Saturday, December 19, 2020

Remembering Wardell Gray [1921-1955] - Part 3 - the Herbie Butterfield Essay

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

“The death of Wardell Gray has not been completely cleared up but it is not for us to attempt to solve any mysteries here. …. His life, rather than his death, is what concerns us.

Whatever he played swung, for primarily Wardell was a swinger. Moving along at up-tempo, he would still exhort the rhythm section to ‘bear down.’"

- Ira Gitler, Jazz author and critic

“We remember Wardell Gray, then, for his gaiety of temper and for his unremitting swing; above all his is a danceable sound. His sonority was more forthright and open than Lester Young's, although from this it should not be inferred that his tone had much in common with the weighty eloquence of the Hawkins school. There is never any suggestion of strain, no impression that he is heaving both his lungs into his instrument. Like Young, he withheld his attack, so that there is a basis of effortless ease and lightness in his tone, which is not discernible in Hawk's followers. But around this lightness he managed to create a final product of a more echoing and assertive sonority, an essentially outgoing sound, which differentiates him immediately from most other tenormen,....”

- Herbie Butterfield

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles’ initial effort to help remember and commemorate Wardell Gray on these pages began with The Ira Gitler Prestige Notes [Part 1] and followed with an essay on him from a rather rare publication: Michael James, Ten Modern Jazzmen: An Appraisal of the Recorded [London: 1961] which constituted Part 2.

We now continue with Part 3 which is made up of the Herbie Butterfield article entitled Wardell Gray. It appeared in the October 1961 issue of the Jazz Journal. It could also be considered as a rarity of sorts for while there are some fine pieces about Wardell in Jazz literature, getting a hold of a copy of them is not always easy.

Fortunately, I belong to a Jazz chat group with a membership that is made up of many kind and caring people from all over the world who have come to my aid on many occasions.

One such Jazz buddy lives in New Zealand and sent along the following Herbie Butterfield essay on Wardell Gray appended to the message below. To add to this grand gesture, he even typed it out for me because the original is in a bound volume and therefore not easy to scan.

“Hi Steve,

I decided that you should have the 'missing' Jazz Journal article from October 1961, so here it is. 

I've changed the album catalogue reference for the most part to US issues, but the best "Blue Lou" versions are on European labels - the best of all being on French Master of Jazz MJCD171, which includes a rehearsal take, and the concert performance unedited at 9:43 (most other issues have shortened versions).

The JJ article is a bit weird (which is why I thought you should have it!) and I wonder why the author never mentions Stan Getz anywhere.


Your New Zealand Jazz Buddy”

Mr. Butterfield’s essay is not easy to read. One might even characterize it as “a bit weird,” but it deserves to be read because of the uniqueness of his views on Wardell and his music and because he has gone to great lengths to state his opinions accurately, with examples, but without apologies.

WARDELL GRAY    Jazz Journal   October 1961

"Music expresses absolutely nothing," said Stravinsky, thus relegating the compositions of most of his Romantic forebears to the status of glorious red herrings. Such an iconoclastic blast must have been pleasantly refreshing at the time of its pronouncement, when too many accepted too incuriously music's correlation with personal emotions. It needed saying that a musical phrase was a series of sounds arranged in a certain order before it was a statement of sadness. It will probably always need the saying, the reminding. 

Whether there is a fundamental connection between a specific musical figure and the emotional effect it is likely to produce in the listener, or how much such an effect can be explained in terms of a reflex action engendered by tradition, both private and communal, is a point of discussion to which I an entirely unequipped to contribute. I must leave it to the professional aesthetician, psychologist or neurologist.

Nevertheless, only the tiniest and most specialist minority do not refer music in some way to an emotional universe, and for the purposes of this essay I am presuming that certain phrases, tempi, accents do communicate certain emotional moods more effectively than others. On that basis we are back where we started before Stravinsky and (setting aside the Romantic composers, who intend in the very nature of their music that the job of emotive description shall be easy for us) can grant a deep sadness to the slow movement of a Vivaldi concerto, a loneliness to the Bartok of the late string quartets, and a gaiety to Mozart. And here at last, with the mention of gaiety, we are approaching the substance of my article- which is about jazz, believe it or not.

As a parentheses I will add that this preamble is intended as an apology for the fact that emotive descriptions, which have no pure musical authority, of musicians and tracks will often be crucial to my argument. I have attempted to justify the relative usefulness of such descriptions, and also to admit their final invalidity. As it is, in jazz, where the musician's instrument so frequently is intentionally the voice of his mood and temper, this lack of validity would seem less serious.

I have promised to enter my article on the note of 'gaiety,’ because this quality above all others seems to permeate the work of Wardcll Gray, and to be present in his music to a more infectious extent than in other recent jazz musicians.

