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

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: Yes, and as you point out in the film, he wrote many letters home, and often expressed regret that he could not be there. He emphasized in some of his letters that he needed to travel because he wanted to be a good provider for them. And he was a very well-liked guy.

AR: I never had the impression that he was a loner. Based on the people I spoke with, he was well-connected to relationships. He didn't come off to them as someone who was withdrawn or obscure or didn't care about anything except the music. He was very connected to others. At least, that was my impression from those with whom I spoke.

Wardell's Tragic and Unexplained Death

AAJ: Perhaps his drug-related problems towards the end of his life may have retrospectively colored the overall picture of who he really was.

AR: I have to tell you that when I made the film, I really tried very hard not to sensationalize the whole aspect about drugs and the circumstances of how he died. I emphasized his life and work. For example, in my conversation with Teddy Edwards, he spoke about the intimacy of his relationship with Wardell, although the tragic ending did come up. When I interviewed Clark Terry, he spoke passionately about his relationship with Wardell and told me he was really surprised when he found out that Wardell was hooked on heroin. But I wanted the film to relate to Wardell as a great musician and the legacy he left of his work and his relationships.

AAJ: Yet in terms of biography and history, coming to terms with the circumstances of Wardell's death is unavoidable. It's an unsolved gruesome mystery. In your film, the musicians who were around him explain his death as a drug overdose. But his body was found in the desert near Las Vegas, and his neck was broken. That suggests murder, although the coroner attributed the cause of death to "natural causes." It's hard to put two and two together here. Have you found out anything since you made the film twenty years ago that might provide some clarity?

AR: No, I haven't gotten any further clarification. It's one of those things that his closest intimates couldn't figure out. It's just one of those unsolved "cold cases." Who knows what happened? Unless someone eventually figures it out, it's more important to me to resurrect Wardell's presence and acknowledge his contributions.

Further Thoughts

AAJ: You are a film-maker and teacher by profession, and a number of your films are about the Holocaust. Do you see some connection between the persecutions of the Nazi era and Wardell's life and those of other jazz musicians under segregation?

AR: I don't think so. I just happen to have multiple interests. I've always loved music and at times have aspired to being a musician. But maybe there is one connection that I would make: the idea of resurrecting and paying tribute to unheralded lives, lives that are extinct. My family included victims of the Holocaust whose lives were extinguished or those who managed to survive. I've made several films that among other themes, pay tribute to these members of my family. That may be a thread connecting the Wardell Gray film and my other work. I just finished a film about Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth (Impulse, 1961) recording session. It's one of the greatest albums ever made. Like Wardell, Oliver Nelson should be better known.

AAJ: In the film, you don't bring up Wardell's famous saxophone duels with Dexter Gordon. I wonder why you didn't take up Dexter's interactions with Wardell, although for one thing Dexter passed away shortly before you made the film.

AR: I do have a picture of Dexter Gordon in the film. I tried to get more information about Dexter vis-à-vis Wardell, but nothing turned up. Also, there were cost considerations in purchasing the rights to Dexter Gordon's recordings and so on. I do mention the Dexter Gordon -Wardell Gray collaboration in the film, but for practical reasons, I couldn't include more. Also, my initial focus was on the Count Basie Sextet in which Wardell participated, and then I branched out from there to other musicians who were still around.

AAJ: What more would you like to tell us about Wardell and the film?

AR: Importantly, since it was released, this film has had a life of its own for twenty years. I keep getting inquiries from all over the world. Wardell's presence and influence continues to linger. What lingers is not only his musical legacy but also what a wonderful person he was to the people around him who cherished him as a musician, friend, husband, and father. And like record producer Bob Weinstock said in the film, we're all still feeling the loss of so many of the great musicians who in that era, died at such a young age.

By no means could I cover everything about Wardell in Forgotten Tenor. What I hope it will do, is stimulate people to listen to Wardell's recordings, learn more about him and fill in some of the gaps in what the film couldn't cover. He doesn't have to remain forgotten.

Editor's Note: Professor Ravett's website contains information and a film clip . The DVD is currently available only directly from him. His contact information is also provided there.

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