In one of the great novels of the 20th
Century, 'Ti Jean' took the time to include our hero, Wardell.
LT Dexter chasing Wardell, 1947
With Bird on Dial
On CD with the Count...
...with Billy Eckstine (above),
and a Jazz at the Philharmonic date with
Bill Moody's 'Death of a Tenor Man', a jazz
mystery based on the life and death of Wardell Gray. Moody has also written a similar book
focusing on Clifford Brown.
Cut's like 'One For Prez'
(like Bird's 'Ornithology' a contrafact of 'How High The Moon') feature speedy, fluid
interplay between Gray and Marmarosa. 'Easy Swing' which was lifted by Bird for 'The
Steeplechase', and then reclaimed by Gray and Dexter Gordon in 1952, is taken at an easy
tempo, and illustrates why Gray is thought of by many mainly as a transitional figure
between swing and Bop (only partially true).
In February 1947, Gray made the first of his legendary Dial recordings as a member of
the Charlie Parker Septet. Alongside old pals Marmarosa, Callender and McGhee and with
Barney Kessel on guitar and Don Lamond on drums the septet was under the leadership of the
newly clean Bird. Parker took the occasion to commemorate his recuperation as ward of the
state with the classic 'Relaxing at Camarillo'. All of the players are in rare form.
Commencing with a unison chorus, Bird comes on with a relaxed but assured solo, followed
immediately by Gray, McGhee and Kessel. 'Cheers', 'Carvin' The Bird' and 'Stupendous', all
recorded at that session, are classics in the mighty Parker canon, and proof that West
Coast jazz was not all cool.
It was around that time that Gray and Dexter
Gordon began to be paired in tenor sax duels at clubs like the Dunbar and The Bird In The
Basket, at the heart of LA's Central Avenue jazz scene.
Central Avenue had been the entertainment center of Los Angeles'
burgeoning Black community since the 20's. All of the great Black dignitaries of the day
(and many of their white counterparts) could be found at clubs like Dink Johnson's Rib
House, The Club Alabam and Shepp's Playhouse digging local jazz and R&B talent and all
of the great national bands. Jack Kerouac described it in 'On The Road':
'Terry came and led me by the hand
to Central Avenue, which is the colored main drag of LA. And what a wild place it is, with
chickenshacks barely big enough to house a jukebox, and the jukebox blowing nothing but
blues, bop and jump
..The wild humming night of Central Avenue - the night of Hamp's
"Central Avenue Breakdown" - howled and boomed along outside."
It was in this heated atmosphere, in the spring of 1947 that
Gordon and Gray began to meet on stage and engage in hours long showdowns, riff mounting
on riff, chorus on chorus. But unlike the famed cutting contests of jazz lore, the point
here wasn't for one player to beat the other. The excitement was in the chase. This was
never truer that when Gordon and Gray went into the Dial Studio on Thursday June 12, 1947,
and recreated some of the heat they generated in the after-hours clubs with the two-sided
masterpiece named coincidentally enough 'The Chase'. The main theme is stated in unison,
then Dexter takes the first solo, and Wardell the second. After Jimmy Bunn solos on piano,
the two tenors trade solo segments, starting with 16 bars, moving down to 8 bars, and
closing in on each other at 4 bars apiece. As the solos get shorter, the tension increases
and the listener gets the feeling that the two tenors are waging an impromptu war of ideas
each one picking up where the other left off, feeding on his energy, building on his ideas
and creating new sounds. Its like one of those long algebraic equations you see on a
Physics classroom blackboard - line after line, ever more complicated until the
numbers move from the blackboard to the atom bomb and BANG! the atom is
split and the atmosphere catches fire. 'The Chase' went on for nearly seven minutes, and
two sides of a 78. When it was released it rapidly became the best selling record in
Dial's short history, even outselling Bird's sides for the label.
The following month they would be recorded live, in concert in a
much longer performance that would be span several 78's, 'The Hunt'. Again, from 'On The
"They ate voraciously as Dean,
sandwich in hand, stood bowed and jumping before the big phonograph, listening to a wild
bop record I had just bought called 'The Hunt', with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray
blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied
volume. The Southern folk looked at one another and shook their heads in awe."
Kerouac's colleague John Clellon Holmes also praised this
"The Hunt: listen there for the
anthem in which we jettisoned the intellectual Dixieland of atheism, rationalism,
liberalism - and found our group's rebel streak at last."
The pair would reprise their duel 1952, and
lightning struck again. The Decca
10" LP of 'The Chase' and 'The Steeplechase' is another very hot live recording,
with all of their original fire intact, and several more minutes in the LP format for the
flames to rise. The availability of more efficient electronic recording equipment, and the
longer LP sides gave the pair the space they needed to be heard, without having to flip
six or eight 78 sides.