Gaiety, let us distinguish it from the genial frivolity of many Dixieland groups, the extravagant high spirits of Lionel Hampton, the exuberance of various Basie units, the buoyancy of Mulligan, the sophisticated insolence of Charlie Mingus. Gaiety: extricated from the neon-lit strait-jacket of glamour and riches, it contains surely an idea of the celebration of being alive, or joy, unadulterated and not particularly formulated, in the act of living. It is not quite a religious joy, rather a joyfulness that retains essential contact with earth and social community. Yet this quality of gaiety, this generalized emotional attitude that I am seeking to define, is not insensitive to distant misery. It is underpinned by an awareness of the abundant deprivations and brutalities of living, by a latent melancholy. If all this adds up to 'gaiety,' then it was a communication of gaiety that was Wardell Gray's most precious contribution to his art and to us.

Born in 1921, in his prime during the late 40's and early 50's before his death in 1955, Gray belonged to a generation in which generally dissatisfaction, coherent anguish and sometimes incoherent despair were expressed. The supreme embodiment of these moods we find in the music of Charlie Parker, whose life-span was exactly contemporary. A comparison of opposites is not threatened. Charlie Parker was one of the two or three great innovators and revolutionaries of jazz, the prototype for countless excellent or inferior musicians. 

Wardell Gray affected the course of jazz not at all, gave only to one isolated musician here the example of his tone, to another there the example of his fluency. But his uniqueness, his almost greatness, lies in the fact that, while he was not the pioneer, he was the individual who could hear, mark, learn and inwardly digest, and eventually reappear with the manner dully improved, or at least changed, but the meaningful spirit intact. Thus, while he learnt extensively from Parker and Lester Young in particular, he did not imitate them. 

He heard Young, and learnt the rhythmic relaxation, the concealed situation of accent and the lyrical continuity; but did not exchange his own greater personal assurance for the reticence of Young's playing with Basie. He heard Parker, and adapted his own harmonic and phraseological concepts; but did not attempt to expropriate the Bird's private angst, since his sense of ease and joyfulness did not require it. The musical result of the integration of these lessons into a strong individuality was to make Wardell Gray the first completely satisfying modern tenorist - a modern saxophonist exceptional for his joie de vivre.

If historical categories are helpful, Gray was undoubtedly a modern jazz musician in both the structure and intonation of his solos. But in another respect he came near the end, rather than the beginning of a line- a line of steady and uncomplicated swingers. For, if we exclude the older generation of mainstreamers, from whom much fine jazz, but little new direction can now be expected, and the Desmond-Mulligan-Sims axis which seems temporarily disinclined to contribute anything to thee extension of rhythmic conceptions, there are few young musicians who seek to same rhythmic continuity, the same type of constant rhythmic flow, that satisfied Wardell Gray. 

Rollins and Griffin indeed swing massively, but massive is the operative word. They shove or lunge their way into motive realms of swing where Gray rode over the top. The rhythmic concepts of Ornette Coleman and Coltrane are as different as their music is different. Miles Davis 'contains' a viable swing, like he contains practically everything else, but he does not announce it. And it is from three or four of these musicians that we listen for new developments in spontaneous small group jazz. I think only of Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stilt, and more delicately, Art Pepper, as having the same lissome, unfragmented and relatively conservative attitude to swing as had Wardell Gray. That in this one respect I find the consistent impetus of musicians like Gray and Clifford Brown more congenial than the rhythmical tugs-of-war of their living counterparts may, admittedly, be a sign that I've started out on the way to a new mouldy fig cry.

We remember Wardell Gray, then, for his gaiety of temper and for his unremitting swing; above all his is a danceable sound. His sonority was more forthright and open than Lester Young's, although from this it should not be inferred that his tone had much in common with the weighty eloquence of the Hawkins school. There is never any suggestion of strain, no impression that he is heaving both his lungs into his instrument. Like Young, he withheld his attack, so that there is a basis of effortless ease and lightness in his tone, which is not discernible in Hawk's followers. But around this lightness he managed to create a final product of a more echoing and assertive sonority, an essentially outgoing sound, which differentiates him immediately from most other tenormen, and which has found disciples in Frank Foster and Billy Root.

Harmonically he was not adventurous. The story of the development of his phrasing is the story of the gradual incorporation of Parker's harmonic expansions into his own playing. This process was as complete as it was ever to become by the late 40s, after which most of his best work was recorded. There is rarely a sense of harmonic drama and potential- the lucid fluency of his earlier melodic lines was not so easily banished. There is less phraseological contrast than in Parker and his immediate circle, and the dramatic nature of many of his solos accrues rather from the manipulation of accent and the accumulation of choruses towards a climax or anti-climax, predictable in comparison with Bird. Nevertheless, if he was not an innovator, Gray was in no way a musical hack, and his solos are always very stimulating and inventive. It is only in the historical context that he appears harmonically unenterprising, lacking the curiosity of Rollins or Coltrane.

