© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“GIGI GRYCE, a shy, studious musician, barely out of his 'twenties, has been one of the herculean pillars of the modern jazz scene in New York through the 1950s. A composer and arranger, his work has been often heard and deeply felt wherever there is an audience for modern jazz; latterly through his own Jazz Lab, a unit which promises to release the small group from its ten years or more of strict allegiance to the Parker Quintet formula. It is, in the words of his contemporary Quincy Jones, "Always very melodic work, and it has a flowing quality with smoothly moving chord progressions. Also, it comes from that exceptional person, a conscientious composer with innocently fresh and unpretentious ideas."
As a soloist, too, he has been heard, lending a quiet and thoughtful style to the alto-saxophone at a time when the majority of its players are desperately struggling to invest themselves in the late Parker's robes.”
- Raymond Horricks,These Jazzmen of Our Times
Gordon Jack is the author of Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective and frequent contributor to Jazz periodicals such as JazzJournal. He also is extremely generous to the JazzProfiles “editorial staff” in allowing us to feature his well-researched and well-composed writings on these pages.
Alto saxophonist, composer and arranger Gigi Gryce impressed a lot of people with his compositions and his playing while he was on the Jazz scene in the 1950s before he vanished from it in 1961 under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
I’ve always considered Gigi to be right up there with Benny Golson, Horace Silver, Sonny Clark, Elmo Hope, and Tadd Dameron in his ability to construct intriguing and interesting modern Jazz compositions that are fun to listen to and fun to play on.
Gordon’s piece on Gigi first appeared in the August 2018 edition of JazzJournal and you can locate more information about the magazine by going here.
© - Gordon Jack/JazzJournal; used with permission; copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“In a short performing career Gigi Gryce worked with some of the most influential musicians on the dynamic New York jazz scene of the fifties including Clifford Brown, Benny Golson, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach. During that time his compositions like Minority, Social Call, and Nica’s Tempo became jazz standards. However in 1961 he mysteriously dropped out of the music scene entirely to become a teacher in the public school system in the Bronx where he was known by his Islamic name Basheer Qusim.
George General Gryce Jnr. was born in Pensacola, Florida on 28 November 1925. He came from a close and supportive family of African Methodist Episcopalians who attended services diligently. Music was important to his parents so Gigi and his siblings – four sisters and one brother - were encouraged to learn the piano. Church music was the order of the day as popular music and jazz were frowned upon. Thanks to the Works Progress Administration which was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Gigi began learning the clarinet when he was studying at the Booker T. Washington high school. His teacher was Raymond Sheppard who apparently had the best jazz orchestra in Pensacola. Gryce became so proficient that he won the state band competition for his clarinet solo on the William Tell Overture. When he graduated from high school he worked in the local shipyard and played with Sheppard until he was drafted in 1944. He joined the navy band at the Great Lakes Naval Training Centre which had been founded by John Philip Sousa in 1917. While in the service he had his first exposure to bebop when he bought the Charlie Parker/Dizzy Gillespie recordings of Hot House and Salt Peanuts.
With the aid of the G.I. bill he enrolled at Boston’s Conservatory in 1947. He also studied privately with Serge Chaloff’s mother, the legendary Madame Margaret Chaloff. A partial list of her students would include Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, George Shearing, Ralph Burns, Leonard Bernstein and Chick Corea. By now a thoroughly well-schooled musician he began acquainting himself with Nicolas Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns – a book that many other jazz musicians like John Coltrane, Pete Christlieb and Bob Cooper have found to be invaluable.
While studying at the Conservatory he was living with Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard and their basement was the scene for regular jam sessions with visiting stars from New York like Charlie Parker, Clark Terry, Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. Gryce who became particularly close to Parker told writer Robert Reisner, “I knew him as a gentleman and a scholar. He was generous to an extreme”. Many other local musicians used to come along to play like Serge Chaloff, Charlie Mariano, Alan Dawson and Joe Gordon. It is possible that Dick Twardzik who was working with Chaloff at the time and was another of Madame Chaloff’s students would have occasionally been in attendance but I have found no evidence to support this.
Although singer Margie Anderson recorded Gigi Gryce’s You’ll Always Be The One I Love in 1950, it was really Stan Getz who introduced Gryce’s music to the wider jazz public. Working at Boston’s HI-Hat in 1951 opposite Gryce’s quartet the tenor-man invited Gigi to bring some of his originals to a rehearsal. Thoroughly impressed, he recorded Gryce’s Melody Express, Yvette, Wildwood and Mosquito Knees for the Roost label later that year. Gigi had also shown Stan an intriguing blues dedicated to the lady who became his wife – Eleanor. It can be heard as part of the Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid arrangement Getz recorded at Boston’s Storyville club in October 1951. Over the years he used it as a theme-song and it became better known as Stan’s Blues. In December 1952 he recorded another Gryce original (Hymn To The Orient) on a classic set of ballads for Verve. All this material can be found on The Complete Recordings Of The Stan Getz Quintet With Jimmy Raney (Mosaic MD3-131).