Wardell headed east to the Big Apple in 1949, and recorded in the
band co-led by Tadd Dameron and Fats Navarro, alongside fellow tenor man Allen Eager. It
was during this time that he would grace the front line of Benny Goodmans
Bop-leaning unit. What resulted was certainly not the most exciting music either man ever
slapped on wax, but its worth searching out to hear Gray on tunes like
Stealing Apples - especially playing beside clarinetist Stan Hasselgard - and
to see a point in time when Goodman tried to jump onto the bop-wagon, a few years too
That year he made his next date as a leader, fronting the
extra-solid New York City rhythm section of Al Haig (piano), Tommy Potter (bass) and Roy
Haynes (drums) on four tracks. The first, Twisted has assumed legendary
status, as much for Grays outstanding original recording, as for the vocalese
written to it a few years later by the great Annie Ross - who recorded it first as a solo
and then several times more with Dave Lambert and John Hendricks). More people are
probably familiar with the retake done 20+ years on by none other than Joni Mitchell (with
help from Cheech and Chong). Easy Living is a moving ballad performance, given
an almost ironic air by Gray and company. Southside is a great uptempo bopper
with some of Grays best playing. CD buyers are advised to grab the Prestige/Original
Jazz Classics discs, Wardell Gray Memorial Volumes 1 and 2. These discs
encompass all of Grays studio sessions as a leader between 1949 and 1953, and both
feature numerous alternate takes (in the case of the four tunes from the 1949 sessions, 4
takes of Twisted, 2 of Easy Living and 7 takes of
Southside and 1 of Sweet Lorraine). While possibly monotonous for
the casual listener, those of you that dig Wardell Gray will find them an invaluable
window into his creative process, and the best way to get a close look at the nuances in
Between 1948 and 1952 Gray played with the Basie band, playing
and recording not only with the full band but with a very interesting sextet led by The
Count. Among his features with the Basie band, the famous Little Pony (written
by Neil Hefti) features some smokin solos. Fortunately a good deal of his excellent
playing with Basie has been preserved in airchecks. Theres a fantastic disc on Moon
Records (Wardell Gray: How High The Moon) which features the Basie Sextet at Birdland in
1950 and 1951. Bopping at high speed on numbers like Denzil Bests 'Move', swinging
on Basie classics like One O'clock Jump and Jumping At The
Woodside and moving into the realm of Chamber Jazz on a beautiful arrangement of
How High The Moon. It seems a shame that this group didnt make it into
the studio. The disc also includes a 1952 jam with Chet Baker (in a different group), but
the presence of woefully overmatched second tenor Dave Pell brings things down a notch.
Wardell Gray Memorial Vol. 2 includes an April 25,
1950 Gray-led session recorded on his home turf in Detroit (Bob Weinstock reportedly went
to Detroit especially to record Gray who was in town performing at the Bluebird) with Phil
Hill (piano), John Richardson (bass) and Woody Herman sideman Art Mardigan (drums). This
features four tunes (again in multiple takes), Blue Gray,
Grayhound, Treadin (all three Gray originals) and A Sinner
Kissed An Angel. The takes of Blue Gray (especially 1 & 2) feature
significantly different solos, and as always Gray is in supremely confident form.
Grayhound also features significant recasting of the song from version to
version, take 2 being the shortest (at 1:07) and the most radically different by far.
A Sinner Kissed An Angel (an old Frank Sinatra number) is another emotional
ballad performance, perhaps the best of its kind in the Gray canon.
Treadin, a brisk blues in the Nows The Time mold is a
August 27, 1950 found Wardell Gray back in LA, reteamed with his
partner Dexter, as well as Clark Terry, and Sonny Criss in a red-hot live jam at the Hula
Hut. Both Scrapple From The Apple (on which Dexter sits out) and
Move (which are listed in reverse order on the CD) are amazing.
Move flies along at a blinding pace (the listener wonders how musicians can
play at this pace without expiring on stage), with a highly energized audience voicing
their approval throughout. Grays solos are nothing less than spellbinding (quoting
past triumphs like Twisted) and Criss illustrates how the all encompassing
influence of Bird, in the right hands was a wonderful thing. Scrapple From The
Apple is a slightly more relaxed, but no less exciting number, showing that though
they hadnt matched axes in two years, Wardell and Dexter didnt have to go far
to find the groove.
There is more classic live playing to be heard in a 1951 date
with Charlie Parker (available as 'The Happy Bird on Collectables Jazz
Classics), recorded at Christys Restaurant in Boston. Though the sound quality is
spotty (what do you want from a 50 year old amateur recording) it's no Dean Benedetti wire
recording and the band is excellent. With Bird and Wardell, Walter Bishop (piano), Teddy
Kotick (bass), Roy Haynes (drums) and Little Benny Harris (trumpet) the band works out on
a short blues (Happy Bird Blues) and two long jams on Scrapple From The
Apple and I May Be Wrong. Everyone is in excellent form (even if they do
have to take a little time to warm up) and the listeners are treated to the sound of Bird
yelling Go, Wardell! from the sidelines.
