Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Gray, Wardell (Carl Wardell)

Tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, along with his friendly rival Dexter Gordon, was one of the few instrumentalists who came of age after World War II to maintain strong stylistic ties to the Swing Era while embracing the vocabulary and propulsion of bebop. Of the tenor sax players carrying the influence of Lester Young, Gray was considered by both his peers and his audiences to be the most reminiscent of “Pres” in his lucid phrasing, airy tone, crafty articulation and lyrical balladry.

Wardell Gray

Gray’s distinctive sound – at once nimble and resonant, intricate and accessible, hard-driving and laid-back – still catches unwary listeners by surprise. Pianist Hampton Hawes, a friend and frequent session partner of Gray’s, recalled occasions when Gray’s inventions were startling enough to make bebop’s master, Charlie Parker “turn around and take notice; [there] weren’t many who could make Bird do that.”

Carl Wardell Gray was born February 13, 1921 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and spent most of his formative years in Detroit, where he attended Cass Technical High School. The youngest of four children he studied the clarinet, then switched to tenor saxophone after hearing Lester Young play on records wht the Count Basie Orchestra.

In his teens, Gray played saxophone with local bands, such as the ones led by Isaac Goodwin, Dorothy Patton and Jimmy Raschel. Among those he played with were trumpeter Howard McGhee and saxophonists Lucky Thompson and Sonny Stitt.

Gray’s big break came in 1943, when a dancer he was dating introduced him to bandleader Earl "Fatha" Hines, who was passing through town. Hines hired him, but started him out on clarinet and alto sax as there was no tenor vacancy at the time. Gray stayed with Hines for three years, and made his first recordings with the band.

In 1946, Gray settled in Los Angeles, where musical innovation could be found every night in the nightclubs and after-hours joints on Central Avenue, Southern California’s rough equivalent of New York’s 52nd Street. Gray found many places to jam and stretch his resources and began to blossom. In early 1947. He joined Charlie "Bird" Parker and trumpeter Howard McGhee on the former’s seminal recording of “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” at Ross Russell's Dial studio in Hollywood.

It was on Central Avenue that Gray met fellow tenorist Dexter Gordon, and the two would engage in mock "battles" on the saxophone. Russell persuaded the pair to recreate some of this after-hours excitement on record and the pair recorded a spirited, galvanizing give-and-take in his studio. The resulting seven-minute session, “The Chase,” a duel of fiercely woven and dramatically inspired choruses, was first released on both sides of a single 10-inch 78-RPM record, became Dial’s biggest seller, surpassing even the label's sides by Parker, and brought both Gray and Gordon nationwide recognition.

In the wake of the record's success, the two tenors would take their electrifying colloquies to auditorium stages and drive their audiences to near-ecstatic frenzy. " His playing was very fluid, very clean," Gordon late said about his duels with Gray. "He had a lot of drive and a profusion of ideas".

Clarinetist Benny Goodman was not known to be a lover of bebop insurgents' style of music, but he was induced by the tenor saxophonist’s light tone and graceful phrasing to include him in 1948 small-group recording sessions intended to blend the best of old and new jazz motifs. "If he's bop, that's great," Goodman said to Metronome magazine about Gray."He's wonderful!”

Gray went from L.A. to New York with Goodman and also found work with bands led by Count Basie and Tadd Dameron. In 1949, Gray led his own recording sessions, which would yield some of his most enduring compositions, especially “Twisted,” Gray’s characteristically loose-and-lively blues tune for which vocalist Annie Ross would write and record surreally witty lyrics. Decades after Gray’s death, Joni Mitchell would extend “Twisted’s” life with her own cover version.

Gray, a slender man, was apparently just as broadly articulate away from his instrument. His range of reading took in Jean-Paul Sartre, Collette and Shakespeare and he was politically engaged enough to speak on behalf of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party and the NAACP.

For much of his early career, Gray kept clear of the drug problems that afflicted such contemporaries as Parker, Gordon, Hawes and many others of his generation. But by the early 1950s, it became clear to Hawes and others that Gray had become “strung out” on heroin. A 1952 recording session in which Gray led a combo featuring Hawes and trumpeter Art Farmer showed that the tenor was still capable of putting out invigorating sounds. But the following two years yielded little in the way of recorded work for Gray, who nonetheless still was able to collect freelance gigs.

One of those jobs was with composer-saxophonist Benny Carter’s big band, which was hired to open the Moulin Rouge, a racially integrated hotel-theater complex in Las Vegas. Gray was reported absent from the band’s late-night concert scheduled for May 25, 1955. The next day, Wardell Gray’s body was found in a weed patch four miles outside town, his neck broken and his head injured.

How Gray died is a matter of conjecture to this day. Some say he overdosed on heroin or been fatally hurt in a drug-induced fall, his body then moved to the desert. Others suspect foul play; perhaps as a result of a bad drug deal, a gambling debt or a racially charged dispute brought about by Gray’s independent streak.

As a leader

Wardell Gray Memorial Albums, Vols. 1 & 2 (Original Jazz Classics)

Wardell Gray, 1946-1950 (Classics)

Wardell Gray, 1951-1955 (Classics)

“The Chase” Sessions

Dexter Gordon, 1943-1947 (Classics)

Dexter Gordon on Dial: The Complete Sessions (Spotlite)

As a sideman

Charlie Parker on Dial: The Complete Sessions (Spotlite/Dial)

Benny Goodman, 1947-1948 (Classics)

Benny Goodman, Benny’s Bop (Hep)

The Complete Fats Navarro on Blue Note and Capitol (Blue Note)

Contributor: Gene Seymour