Gigi left Boston and moved to Manhattan where he made his recording debut in April 1953 with a Max Roach group featuring Hank Mobley and Idrees Sulieman. Of more interest was a Howard McGhee session the following month which included two of his originals – Futurity and Shabozz. (Blue Note BLP 5024).The former is a relaxed line based on There Will Never Be Another You inspiring Gigi to probably his finest solo on the date. Although he does not solo on his next recording with Tadd Dameron, it is significant because of the presence of Clifford Brown and Benny Golson who would have close personal relationships with Gryce over the years. He and the trumpeter had similar lifestyles which did not include drinking, smoking or taking drugs. Gigi became godfather to Clifford Brown Junior and in 1958 he was the Best Man at Benny Golson’s marriage in Washington D.C.
In 1953 Tadd Dameron took a band which included Johnny Coles, Cecil Payne, Percy Heath and Philly Joe Jones along with Gryce, Golson and Brown for a summer residency at the Paradise Club in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They backed variety acts there and also played for dancers. On one occasion Sammy Davis Jnr. who was appearing at Skinny D’Amato’s 500 Club nearby sat in on drums. (The 500 Club was where Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis started out in 1946 and it eventually became a home-from-home for Sinatra and the Rat Pack.) Towards the end of the residency Quincy Jones arranged for Gryce, Brown and Golson to join the Lionel Hampton band that already boasted a number of young musicians like Art Farmer, Jimmy Cleveland, Buster Cooper, George Wallington, Annie Ross and Alan Dawson. Hampton (“The first rock & roll bandleader” according to Jones) would often have his musicians marching up and down the aisles at the Apollo theatre in Harlem and elsewhere playing The Saints, Flying Home or Hamp’s Boogie Woogie. That sort of showmanship did not go down too well with some of the newer band members, especially Brown, Gryce and Cleveland. Gigi appeared on Clifford’s debut as a leader just before the Hampton band left for their 1953 European tour. One of the stand-out tracks on the album is the trumpeter’s two choruses on Hymn To The Orient which is taken a little faster than Stan Getz’s version. Gigi has a sensitive half-chorus on Quincy Jones’s Brownie Eyes (Blue Note BLP 5032).
Lionel Hampton, encouraged by Gladys his formidable wife had a reputation of being less than generous with salaries but the lure of three months in Europe was enough for everyone except Benny Golson to overcome their reservations about the money. With its JATP-like atmosphere of excitement, the band proved to be hugely popular with European audiences. Standing ovations began at the first two concerts in Oslo where 2000 people attended and apparently continued for the rest of the tour. The Hamptons made it clear that nobody was allowed to record while they were in Europe without the leader and anyone found breaking this rule would be sent back to the States. Gryce, Brown and Cleveland found that European producers were desperate to record them and the musicians for their part were just as keen to supplement their band income. They tried, but Lionel and Gladys could not prevent numerous clandestine recordings taking place.
Henri Renaud produced a big band session in Paris with Gigi as the leader which included most of the Hampton band supplemented by local French musicians. The highlight was Gigi’s elaborate orchestral feature for Clifford Brown titled Brown Skins which after a slow, dramatic opening finds the trumpeter launching forth on a stunning up tempo examination of Cherokee –one of Brown’s favourite sequences (Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-359-2).
The next day, Brown recorded again with a sextet featuring Gryce, Jimmy Gourley, Henri Renaud, Pierre Michelot and Jean-Louis Viale. Gigi’s Blue Concept was introduced (later to be recorded by both Art Farmer and Donald Byrd) together with All The things You Are which has a fine improvised counter melody from Gryce behind Clifford’s theme statement. Goofin’ With Me is a relaxed theme-less jam on Indiana (Original Jazz Classics OJCCD 358-2). Hampton’s band then left for a series of concerts in Dusseldorf, Munich, Frankfurt, Hamburg and Berlin. On their return to Paris the Gryce-Brown sextet recorded four Gryce originals including Minority and Salute To The Bandbox which is based on I’ll Remember April (Original Jazz Classics OJCCD 358-2). Minority became Gryce’s most popular composition with over 100 recordings listed on Tom Lord’s discography by artists like Art Farmer, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans and Lee Konitz.
