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Why the World Should Remember Wardell Gray

Victor L. Schermer By

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[This article is a commentary to accompany All About Jazz interviews about Wardell Gray with filmmaker Abraham Ravett and biographer Richard Carter, all of which are intended to bring readers' attention to this outstanding but under-recognized tenor saxophonist whose brief career spanned the transition from swing to bebop and whose life was cut short by sudden and tragic circumstances. In the interviews, filmmaker Abraham Ravett and biographer Richard Carter provide their perspectives and information about this outstanding but neglected musician.]

In the jazz cosmos, Wardell Gray was like a comet streaking across the heavens and, if you were fortunate enough to be the right place at the right time, you might have witnessed his musical light. Some still know the name of the comet, and a few "astronomers" have studied its trajectory. Gray graced the jazz scene for a few years, played the tenor saxophone (and occasionally alto and baritone) in inimitable style, and had all the earmarks of becoming a star. He performed with and was admired and appreciated by a galaxy of greats such as Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Erroll Garner, Hampton Hawes, Benny Carter,Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, Art Farmer, Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Al Haig, Howard McGhee, and Charlie Parker. He died prematurely in 1955 at the age of 34 under tragic and partly unexplained circumstances. Even though Gray appeared on a substantial number of recordings and was revered by his peers, he vanished into relative oblivion after his death.

Despite his brief rise and fall, those who were touched by Wardell Gray never forgot him, and a few aficianados and scholars have tried to resuscitate him in our collective memory. But why, of the many gifted jazz musicians who shone but never achieved lasting fame, should we especially remember Wardell Gray?

This question was first raised and partially answered by cinematographer and professor Abraham Ravett in his 1994 documentary Wardell Gray: The Forgotten Tenor. Ravett, a jazz fan, heard one of Gray's recordings on a local radio station in New England, was startled by his playing, and was curious to know why he never heard of him. "Who was that masked man?" But there were many great players whom even jazz scholars note only parenthetically or in a footnote. Why should Ravett or anyone else care about Wardell Gray's name and contribution in particular? The answer, amply illustrated by Ravett's well-researched film, is that he played beautifully and was treasured by many for his music and his personal integrity. But that is not enough to meet the criterion of special recognition as a jazz artist who made a difference. To do so we are challenged to say what was unique about him and why and how he influenced jazz history. Such a test of his credentials can and should be taken up, first from the standpoint of his music and then in terms of his personal qualities and how he fits into the jazz legacy, which, especially during his lifetime, was also in part the history of African Americans in a segregated and racist society.

A Valued Musician Who Died a Tragic Death

There is no question that, as Ravett suggests, Wardell Gray was a gifted musician who was an important figure in the jazz scene of the 1940s and 50s. His surviving cohorts remember him that way. He was handpicked for top shelf bands, greatly admired and sought after, and could improvise with the best of them, notably the young Dexter Gordon in the iconic saxophone duel recordings, The Chase (Dial, 1947) and The Hunt (Savoy, 1977). Moreover, Gray's own pick-up groups included some of the finest players of his time. He earned their enduring respect and was considered top shelf by virtually all of them.

So why hasn't he merited more retrospective attention? For one thing, he was only one among many saxophonists who started out around the same time, such as Earl Bostic, Prince Lasha, and Wayne Marsh to name but a few who are hardly household words for jazz enthusiasts. Thus, he was by no means alone in his subsequent neglect. Yet somehow, of all these wonderful and now rarely cited players, a mystique has developed in some circles around Gray which has led some to emphasize his place in the pantheon.

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