Gray made his way back into the studio as a leader in January of
1952. The LA session featured a young Art Farmer (trumpet), an even younger Hampton Hawes
(piano) and Larance Marable (drums). The date featured Buddy Collettes contrafact of
Ill Remember April, April Skies, as well as two more Wardell
Gray solos that made their way into the world of vocalese via Annie Ross;
Farmers Market and 'Jackie' (by Farmer and Hawes respectively). Gray is
once again (as always) in top form. The date, one of the earliest for Art Farmer proved to
be a pivotal one in his career.
Later that same year (September 9), Gray, Farmer, and Hawes (with
Joe Mondragon on bass and Shelly Manne on drums) were recorded at the Haig (the famous
home of the Mulligan / Baker quartet). The set (available on a Fresh Sound import)
includes two Tadd Dameron tunes (The Squirrel and Lady Bird), Birds Donna
Lee, Bernie Millers Bernies Tune (recorded earlier at the same
club by Lee Konitz with the Mulligan/Baker group) and a few standards. The sound quality
is fairly good and the playing is excellent.
His last studio session in a major role was five months later as
a member of Teddy Charles West Coasters. Vibist Charles had been leading a number of
forward thinking sessions on the Coast with among others Jimmy Giuffre and Shorty Rogers.
While this date isnt quite that far out, it does boast the debuts of Frank Morgan
(alto) and the great Sonny Clark (piano). So Long Broadway is very cool and in
a minor mode, with tasty solos from Morgan, Gray and Charles. Pauls
Cause is a lightly swinging number with modernist touches, and a nice solo by Gray.
The group recasts The Man I Love starting slow and melancholy, but picking up
the pace quickly. It features Grays best solo of the date. Clarks 'Lavonne'
begins with just the rhythm section, moving into solos by Morgan, Charles and finally
Gray. This was to be the last time (not allowing for bootlegged live recordings or work as
a sideman) that Wardell Gray would be heard until his death two years later.
He had been hired to play in Benny Carter's orchestra for the
opening of the first integrated casino/showroom in Las Vegas. By this time he had foregone
his early opposition to drugs and gotten lost in smack. There was never a conclusion in
regard to the circumstances of his death. He was found, dumped on the outskirts of town,
his neck broken. There was some speculation that he may have overdosed in the company of a
dancer and broke his neck in a fall. In order to keep the heat off of himself, he
supposedly got rid of the body. There have even been those who surmised that Gray may have
run afoul of mobsters. Jazz and mystery writer Bill Moody even wrote a fictional account
of a modern day investigation into Gray's death, "Death Of A Tenor Man".
Either way, the life of Wardell Gray, one of the great, post-war
jazz tenor saxophonists, came to an abrupt end in 1955. Though the lack of records between
1953 and 1955 suggest that heroin had stolen much of his thunder, there were many before
and after him who emerged from that particular storm, battered but still performing. As it
stands, the bulk of his best work, spanning less than fifteen years is available on CD.
Some of his recordings with Hines and Eckstine are available on French CD's. The two
'Wardell Gray Memorial' volumes are indispensable and the best gauge of his prowess as a
leader. 'One For Pres', his 1946 session is available both on Black Lion (with extra
takes) and on a UK CD, 'The Bebop Masters'. The original version of 'The Chase' has been
available on several CD reissues, including a Stash collection of Dexter Gordon's Dial
recordings. The 1952 LP of 'The Chase
and The Steeplechase' (click on the link to see some pix) has yet to see CD reissue.
I found my original copy of the LP at a record store run by an overaged heavy
metal/swinger type, who ran to his record guide for a price and then charged me less that
$20 for what has proven to be a pretty rare platter. 'The Hunt' is available on a Savoy
Reissue called 'Jazz Concert West Coast'. As far as Gray's work as a sideman, his sides
with Dameron and Navarro are available on a Blue Note collection, and his work with the
Benny Goodman band was on CD but is currently out of print (aside from selected
compilation cuts). His work with Basie is harder to track down. I had to grab the studio
sides on a French LP reissue. Unfortunately Count Basie, one of the greatest bandleaders
in all of jazz, is poorly represented in the CD racks. You can get a copy of 'Basie's
Beatles Bag', but if it's his more progressive work from the late 40's/early 50's, you're
out of luck. The aforementioned Moon CD is definitely worth looking for, and I've seen it
listed with some internet retailers. All of his studio recordings with Bird are available
on the first disc of the Dial Masters set. Their live set may be harder to track down. The
live set from the Haig on Fresh Sound, is like many discs from the Spanish label, fairly
easy to come by (assuming you have access to a music store with a fairly decent jazz