Saturday, October 10, 2020

Remembering Wardell Gray [1921-1955] - Part 2 -The Michael James Essay

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“It is greatly to the credit of Michael James that he has managed, in the course of these essays, to avoid the pitfalls of facile theorizing and academicism in its less attractive aspect. While never being less than generous to the creative talents of the performers, he shows a concern with the social conditions in which they operate and is able to see that modern jazz artists have been considerably affected by the uncertainties of the society of which they are a part. 

It would do Mr. James an injustice if one gave the impression that he was using jazz as a springboard to advance personal social theories, but it is refreshing to find a critic whose prime concern is with the content of a musician's work. 

He has listened very attentively to records and, when possible, to public performances by the musicians about whom he writes and has probed deeply into their intentions and achievements. His method is not without its dangers, for, relying as it does on a mainly subjective approach, there is invariably the temptation to project one's own ideas onto the subjects of the essays. However, in the main he has been successful in avoiding this.”

- Albert J. McCarthy, FOREWORD

The Jazz writings of Michael James have graced these pages previously with two rare articles from the Jazz Monthly magazine on Hank Mobley which you can locate by going here and here.

Michael’s prose is from a time and training that emphasized “academic” grammar and syntax rather than a looser and more fluid “journalistic” approach.

It’s heavy reading and requires a slow-paced attention; Michael’s writing makes the reader stop and think in order to fully grasp and digest its meaning.

But if you make the effort, the reward is gaining the insights and observations from one who has thought long and hard about the music and its makers and has something very valuable to say about both of them.

This essay on Wardell Gray is from another rare publication: Michael James, Ten Modern Jazzmen: An Appraisal of the Recorded [London: 1961].

In addition to a full description of Gray stylistic development from ca. 1945 until his death in 1955, this chapter affords the reader significant details about the often murky period in the evolution of Bebop in the years immediately following WWII.

“The question of influence in jazz is one that has drawn many writers in the past and will doubtless continue to do so in the future, since the expansion of the music in a geographical sense, with the consequent multiplication of soloists, will certainly afford even wider opportunities for comparison. 

While this extension of jazz boundaries will most probably entail no increase in stature of the best artists, and while the amelioration of general standards will perhaps lessen the chances of a truly original talent appearing, the authority of the foremost men will obviously be greater than before, since there will be more embryo soloists to absorb their influence, and, as far as one can judge, a yet more thorough dissemination of style through the medium of the recording studio. 

The contemporary jazz scene is marked by an often disproportionate reverence for the artists of a preceding generation: many altoists, for instance, seem mesmerized by Parker's genius, and the phrasing of Gillespie or Davis stamps the output of a considerable number of trumpeters. Desirable as this might well be in the light of the place these three hold in the main jazz tradition, there are too many cases where their teachings have not been properly digested, and where the disciple has preferred to copy the gestures of his master rather than attempt to grasp the essence of his work. 

I have chosen these few remarks to preface this article, because I feel that the recorded work of Wardell Gray can serve in the present circumstances as an invaluable lesson. Several of the younger soloists do not appear to have the adventurous spirit which has distinguished their counterparts of previous decades. This may be due in part to the use many of them have made of the legacies of the bop era. A Dave Schildkraut or a Charlie Mariano may echo the phrases of the Bird, but such offerings are no more than the shadow cast by his greatness; and this ineptitude of theirs may be the upshot of an inability to comprehend the truth that art, to be alive, must be whole. Blinded by an understandable admiration, they have failed to perceive that in transposing his mannerisms they are achieving precisely nothing, because they have never got beyond the imitative stage, and therefore have never progressed to an integrated expression. 

