wardell to life in terms of the historical context and what it must have felt like to be a black musician at that time. He was really involved in the scene, and many people marveled at his playing. Why do you think that he was forgotten after he passed away, even though he appeared on many recordings that could keep him on the radar?

RC: I would say he was "neglected" rather than "forgotten." I never liked that Abraham Ravett used that word in title of his film. Well, for one thing, Wardell died too early to become famous, unlike Dexter, whose career extended into the 1980s. But that doesn't entirely explain it because Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker died very young, but they're still recognized. Charlie Parker was a special case, because he was an innovator and, to me, one of the three greatest jazz musicians of all time, the others being Louis Armstrong and Lester Young. And some would add John Coltrane.

Wardell came up as a "swing" player. Some say he was the first bebop tenor, but I don't think that was right. Even with the bebop players, he was still playing pretty much as a swing player. So I don't think he was an innovator. Also, Clifford Brown and Charlie Parker were active right until the end, whereas Wardell began to fade, and I think he lost interest in jazz. His wife, Dorothy, from whom he was drifting apart, recalls that he had many interests other than jazz. And then he became hooked on heroin. So, in the last couple of years, though he was still playing, he wasn't as sharp as before, and he was personally drifting away from jazz. But, still, I agree that there's a puzzle that this doesn't quite explain.

AAJ: I think that his lack of being an innovator and his slowing down a lot towards the end are partial explanations and a good beginning to understand his later being neglected. Was there something about him as a person rather than a musician, that might also help explain it?

RC: He was a very mature individual. Many people, particularly Hampton Hawes and Art Farmer, felt that Wardell was like an "older brother." He often provided others with counseling and guidance. That's one of the tragic things, that for so long, he strongly advised other musicians to stay away from drugs, especially heroin, and yet in the end that's where he ended up. But he was a very well-rounded man. He liked classical music, he liked Beethoven, and had very broad interests.

AAJ: I also understand that he was a real gentleman.

RC: Yes, and he also had a great sense of humor. He was always teasing friends and playing practical jokes.

AAJ: Wardell sounds like a genuinely good man who was taken down by the evil of drugs.

RC: Yes, but he also struggled with other problems. After the war, the jazz scene became attenuated, and it was difficult for black musicians in particular to get regular work (there was a lot of studio work, but this went to white musicians almost exclusively). I think the tragedy was when he left Basie. He did well for a while with Count Basie. It was the perfect place for him, because the Basie rhythm section suited his essentially swing style (with bop inflections). He was very happy there, and I believe he left because he wanted to spend more time at home in L.A., but then there wasn't enough work there.

The Tragic Death

AAJ: While we don't want the story of Wardell's untimely death to color our perception of his music, it is a tragic ending with many aspects unaccounted for. The horror was not only that Wardell overdosed on drugs but that his body was left in the middle of the desert outside of Las Vegas. This suggests there may have been a criminal element involved. What have you been able to put together about it?

RC: At the time, he was sharing a room with the dancer Teddy Hale and his partner, Marion Davis who were working with him with Benny Carter's group. I suspect that when they found him dead, they got rid of the body because they were afraid they'd be implicated. So they put him in a car and dumped him in the desert. He was found with a broken neck, and it was surmised that he fell out of bed and broke his neck. But that's clearly not true, because the beds were about 18 inches above the floor, so he couldn't break his neck falling that distance. What seems most likely is that his neck was broken when he was thrown out of the car. As to a criminal element, there are all sorts of stories, including that he provoked retaliation when he, a black man, smiled at the wife of a Mafia boss. What seems a more likely explanation of his death is that he got some heroin from someone he didn't know. It was too strong, he used too much, and he overdosed.

Part of the reason for the uncertainty is that the local authorities handled the whole incident very poorly. There was an inquest, but judging from the transcript, which I have in my possession, it was very unsatisfactory. But I think we can conclude that the actual cause of his death was a drug overdose.

AAJ: When the incident took place, I gather that he was in Las Vegas with Benny Carter's band. Is that correct?

RC; Yes, Wardell's death occurred on the second night the band was there. I spoke with Benny Carter about it, but he didn't recall many of the details of what happened.

AAJ: Did Benny and the group mourn the loss?

RC: I'm not sure. What Wardell's wife, Dorothy, said was that the authorities treated his death in a very offhand manner. She went to collect his effects, and that was it. They were completely unhelpful, in fact actively hostile: as far as they were concerned, Wardell was just one more dead "negro," and a musician too. Musicians were considered "outsiders" at the time.

AAJ:You seem to imply that there was racism involved in their lack of concern.

RC: Absolutely: many of the people in Las Vegas, as in L.A., were from the Deep South, so you can draw your own conclusions about that.

AAJ: So we can say that Wardell overdosed, that his roommates disposed of his body out of fear they would be implicated, the inquest was superficial, the full weight of his death was not felt due to race prejudice, and there may or may not have been an incident with an underworld figure. It's remotely possible he was murdered, but we don't know that. It sounds like we've gone as far as history will allow us at this point. So here we have this great jazz musician who died an untimely and tragic death, a life all too brief, and you've spent almost as much time as he lived working on his biography. Are you anywhere near getting it done and released to the public?

RC: I have a publisher who has shown strong interest, but I need to do the work of getting them fully committed. Then I'll be able to put all the research together into a narrative for publication. Until recently, I've had another career that took up a large amount of my time, but now I have the time to devote myself to the writing. I also now feel I know Wardell not only as a musician but also as a person. I have come to feel that he was someone very mature whom we would be very happy to meet, and I really want to tell his story.

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