Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Remembering Wardell Gray [1921-1955] - Part 4 - Alun Morgan Essay

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

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], followed by 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 and added Part 3 with an article by Herbie Butterfield that appeared in the October 1961 issue of Jazz Journal 9another rarity].

We now continue with Part 4 which is made up of the Alun Morgan article entitled Wardell Gray. It appeared in the January 1956 issue of the Jazz Monthly. It, too, is 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.

“Nineteen fifty five will be remembered in the jazz world as a year which took a heavy toll of its musicians. During its course men of different styles, from Charlie Parker to Cow Cow Davenport, died leaving behind the memory of their work in the form of gramophone records, Parker, whose passing was one of the greatest single losses in the entire history of our music, died after a heart attack which came as a delayed-action culmination to a protracted period of ill health; pianist Dick Twardzick died in Paris as a result of an excessive self-administered shot of heroin. while baritone saxophonist Bob Gordon was killed in a California car accident as he was travelling to fulfil a concert engagement. Both these latter deaths serve as grim reminders of the internal and external hazards facing today's musicians.

On the 26th of May the most mysterious death came to light when tenor man Wardell Gray's body was discovered on some waste ground outside Las Vegas. He had died from a broken neck and injuries sustained to the head inflicted by an unidentified weapon. Dancer Teddy Hale was arrested and questioned on the subject of an alleged "drug party" the previous evening and confessed to moving Wardell's body after an "accident" at his flat. In Britain an EP record featuring Gray was released by Vogue, accidentally coinciding with his death and the subsequent review in the Gramophone magazine brought forth the astonishing information that "Gray was a known dope addict". 

Some thousands of miles nearer the scene of the tragedy. Gray's friends refuted all suggestions of the narcotics charge, white his employer at the time of his death, Benny Carter, was reported in Down Beat as saying: "Wardell Gray ordinarily was one of the most dependable musicians I have ever known. On this occasion he had been drinking, drinking too much, for him. We had been rehearsing or playing almost constantly for the past three days and nights. Warded had not been in the best of health recently. When he failed to make our last show on Wednesday night I thought he had gone to his room and collapsed. I still do", In a part of the world where the coloured man is often only suffered grudgingly by a white community it is not likely that the true cause of Gray's death will now be discovered.

During his lifetime Wardell achieved fame in a limited manner, although the amount of recognition he gained was disproportionate to his true musical worth. In the years immediately preceding his death he moved within the boundaries of the so-called West Coast circle without exciting the degree of interest accorded to newer and often lesser musicians. This was the price he paid for his consistency and dependability, Jazz enthusiasts are ever ready for new musical experiences and an artiste who attains the same high level for any length of time is likely to find himself cast aside upon the arrival of a less consistent but more sensational soloist.

Unlike some of his contemporaries Wardell's style changed little during his recording career. He achieved maturity early on and found no reason to alter his form of self expression. His playing took on a natural-sounding quality which suited his temperament, even if his younger listeners merely acknowledged his work and passed him by in their pilgrimages to heap praise upon men with more sophisticated and contrived methods of playing.

His earliest recorded solos were made as a member of the Earl Hines band in 1945. He joined Earl in 1943 as an alto saxist and sat in the reed section along-side tenor man Charlie Parker for a time. For the ARA label Hines recorded several sides, eight of which have been released here on the Vogue label. Wardeil may be heard on Throwin’ The Switch, Bamby, Let's Get Started and Blue Keys (EPV 1050) and Spook's Ball (EPV 1059). He plays with a broader tone than the one he used on his later recordings, but he is immediately identifiable as a musician with the potentiality of a true soloist

Leaving Hines in 1945 Wardell settled in Los Angeles and worked there in small groups organised and led by such men as Benny Carter, Vernon Alley and Howard McGhee. When Billy Eckstine disbanded his big band and came west he signed on Wardeil for the sextet he used for his Hollywood dates. Nineteen forty seven proved to be something of a turning point in Wardell's career and certain events helped him to break away from the closed circuit of his Los Angeles activity.