In other words, they have not yet realized that a model can be the means of fostering the strength of their own work. They have seen the brilliant exterior and been fascinated, but they have not succeeded in penetrating the stylistic surface to lay their hands upon the wealth that lies within. For them influence betrays its meaning. How great a difference there is between their mimicry and the intelligence displayed by Wardell Gray in his choice and exploitation of examples on which to pattern his style. Impressed in the first place by the polished assurance of Lester Young, later seduced by the fantastic invention of Charlie Parker, Gray consistently used these two models as a means to an end, the projection of his own personality through the improvised solo.

Several phrases may be singled out in Young's recorded solos with the Basie band of the late 'thirties which find their echoes throughout Gray's work, and are especially noticeable in the early part of his career as it is represented on record. The release in his chorus on Jumpin' at the Woodside is particularly to the point here, but in actual fact it is easy to discover details of similarity if not of identity in most of the elder tenorman's improvised contributions to these celebrated sides. On Exactly Like You and the earlier Roseland Shuffle, Young's ability to swing without recourse to the violence of most of his contemporaries set the pattern which was to shape Gray's rhythmic conception less than a decade later. It was this facet of his style rather than the even more revolutionary distribution of phrase on Swinging the Blues or One O'Clock Jump which was to have the greater hold over the younger man. 

While Parker seems to have been primarily interested in the frequent freedom of Young's melodic line in relation to the basic beat, Gray appears to have been absorbed by his propensity for phrasing on the beat without indulging in the traditional stress of tone or volume which would have broken up the flow of his improvisation. In any case, it is this aspect of his work which is the more apparent in Gray's soloing on the Hines 1946 records. The tone, too, has been an important factor in his development, just as it was with Parker. Here again, though, there is a need to make an important reservation. Parker, in the most intense of his moods, developed the lightness of his predecessor's tone to the pitch of shrillness; Gray, although working along the same lines, sought to rival Young's mobility, but only very rarely gave vent to the piercing note that serves so often as the climax to the altoist's phrases. 

The mere fact that Parker generally played alto while Gray played tenor is of no small significance here, but it is noticeable from the former's few records where he performs on the larger horn that the tonal influence of Young was quite different in his case. Both on the 1947 Savoy session and on the 1953 sides with Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins the Bird's tone has the edginess latent in Young's early work with Basie, and, oddly enough, more to the fore in his recent recordings, an edginess which is never less than an eccentricity in the playing of Wardell Gray. 

For the latter concentrated upon the soft rounded quality of sound which marked Young's tone in the middle and lower registers of his instrument, and strove over the years to retain this external polish, at the same time bringing a greater depth and consistency to each note. By the time he cut these solos with the Hines band he had already made considerable progress in this respect, and the numerous examples we have of his work in the following year suggest that by 1947 this especial trend had reached its fulfilment. 

On the February session with a Parker small group and on the Gene Norman concert dates of the following months his tone is distinguished not only by its smoothness but by a consistency which is present irrespective of the duration or the pitch of the note played. This is one of the reasons why his music invariably transmits a feeling of relaxation and why his expression never has the nervous quality common to most of the young soloists of the same era; yet at the same time he is uninterested by the vehemence and unbridled ejaculation which is so great an asset to the dramatic force of Coleman Hawkins's or Herschel Evans's playing. In matters of phrasing and of tone he has been inspired by Lester Young, yet he has adapted these influences in close accord with his own personality to forge a new and original style.

Perhaps it was the presence of Parker on the West Coast in early 1947 which first impressed Gray to the extent of modifying his musical expression. Already, of course, he was aware of the importance of the Minton developments, and his playing showed his allegiance to the new trends; but there was as yet a definite gulf between the lazy but polished nonchalance of his melodic line and the more intricate invention of those musicians constituting the spearhead of the movement. As late as the spring of 1947, two months after the session which produced such excellent sides as Cheers, Stupendous, etc., his playing on the concert transcription of One O'clock Jump betrays no overt Parker influence. It was not until the following year that whole passages from the Parker vocabulary began to crop up in his improvisation. His solo on the poorly recorded Stoned, a quartet side made during the 1948 A.F.M. ban, has something of the altoist's searing attack, together with a manifest similarity of phrase. 

