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

Victor L. Schermer By

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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.

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