Wardell Gray

Wardell Gray (1921-1955), was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. His first job as a musician was with Isaac Goodwin’s small band. This group played local dances. Dorothy Patton, an aspiring pianist, heard him while he auditioned for another job. She hired him. After one happy year, he was hired by Jimmy Raschel’s band. (Raschel had previously recorded a few sides in the 1930s, but he never did so again). Then he joined the Benny Carew Band in Grand Rapids. Jeanne Goings met Wardell around this time. They had an infant girl, Anita, in January 1941. Wardell was then able to move back to Detroit. Wardell took his tenor seat at the Congo Club’s house band in 1940 when Stack Walton passed the baton to Johnny Allen. The Congo Club was Detroit’s main black entertainment district. It was a popular spot for nightlife with a highly-regarded band that included Teddy Edwards and Howard McGhee. The Three Sixes were just up the road from Congo. Jeri Walker, a New Jersey-based young dancer, was in the chorus. Wardell and Jeanne were separating, but he and Jeri soon became close friends. Jeri was acquainted with Earl Hines and, when the Hines band arrived in Detroit in late 1943 she convinced Earl to hire Wardell on alto. There wasn’t a tenor vacant at that time. This was a huge break as the Hines Orchestra was well-known throughout the country and had been a nursery for many of the emerging bebop musicians like Dizzy Gillespie or Charlie Parker. Wardell was able to enjoy a stimulating and lively experience with the Hines band, even though most of them had already left. In 1946, Wardell left Hines and settled in Los Angeles. Soon after his arrival, he recorded his first session under his own label. Wardell was supported by Dodo Marmarosa, the pianist on this quartet session for Eddie Laguna’s Sunset record. There were some great sides to the date, especially Easy Swing. A reissue of the entire session is available, with alternate takes (2). However, a selection of tracks is available on (12). Wardell was a member of a variety of bands in Los Angeles. He also worked with Benny Carter, and the small group that accompanied Billy Eckstine on his West Coast tour. The real buzz in LA was at the time in Central Avenue clubs, which were still flourishing after the massive wartime defense spending. Wardell was at his best when he played in after-hours sessions at clubs such as Jack’s Basket Room and Lovejoy’s. His early success in these sessions led Ross Russell, who was organizing a studio session for his Dial label. Wardell performed admirably in the session, which was intended to showcase Charlie Parker. However, Wardell did not seem overawed by Parker. Wardell’s tenor battles against Dexter Gordon were held in Central Avenue clubs. They were perfectly matched. Wardell’s smooth delivery and light sound were more than enough to match Dexter’s blustery, loud sound. Their tenor jousts became a symbol of the Central Avenue scene. They became well-known and Ross Russell managed get them to record Wardell’s first national recording. Wardell continued to work in single sessions in 1947, apart from a brief stint with Al Killian’s little band (some Jubilee recordings of this group show Wardell in great form). Wardell impressed Benny Goodman at a concert in 1947. Goodman then hired Wardell to lead a small group that he was starting as part of his experimentation with bebop. Although Goodman was previously critical of bop music, he stated that Wardell is “if he plays bop, that would be great.” He’s wonderful!” Goodman formed a new group with the young Swedish clarinettist Ake Stan Hasselgard and Teddy Wilson. It opened in Philadelphia at Frank Palumbo’s Click Club in May 1948. The group’s playing shows little bop, with Wardell’s phrasing being the most noticeable and Mary Lou Williams’ arrangements being the least. Although the group did not succeed financially, Goodman ended up dissolving it. Wardell, though, was well-established on the East Coast as a rising musician. In late 1948/early 49, Wardell worked with the Count Basie Orchestra. He also recorded with Tadd Dameron in excellent quintet and quartet sessions. One of Wardell’s most well-known recordings, “Twisted”, was recorded during the quartet session. It was also used to create Annie Ross’s best-selling vocalese version. Wardell left Basie to go back to Benny Goodman in 1949. Wardell found it increasingly difficult to live in the Goodman group. His marriage to Jeri was also ending. Wardell was unhappy because Goodman was not an easy employer. This, along with constant traveling, made Wardell more unhappy. Wardell’s recordings of the band, as well as studio sessions and live airshots of Wardell, are below his best standards. Wardell’s outstanding work on this session with Detroit musicians shows that it was Wardell’s surroundings rather than Wardell’s inability to solve the problem. Wardell was reunited with Count Basie after he left Goodman. Basie had given in to economic pressures, and had disbanded his big band. Wardell joined the septet that included Buddy DeFranco and Clark Terry, and Wardell joined them probably in July 1950. He found this setting to be much more comfortable and the group had some success. Airshots from that time show a relaxed, swinging group with no weak links. Wardell’s personal and musical life were also improved during this time. Jeri was finally overthrown and he was able to divorce Wardell and marry Dorothy. They settled in Los Angeles with Dorothy’s daughter, Paula. Wardell decided to move to Los Angeles to be closer to his family, despite the fact that Basie had now increased his group to a large size. Although Wardell was perfectly suited to Wardell’s style of swing, the Basie rhythm section was also a great fit for Wardell. However, musical fans may regret Wardell’s decision. Wardell had to travel often for work because there was not enough work in Los Angeles (for black musicians anyway). He was happy in his home life, and one interview he gave to the British Melody Maker showed this. Around this time, his recording sessions began to decrease. However, a live session with Dexter Gordon that recreated the excitement of Central Avenue and a studio session featuring Art Farmer are fine examples of Wardell playing. There are signs that Wardell was losing interest in his work in 1951/52. This is evident in a second live session with Dexter Gordon in February 1952. It seems that Wardell may have become disillusioned in the music business. His performance at the Haig Club’s live jam session shows that he was still capable. However, such sessions were now rare and his more common work was recorded with Teddy Charles. He also appears to have been involved in the drugs scene around this time. It is not clear how this could have occurred given his maturity and his knowledge of the consequences. However, friends said that it was starting to take its toll. His playing became less fluid. A January 1955 studio session, which would be his final, showed strong, but unsubtle playing. Wardell was still employed and contacted him when Benny Carter was hired in May 1955 to play the Moulin Rouge. This was a new black entertainment venue in Las Vegas. Wardell did not attend rehearsals when the club opened. He was then found with his neck fractured on a deserted strip near Las Vegas. Wardell Gray was already dead. According to most accounts, there was only a cursory investigation of the circumstances. The verdict was accidental death. There were many rumors that circulated at the time, some more absurd than others, but no convincing explanation has been offered for Wardell’s sudden death. You can also access user-contributed text under the Creative Commons By -SA License.

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