Likewise, his contributions, restricted as they are, to the Goodman small group discs of the same period attest the derivative quality of much of his work. I use the adjective in no pejorative sense, however: in employing the same figures which constantly recur in slightly diverse form throughout Parker's solos, the tenorist used them with quite dissimilar effect. The difference is above all one of construction. Parker would string his phrases out with little respect for the traditional four- or eight-bar divisions, and with the lack of any simple kind of balance in the arrangement of a chorus, his playing more often than not gave the impression of instability and nervous anxiety. His predilection for rests, the stridency of his tone, and his licence with regard to the beat all tended to accentuate this effect. None of these features is shared by Gray; and it is typical of his taste that he adopts certain phrases in a way that conforms with the relative simplicity of his construction and the rounded compactness of his tone. In any of his choruses the borrowed figure is made to fit in with its immediate context, and is saturated with the general flavour of his musical personality. 

Gray absorbed much of Parker in roughly the same fashion that an outstanding jazzman makes a popular melody his own, usurping the artistic rights of its composer, but it must be stressed that the transmutation in this case was a far harder one, since the average Parker phrase has infinitely more character than the vapid concoction of the commercial songwright. The first eight bars of Gray's third chorus on Matter and Mind, a performance from the same session as Stoned, shows just how complete this musical confiscation could be in practice, however obviously Parker-based the phrase employed. Gray was wise enough to take from the altoist only what had value as far as he personally was concerned. The actual melodic detail fell into this category, but the tone with which it was played and the place it held in the framework of the Parker solo did not. 

It is a measure of his perspicacity that he was able to appreciate this distinction, for so many genuinely gifted improvisers have fallen into the trap of attempting to absorb all Parker's traits. Some excellent examples of his achievement in this respect are provided by the discs he made in Detroit with a local rhythm section on 25th April 1950. The blues — Treadin’ and Grayhound — must be classed with his finest work. The tremendous drive, fluency, and relaxation of his playing beggar description; no words can adequately convey the unremitting swing which seems actually to thrive on the complexity of the extemporized line. It is as if he rejoices in his power to make the most involved figures swing with the insistence of an unadorned riff played by the Basie ensemble. 

To assert that these records contain his finest performances would be dogmatic, but the supreme confidence of his playing reveals the thoroughness with which he had assimilated his two major influences, and demonstrates the perfection of the synthesis — a synthesis made possible only by his powers of original invention. If he drew in turn upon elements of both these styles, the success of this appropriation was ensured solely by his ability to superimpose on any harmonic basis phrases fashioned and concerted in a way at once personal and absorbing. The greater number of his recorded solos, once heard, seem to possess the rare stamp of inevitability which marks out the original artist in any sphere. Without this necessary imaginative core, Gray could never have made use of his influences with any degree of success.

In any case the continuing evolution of his style was not necessarily accompanied by an increase in musical merit. There is no definite connexion between this expansion of phraseology and the standard of his work. Again, the impress of Parker is not evident on all his later recordings. There is very little trace of such an influence in his solos on the LP he made for Gene Norman with a group of Ellingtonians; nor is his improvisation on the jam session date organized by Granz in 1953 marked by any mannerisms of this kind. It is more than possible that the patterns laid down by the rhythm sections in both instances were responsible for his adherence to a rather less complicated line, though the continuity and length of his phrases tend to conceal the austere character of the support he receives. Bellson's failure to complement Clark Terry's trumpet work on The Jeep is Jumpin' is not calculated to give the effect of a musical entity, but the simplicity of his drumming is no drawback when the tenorist is playing. I do not wish to imply that the lack of rhythmic complexity was an adverse influence upon Gray's playing; in point of fact, his solos on the Gene Norman session are by and large superior to those he plays on the Clef date. It is merely that in both these cases his phrase selection appears to be guided by the immediate musical environment, an interesting feature which indicates the elasticity of his temperament, and also shows that the evolution over the years in his mode of expression was far from being a rigid one.