I have said that the predominant emotional mood of Wardell Gray was one of gaiety, touched with melancholy. The presence of melancholy saved the joy from becoming mere boisterous exuberance, but it was never more than a presence, a recognition of the existence of unhappiness. The gaiety was always the official front, and this, over a concerted listening to Gray's music, makes for a lack of emotional variety and versatility, even a certain monotony. Monotony in individual records there is none, and indeed the complaint is only relative. But compare Gray's pensive polished and essentially unharassed Loverman with Parker's fumbling, disorganized and anguished rendering of the same number, and we are hearing a competent craftsman beside an inspired poet. This is a hard comparison, particularly as Gray was a medium- and up-tempo musician whose talents were not best displayed in the ballad, however many pleasant and restful ones he may have recorded. But when an artist's work is judged in toto, unless we are to applaud him for the supreme expression of a single mood, a limited emotional range must tend to constitute an aesthetic weakness.

As yet I have not mentioned specific Gray recordings, and the reason I have not found the need to do so is implied in the last paragraph. His regularity of emotional attitude and high musical craftsmanship result in turn in a commendable consistency of standard. He recorded no disasters, remarkable little interior work, and fewer really memorable pieces than others of his stature, more familiar with the off-night. Anyway, I am more concerned with persuading people to listen to a musician who deserves a larger audience, than with examining the internal structure of individual records.

As a sideman he plays chiefly with the bands of Carter, Goodman and Basie. His fine recordings with Goodman are unfortunately now deleted from the English catalogue, but he can be heard on several Basie big band and smaller group sessions at the turn of the 50s (e.g. Fontana TFL 5046). Inevitably he is heard to best advantage in the smaller combos, most conspicuously the vital and inspiring One O 'Clock Jump with Buddy DeFranco scraping piccolo heights on clarinet. He was also on form in a longer concert version of this same number in 1947- a session which produced in addition a magnificent Blue Lou (Vogue LAE 12001 - Gene Norman Presents, Boplicity CDBOP 014). At this time the Parker influence was slender, and his affinities with the ebullient poll-winners of the 40's more apparent. But he is perhaps heard at his most characteristic fronting his own groups, where his gaiety and fluency can dominate the proceedings. Many of these tracks have been included in his two Memorial albums (Prestige P7008 & 7009).

Move and Scrapple From The Apple (on Prestige P7009)) are from a live session in 1950. Move is taken at a furious tempo, but contains a weak pianist (Jimmy Bunn) and a drummer who is defeated by the speed (Chuck Thompson). Indeed, it is almost too much for Clark Terry and the versatile but slightly facile altoist Sonny Criss, but Gray and his tenor rival, Dexter Gordon, come out of it with evidence of technical virtuosity that would not have shamed a Bechet or a Gillespie. On Scrapple From The Apple Gray takes a dreamy, lilting solo, with long runs in the middle register aspiring towards lightly stressed notes in the higher octave. The reverse side of this album is a successful date with Art Farmer and Hampton Hawes. The formula, employed for all except the two ballads, for Farmer and Gray playing first and last chorus in unison, inclines towards monotony, but in between patience is rewarded by some forthright solo piano and contrasted fill-in chords in accompaniment from Hawes, and by beautifully agile and inventive solos from Gray on Jackie, Bright Boy and Farmer's Market. As I've said before, the ballads - Loverman is one of them- are pensive rather than poignant, a little stylised, a little pedestrian.

The other album (Prestige P 7008) contains a rather messy session with Teddy Charles, in which the vibraphonist tends to interrupt rather than illuminate the solos of his musicians, and the ensembles sound disarrayed. At this late stage of his life (1953) Gray seemed to be developing a greater acerbity of tone than previously, a more brazen sonority, as is apparent in The Man I Love, and in the opening bars of Paul's Cause. But in the main his elegance, perhaps a legacy of his years with the graceful Benny Carter, contrasts well with the hectic striving of altoist Frank Morgan. The other numbers on this album come from the best studio get-togethers that Gray ever attended. In 1949 he met At Haig, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes. Among others, they recorded Twisted and Southside, in which Gray, from an initial restraint, gradually unfolds and eventually blossoms into swinging and ranging solos. The other session was made, with an unexceptional but musicianly accompaniment, in Detroit in 1950. A Sinner Kissed An Angel ranks with Easy Living (Prestige P 7009) as the best ballad that Wardell recorded. Here, as rarely elsewhere, he shows affinities with Johnny Hodges, in his floating high notes and lyrical use of glissandi, crescendo and diminuendo. The uptempo blues Grayhound and Treadin' are superb examples of Gray's powerful accumulation and subtle modulation of phrases and whole choruses for dramatic purposes. I would recommend either of these intelligently supervised albums to anyone interested in hearing a representative selection of Wardell Gray's music.

Wardell Gray died when he was only 34. That he died so early does not leave us with quite the cheated feeling and scope for tantalizing speculation as do the deaths of artists who were leading their times, like Bix, Christian, Parker and Clifford Brown. Most probably he would have been playing in much the same vein today. But that does not lessen one's sense of loss, because I for one could well do with a new album from Wardel! Gray every so often. I think jazz could, too. While the innovators are forging new paths, jazz needs its work-a-day exponents. And that's what Wardell was - a great working jazz musician.”

Listen to him, for he's the stuff that jazz is made of - and I hope always will be, if it is to remain a dance music, a social music, as well as a developing art form.”

Herbie Butterfield

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