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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.

The most obvious source of the aura that surrounds Wardell Gray and leaves unfinished business in its wake was his untimely death in mysterious and gritty circumstances, even inspiring a mystery novel, Death of a Tenor man by Bill Moody. On May 26, 1955, his body was found in the desert around Las Vegas, a day after he had been performing with Benny Carter's band at the opening of the Moulin Rouge Hotel. The coroner's report suggested that he died of a drug overdose, but explanations of why his remains were dumped in the desert seem disingenuous, as if to hide the involvement of criminal elements. Here was a man who was universally respected and admired, a good and decent person who was taken down by drug addiction in a very short time, and who died in such an unseemly way. The contradiction of a good man succumbing to evil haunts our collective memory and singles him out as having endured a fate that troubles our minds. Thus, a sense of tragic denouement surrounds him in posterity.

But that does not justify the claim that he was a musician deserving special recognition as a contributor to the jazz legacy. And the circumstance of his death is not what his admirers care about. Rather, there is something special in Wardell Gray's playing that has affected a coterie of listeners in a big way. What are the unique qualities that we can still hear in his recordings and a few film and video excerpts?

Wardell Gray's Musical Virtues

There are two qualities that put Wardell Gray's playing in a special light. The first can be heard most clearly in his ballads. His sound and inflections are uncannily like Lester Young, with a sad yet uplifting expressiveness and beautifully crafted phrases that remain true to the song itself yet create their own melodic lines. Listen, for example, to his rendition of " Pennies from Heaven " (Wardell Gray Sextet, Xanadu, recording date 1952.) The second is his improvising on fast-paced tunes, where he shows a masterful fluency of concept and ideas that anticipates bebop and hard bop while steeped in the swing tradition. (Annie Ross' vocalese transcription of Wardell Gray's solo on "Twisted" is by far the most frequently heard example. His own performance (Wardell Gray Memorial Album, Prestige, 1965, recorded 1949) is a prime example of why some consider him "the first bebop tenor saxophonist," although that distinction might apply to several others from that era.

Above and beyond the apparent ease and naturalness with which he develops extended choruses of complex ideas, Gray shows himself in his recordings to be one of the most important transitional links between the swing era and modern jazz. In this respect, he resembled Tadd Dameron, whose songs and arrangements served a similar bridging function. Gray and Dameron were also alike in that both in large part stayed out of the spotlight, doing some of their best work for other bands and leaders. That is one of the reasons that their contributions did not get the kind of attention that those who led their own groups did. Neither of them cultivated celebrity status with their names appearing prominently on record covers, nightclub marquees, and jazz reviews. They mostly enjoyed being background figures and rarely fought for a place in limelight.

Biographer Paul Combs (Dameronia, Unviersity of Michigan Press, 2013) used Dameron's charts to show how he early anticipated elements of melody and harmony found in bebop. Then, when the bebop vocabulary was being articulated by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk, Dameron was of inestimable value to them as an arranger and consultant. By so doing, he significantly shaped modern jazz. Wardell Gray was neither a writer nor arranger, but many of the instrumentalists of the time gathered around him, listened to him, absorbing and using his musical ideas. In turn, he quickly caught on to their new idioms and helped maintain the continuity between swing and bebop, so that the latter remained close to its jazz roots. In this respect, he was doing by example what Dameron did by composing, arranging, and rehearsing tunes for the top players and groups.

The one justification we are lacking that could prove Gray's impact on bebop are scholarly analyses of transcriptions of his solos. However, we do have his recorded improvisations, and we can readily perceive how well he connected with the music of Charlie Parker, Al Haig, Howard McGhee, and other musicians who were moving into the bebop idiom. Even though he continued to be a swing musician in "temperament," he was at home in modern approaches. In this respect, he can compared to Coleman Hawkins, whose signature would never waiver from Fletcher Henderson's and others' swing bands, but who fit in well with the bebop movement. Figures like Gray, Dameron, and Hawkins were extremely important in the development of modern jazz because they facilitated continuity within radical change.

Personal and Social Influence

There was another way in which Gray contributed to the development of modern jazz. He served as a personal role model and musical gold standard for the innovators. Consider that most of the guys who created bebop and other innovations were kids in their late teens and early twenties, jumping into unfamiliar worlds, unreliable record contracts, the temptations of drugs, and other briar patches of an adventurous bohemian life. Director Ravett and Wardell Gray biographer Richard Carter have obtained mountains of evidence and testimonials showing that he served as a both a musical and personal ballast for those around him. He wasn't much their senior, but his 6'4" stature, affectionately known as "The Thin Man," his relaxed yet poised and disciplined approach on and off stage, and his self-acquired knowledge and wisdom helped them to keep a steady eye on what was important. We have first-hand testimonials to this effect from Art Farmer, Dexter Gordon, Clark Terry, Benny Goodman, and a host of others who worked with him and were influenced by him. Author Carter has a list of interviews he did with such outstanding players as Milt Bernhardt, Eddie Bert, Buddy Collette, Buddy DeFranco, James Moody, Teddy Edwards, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, and Milt Jackson, among many others upon whom Gray had a positive influence. If and when Carter publishes his biography of Gray, it will become crystal clear what a strong and lasting impact he had on his cohorts.
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