Just as the quality of his recorded performances varied only slightly over the last ten years of his life, the content of his work hardly changed at all. It seems likely that the stability of character which is evoked by the even temper of his improvisations ensured the consistently high standard of his playing. Gray is a pronounced exception to most of the major soloists who rose to prominence at the same time in so far as the body of his documented work suggests a state of well-being. 

Whatever the implications in the playing of the other members of the modern school — and these, to put it mildly, are hardly governed by a spirit of optimism — Gray was untouched by the emotional aura of his period. Yet if he does not deal in sadness and anxiety, such a freedom from the gloomier preoccupations of the creative artist does not impugn his sense of reality. The gaiety of a Shorty Rogers is rendered suspect by its unfailing cheeriness, and bears too obvious an affinity to the happy ending of the Hollywood romance for us to accept it without serious reservation; the pulse of Wardell Gray's work is altogether a deeper one. There is nothing theatrical in the vigorous exhilaration of his playing: he is guided by an inner compulsion rather than by the character of the theme in hand. If I have cited relatively few of the sides he made, it is that his emotive range is a very restricted one; but the spirit which flows through his work is perhaps the most vital one of all, that of pure joy. 

Granted, there were times when the acrid savour of discontent crept into his expression. The brashness of tone in Twisted and in certain other recordings of the same period hints at a possible exasperation with the very limited approval his efforts were then receiving. Yet even on these sides the sturdy decision of his playing betokens the force of character which never ceased to be the dynamic centre of his style. Not once did he deviate from the forthright mode which, typifying all Ms work, is as evident in a ballad interpretation after the manner of Easy Living as in an up-tempo blues such as Farmer's Market. His darkest moods, infrequent as they are, never undermine the air of conviction which pervades every solo he recorded.

Though, the equable climate of his art allows for only a limited scope as far as the emotions are concerned, and though his work is remarkable for the consistency of the feeling which runs through it, the actual imaginative faculty of this generously endowed musician was rivalled only by the ease of his execution. Blue Lou, the justly famed performance from one of the 1947 concerts, indicates how he was able to improvise at length with not the slightest embarrassment to his creative powers. There are certainly resemblances between his different choruses, but he rarely repeats a whole melodic figure, and never has recourse to the phrenetic note reiteration that is too often the resort of the lesser soloist in extended solos of this kind. An interesting point about his work In these conditions is that he hardly builds towards a climax in the way that Hawkins or Lucky Thompson will increase the atmosphere to a peak of intensity. He generally prefers to achieve a less spectacular but just as memorable effect by the simple expedient of adding chorus to chorus, each one conceived and played in as elegant yet decisive a manner as the last. This treatment is also given to the tunes recorded in the studio: even on the conventional three-minute recording, with far less time at his disposal, he seldom varies his approach. The tempo makes little or no difference. On A Sinner Kissed an Angel, a ballad from the 1950 Detroit session, the charm of the piece stems from the adroit manipulation of melody rather than from the slight increase in emphasis noticeable in the final eight bars of the performance.

So impressive is the fertility of his imagination that it is easier to choose from the catalogue of his work the few sides which do not measure up to the rest of his records than to single out any particular solos as the better examples of his artistry. Like J. J. Johnson, his instrumental command was so developed that he could hardly make a bad recording; but the sides privately recorded for Eddie Laguna in 1950 do not share the continuity of line that is perhaps the most astonishing aspect of his playing. One for Prez illustrates the chief weakness: it is not so much that he gropes for ideas, but the phrases he does play have not the same logical interrelation we find elsewhere in his recorded performances ; there are one or two striking phrases worthy of his best work — for instance those which he plays immediately after Red Calender's bass chorus — but his contributions as a whole lack the cohesion that was the hallmark of his style. Nonetheless, even on this session the precision and swing of his playing suggest the qualities of confidence and self-assurance which are apparent in every one of his records. If his phrases are a little disjointed, his invention not up to the usual standard, there is no doubting the forceful resilience of his personality as it comes through in the music.