Hampton’s European tour which also included North African dates in Algiers and Oran was extremely successful. By the time they returned to NYC in November 1953 some of the sidemen threatened to go to the union over salary disputes. In a 1991 Jimmy Cleveland Cadence interview he said, “We got shafted with the money… (Hampton) would always do that”. For his part, the leader intended filing charges with the AFM against the musicians for recordings made in Paris using arrangements from his library without permission.
Early in 1954 Gryce and Art Farmer formed a quintet that worked quite extensively at Birdland and the Café Bohemia in NYC as well as out of town venues in Chicago, Baltimore and Boston. The following year Gigi recorded with Oscar Pettiford in an all-star group that included Ernie Royal, Donald Byrd, Bob Brookmeyer, Jerome Richardson, Don Abney and Osie Johnson. Oscar was the musical director of the Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village and Bohemia After Dark with its distinctive modal bridge is one of the album’s highlights (Bethlehem BET 6017-2). Brookmeyer told me that Oscar’s group also made an appearance on TV. Around this time Gigi organised his own publishing company (Melotone Music) in partnership with Benny Golson to handle their royalties.
In October 1955 he recorded four titles with Thelonious Monk proving to be perfectly at home in the pianist’s challenging environment. Accompanied by Percy Heath and Art Blakey he holds his own on Monk’s Shuffle Boil, Brake’s Sake and the fiendishly difficult Gallop’s Gallop (Savoy Records SV-0126). His Nica’s Tempo was debuted at the session and he later expanded it in a recording with Oscar Pettiford’s big band. At Oscar’s date he also wrote a feature for the amazing French horn players Julius Watkins and David Amram titled Two French Fries (Properbox 5002). Oscar’s band performed at Birdland and the Café Bohemia but eventually it disbanded due to a lack of work. Years later Jimmy Cleveland said, “One of the highlights of my life was playing with Oscar Pettiford’s band”.
Like the rest of the jazz world, Gryce had been impressed by the provocative tone colours and subtle dynamics created by the influential Miles Davis nonet and in late 1955 he recorded using an identical line-up. His charming Social Call with a lyric by Jon Hendricks was included as a feature for the husky-voiced Ernestine Anderson (Savoy Records SV-0126).
Metronome nominated Gigi Gryce, Mal Waldron and Donald Byrd as “The New Stars For 1956” which was the year Gryce started working with the Teddy Charles Tentet. The tentet performed innovative new material by writers like Mal Waldron, Gil Evans, George Russell, and Bob Brookmeyer and it made a well- received appearance at Newport that year. In 1956 he formed his Jazz lab Quintet initially with Idrees Sulieman and one of their first engagements was at The Nut Club in Greenwich Village where they appeared opposite Zoot Sims’ quartet. Donald Byrd soon replaced Sulieman and his sparkling ideas and warm, Clifford Brown-like sound were a perfect contrast to Gigi’s delicate alto lines. In 2006 Lonehill reissued a particularly fine example of the group’s work with a CD benefiting from the presence of the immaculate Hank Jones. It includes the popular Minority which opens with an extended ostinato - a favourite device of the Clifford Brown - Max Roach quintet. Another of Gryce’s originals – Wake Up – finds him quoting extensively from Denzil Best’s Wee aka Allen’s Alley in the second chorus (LHJ 10255).
In 1958 Gigi was one of the jazz musicians seen in the iconic Art Kane picture in Esquire magazine. For the next couple of years he continued playing and arranging on sessions with Betty Carter, Benny Golson, Jimmy Cleveland, Curtis Fuller and Randy Weston. However, something happened around 1960 because to the surprise of many in the jazz community, Gigi Gryce stopped playing entirely and dropped out of the public eye. There has been speculation that he was having business difficulties with his publishing company. Public taste of course was changing and clubs were closing. He may also have been unsympathetic to the freedoms being explored by the new generation of jazz musicians.
From 1963 and for the next 20 years he worked as a teacher in the public school system in Brooklyn and the Bronx. He had become a Muslim in the fifties and he used his Islamic name (Basheer Qusim) when teaching. The Community Elementary School No.53 was later renamed the Basheer Qusim/Gigi Gryce School in recognition of his long service. During this period, there was a surprising addendum to his musical career because his Jazz Dance Suite was featured in the 1972 documentary “Lenny Bruce Without Tears”.
George Gigi Gryce Jnr. died on March 14th. 1983 in his home town of Pensacola, Florida. Sadly, nobody from the jazz world attended his funeral.”
Noal Cohen & Michael Fitzgerald – Rat Race Blues. The Musical Life Of Gigi Gryce. Berkeley Hills Books.
Nick Catalano -- Clifford Brown. The Life And Art Of The Legendary Jazz Trumpeter. Oxford University Press.
Raymond Horricks – These Jazzmen Of Our Time. Victor Gollancz.