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Wardell Gray, "Forgotten Tenor:" An Interview with Filmmaker Abraham Ravett

Victor L. Schermer By

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[This is one of two interviews and an article intended to bring readers' attention to the revered but neglected 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.]

Swing and early bebop saxophonist Wardell Gray, despite exciting beginnings, had for all practical purposes vanished from the jazz radar until filmmaker Abraham Ravett was struck by recordings of Gray on the radio and decided to make a documentary about him which was released in 1994 under the name Forgotten Tenor. Since the release of the film, there has been a resurgence of interest in him but not nearly as much as his small army of cohorts and aficianados feel he deserves. The film raises more questions than it answers. In search of understanding about why such a prodigiously talented and productive musician as Wardell Gray became relegated to the back burner, All About Jazz looked up Ravett, resulting in the following interview with him.

Background of the Film Forgotten Tenor

All About Jazz: What interests and circumstances back in the 1990s led you to do a documentary about Wardell Gray?

Abraham Ravett: I finished the film in 1994, and it took me at least 3 years to finish it. I've always loved blues and jazz, and around 1990, a local jazz radio station host played about an hour and a half of this great tenor player. I thought, "Who is this guy? I never heard of him." So I called up the station and found out who he was. It was Wardell Gray. I was really intrigued by the fact that there was this spectacular musician I never heard of. I've always been interested in unheralded lives, not just in music, but in a variety of fields. So that's how it began.

I then started an exploration about "Who is this guy? Where did he live? Where did he come from?" I started on a journey to find out about him. At that time, I was working with 16 millimeter film. I had to carry a lot of equipment around with me, a 16 millimeter camera and a reel to reel tape recorder, lights, and so on. I began the project on my own and eventually got some financial support from several organizations.

At one point, I heard about something called Snader Telescriptions. They were the precursors of today's music videos. They were short film clips that were played in the equivalent of juke boxes. People inserted a coin, and they could see and hear different groups perform for a few minutes. In the 1940s and '50's there were a lot of these Telescriptions with jazz groups. There were several of them with the Count Basie Sextet during the time that Wardell was working with them. I was lucky enough to locate a collector in New York City who was nice enough to let me borrow and copy his 16 millimeter prints. As a result, I had a foundation of these four Snader telescriptions, and they gave me a way to begin to think about the musicans Wardell played with. At the time, the Sextet consisted of Basie, Wardell, Clark Terry, Buddy DeFranco, drummer Gus Johnson, bassist Gene Lewis, and rhythm guitarist Freddie Green. I started tracking down people, beginning with those on the film clips, which were really the cornerstones of the film. I made it a point to include one with Helen Humes singing " I Cried for You ," which featured a solo by Wardell. That clip gave me the pulse, to really look at him, to hear him with his colleagues, to really get a sense of his presence.

AAJ: You really brought Wardell's music to life in the film. But why did you include all the clips of you calling people and setting up the equipment that are usually omitted from films?

AR: It was based on the evolving form of non-fiction filmmaking that I was very interested in at the time. I wanted it to be more than an expository work. I wanted it also to be reflexive. I wanted to acknowledge the means of production and my own subjectivity in terms of who was making this film. I realized as I was editing the film that it was not going to be a work that was readily accessible, not something for television and such. As soon as I put in the entire 13 minute Charlie Parker-Wardell Gray "Lullaby in Rhythm" interlude with shifting gradations of color seen on the screen, I knew it wasn't going to be a popular documentary film.

I teach film and photography at Hampshire College and therefore, am not dependent on making a living from my personal work. as a result, I give myself a lot of creative flexibility in every project. i made this film the way I wanted to, a 2 hour and 16 minute homage to this unheralded musician that is formally challenging in its structure. It asks for the viewer to carefully attend and participate in its unfolding.

Has Wardell Gray Really Been Forgotten?

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