When one considers how arduous are the working conditions of the jazzman, especially if he happens to be coloured, it seems all the more surprising that the warmth of Gray's playing did not diminish to any marked extent throughout his career. He played with a variety of groups, and travelled quite as extensively as the average top-flight jazzman. Until 1951, when he moved to the West Coast, the pattern of his existence was no less checkered than is usual, and his journeyings with Basie and Goodman groups, not to mention those he led himself, must have exposed him to both the fatigue and the insults that are the lot of the itinerant Negro artist. 

Yet if his style became rather more aggressive, his tone a trifle harder and his lines less sinuous, there was no lessening of the humour which was always latent in his playing. The concert at Pasadena, California, recorded in February 1952 shows this well enough. If he never found the kind of public recognition he most certainly deserved, his music gives no indication that he was contemptuous of the society he lived in. Only the purist would fail to smile at the high spirits he displays in this musical duel with Dexter Gordon. Gray was always a master of the four-bar exchange, and only on one recording date — the February 1947 session with Parker and McGhee — was his brilliance overshadowed; the surprising thing is that he outshone his rivals by sheer musical invention, as witness the dextrous way he balances Vido Musso's rough-hewn phrases on the 1947 California Conquest. Yet his poise never degenerated into affectation, nor did he ever retreat behind the reassuring screen of musical virtuosity. His emotions are evident for all to see, and if he shared the urbanity of a Benny Carter, like this musician he was never infatuated by the attractions of elegance alone.

Given the unfailing confidence of his work, it is no wonder that he has few followers in the present jazz scene. Frank Foster has something of his phrasing, but seems uninterested in the relaxation that was undeniably his; Bill Holman, one of the Kenton alumni, has this same relaxation, but shows only a fraction of his élan and imagination. Twentieth-century society's chief distinguishing mark is its awareness of insecurity and the ephemeral nature of human endeavour, and it is natural, I suppose, that an art form which is in some ways more representative than any other of contemporary afflictions should be unattracted by his overt self-assurance. Yet when, in 1955, he met his death in the most mysterious of circumstances, the emotive gamut of modern jazz was appreciably lessened. Few other modernists had brought a comparable spirit of exultation to their music. The official verdict, with its assumption that Gray was addicted to heroin, finds no more confirmation in the vivacity of his work than it did with his employer and admirer Benny Carter, who denied knowledge of any addiction on the tenorist's part. It is ironic that a musician whose every solo speaks of the joy of living should have met such an end as his, but the manner of his death emphasizes once again the hectic strains imposed on the majority of practising jazz musicians and the drastic steps they too often take to escape them.

The history of jazz provides several instances of men who worked an original style out to its furthest limits with such thoroughness that no disciple could hope to add anything to their achievements. The true geniuses — Armstrong, Hawkins, Young, Parker — do not fall within this classification since their work in its range and variety points in numberless directions. In contrast, artists like Tommy Ladnier, Teddy Wilson, Erroll Garner, and Wardell Gray, though lacking the superabundant powers of the foregoing musicians, have carried a personal mode of expression to the pitch of completeness. Their example, to be beneficial, must be one of manner rather than of means. A young musician would be foolish to try consciously to assimilate the work of any one of them in its entirety, but there is much to be learned from their wisdom of approach, the insight they have shown in forging a style which is both different from what has gone before and integrated in its uniqueness. Though he made wide use of details which were not of his own devising, Gray's individuality cannot be questioned. When he died, the modern jazz scene lost a man whose powers of imagination and execution, impressive as they were, had always been at one with the infectious fervour of his art.”

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