Learn How

We need your help in 2018

Support All About Jazz All About Jazz is looking for 1,000 backers to help fund our 2018 projects that directly support jazz. You can make this happen by purchasing ad space or by making a donation to our fund drive. In addition to completing every project (listed here), we'll also hide all Google ads and present exclusive content for a full year!


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

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
AAJ: The interviews with people who knew Wardell were fascinating, and the musical excerpts with him show what an extraordinary musician he was. So let's talk about Wardell himself. The main question that comes to mind is why he was forgotten. He was one of the most outstanding jazz musicians of the time (1940s -50s), and some of them died young, as he did, like Charlie Parker, but the others like Parker became legends. Wardell was one of the best among them and played often with the top-of-the-line swing and bebop groups. Why didn't his recordings and his legacy get passed on to subsequent generations of musicians and listeners?

AR: I would argue that the idea of "forgotten" is relative. While I was making the film, I was teaching at Hampshire College. It's part of a consortium of five colleges in western Massachusetts. As it happened, Archie Shepp taught for many years at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, which is in the vicinity of where I teach. I contacted him and told him I had acquired some footage of Wardell and invited him to a small screening room at Hampshire College where I projected the Snader Telescriptions featuring Wardell. Archie was sitting there, and when he saw each and every one of the film clips, he asked me to show them again and again. He loved them. Wardell was his inspiration and hero. So the idea of someone being "forgotten" is relative. Shepp, and a lot of other musicians I interviewed, remembered Wardell and acknowledged his influence.

AAJ: But Wardell does not come up in conversation among jazz fans the way that, say, Archie Shepp does.

AR: But a surprisingly large number of musicians do know about him.

AAJ: The musicians you interviewed all knew of him personally and performed with him. On a more general level, most of us know about Wardell only as a mysterious figure who passed in the night. Given his remarkable ability, whom he worked with, and the recordings we have of him, he is surprisingly relegated to the back burner in jazz circles.

AR: I'm not trying to say he is a famous figure in jazz. But he is well-known among musicians of his time and later on as well. His "disappearance" may partly be a question of his early and abrupt death. He died at age 34. He didn't have a chance to accumulate a full legacy.

AAJ: And, unlike Charlie Parker, who died at 35, he didn't leave a large body of recordings as a leader. And he was not an innovator of a new musical idiom.

AR: We do have some important recordings by him. I don't have his full discography in front of me. My website has a very extensive discography of his work.

AAJ: I did an informal search of your discography and several others on the web, and yes, he made a substantial number—at least fifty recordings that I could count—with some of the top big bands and small groups of the time, but only a few -maybe ten -as a leader, most notably with the Wardell Gray Quintet. To me, from what I've listened to, the quality of his playing is so remarkable that he should have developed a big fan base. But he may have been one of those great musicians like Tadd Dameron who fell under the radar.

AR: Interest in Wardell keeps popping up over and over again. Richard Carter in the U.K. has been working on Wardell's biography for many years. There's a lot of information and memories about Wardell out there that he's collecting.

AAJ: The reason the neglect of Wardell is important is not because of fame and fortune but because there is so much great music and there are so many great musicians who get short shrift. The jazz community misses many wonderful listening opportunities because of that, not to mention the musicians who suffer anonymously and many of whom die destitute and forgotten. I recently interviewed Paul Combs, who wrote a fine biography of Dameron, who also was largely forgotten, even though he had a huge influence on his contemporaries.

AR: Yes, we do have to take the time to bring such musicians to everyone's attention.

Wardell Gray: Person and Musician

AAJ: Let's discuss Wardell Gray, the person, whose life had a tragic ending which we'll take up a little later. From your film, I got the impression that he was a mystery man, a wanderer, a not uncommon impression or stereotype of the uprooted African American male persona. Do you think that was how he really was?

AR: No, I really don't think so. Wardell was married and devoted to his family. Dorothy Gray, his last wife, said he was really connected to family and cared about them. He was well read and well educated. But he was a travelling musician. He had to go where the work was. Even today, musicians have to make a living, they have to travel, and it creates tensions within their families and with others who are close to them.


Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Julian Priester: Reflections in Positivity Interview Julian Priester: Reflections in Positivity
by Paul Rauch
Published: December 8, 2017
Read Aaron Goldberg: Exploring the Now Interview Aaron Goldberg: Exploring the Now
by Luke Seabright
Published: November 24, 2017
Read Pat Metheny: Driving Forces Interview Pat Metheny: Driving Forces
by Ian Patterson
Published: November 10, 2017
Read Bill Anschell: Curiosity and Invention Interview Bill Anschell: Curiosity and Invention
by Paul Rauch
Published: November 9, 2017
Read Tomas Fujiwara: The More the Better Interview Tomas Fujiwara: The More the Better
by Troy Dostert
Published: November 6, 2017
Read "Generation Next: Four Voices From Seattle" Interview Generation Next: Four Voices From Seattle
by Paul Rauch
Published: June 19, 2017
Read "Miles Mosley Gets Down!" Interview Miles Mosley Gets Down!
by Andrea Murgia
Published: June 16, 2017
Read "Arto Lindsay: Watch Out Madames!" Interview Arto Lindsay: Watch Out Madames!
by Enrico Bettinello
Published: April 25, 2017
Read "Tim Bowness: Ghost Lights and Life Sentences" Interview Tim Bowness: Ghost Lights and Life Sentences
by John Kelman
Published: February 19, 2017
Read "Todd Neufeld: Transcending the Limits of Sound" Interview Todd Neufeld: Transcending the Limits of Sound
by Jakob Baekgaard
Published: September 7, 2017

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!