On February 26th, 1947, he played on a historic session with Charlie Parker for the "Dial" labei. Parker, Gray, Howard McGhee, Dodo Marmarosa, Barney Kessel, Red Caliender and Don Lamond reached a new peak of contemporary small-band jazz when they recorded Relaxin' At Camarillo. Cheers, Carvin’ The Bird and Stupendous. The following day. Wardell together with Kessel and Lamond played at a concert staged by promoter Gene Norman under the by-line "Just Jazz", In his time Norman has been responsible for organizing some outstanding gatherings of jazz musicians, occasionally adding one or two men of dubious virtue, but generally maintaining a very high standard of talent. On this occasion Wardell was teamed with tenor man Vido Musso from the Stan Kenton band, then visiting Hollywood and the "chase" passages on Just Bop (Vogue LDE101) form a most revealing comparison between two widely differing styles. Musso plays with the urgency and harsh tone which have invariably marked his work, while Gray's poise is perfect, his tone as smooth and as rounded as ever. His entries seem to be prefaced with a personal message to Vido, "Now this is how it should be played,"

At the beginning of May, Gene Norman presented a very impressive array of musicians at the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena. Wardell Gray, Red Norvo, Howard McGhee, Erroll Garner, Benny Carter, Vic Dickenson, Don Lamond, Jackie Mills, Dodo Marmarosa, Charlie Drayton, Harry Babasin, Red Callender, Irving Ashby and A! Hendrickson were on hand, while additional "name" guests included Peggy Lee and Benny Goodman. It was at this concert that Wardell played what was to become his best known solo, accompanied by a rhythm section led by Errol! Garner. The resultant Blue Lou (Vogue LAE12001) was above reproach, for it found the two main participants at their respective best form, Wardell builds chorus upon chorus with no repetitive phrases or clichés, while Erroll provides a stimulating background before launching into his own solo. One O’Clock Jump (Vogue LAE12QG1) from the same concert gave Wardell the chance to improvise at length on one of his favourite chord sequences, the blues in major key. By the common consent of his fellows he was the first soloist and took no less than eighteen choruses in. a row, verbally encouraged by the remaining frontliners.

On record it is possible to note certain aspects of the concerts in greater detail, with particular reference to Wardell Gray's own work. On the items with Garner he was given a rhythm section which played a straight, almost traditional 4/4 beat. On Groovin’ High, Hot House and Just Bop the more modern-sounding rhythm teams played with a fluid, undulating beat. Yet Wardell was also to assimilate both types of accompaniment without modifying the basic requirements of his style.

Further concerts followed, including the one issued on a marathon set of nineteen standard speed records on the "Bop" and "Savoy" labels. In June 1947 Ross Russell again used Wardell on a "Dial" session, this time pairing him with the similarly-styled Dexter Gordon for a six minute version of The Chase (Esquire 10-019). This was a friendly "carving" match between the two tenor men which had become a popular feature of jazz concerts in the area.

In the late-summer of 1947 Benny Goodman disbanded the radio band which he had been using and decided to form a regular sextet. He had been greatly impressed with the appearance of Wardell at the "Just Jazz" concert in May and offered him a job in the sextet which was later to contain clarinetist Ake Hasselgard. This was the beginning of a new chapter in Wardell’s life, for the Goodman engagement took him East at the end of the year. In December, just prior to the recording ban, Benny's sextet recorded a new version of Stealin’ Apples for Capitol on which both Wardell Gray and Fats Navarro were to be heard. Gray also played on a date under drummer J. C. Heard's name for the "Apollo" label with Joe Newman, Benny Green and Ai Haig.

In April !948 he recorded four sides “under cover" (due to the AFM ban on all recording then in force) for "Sittin' In With", a small company operated by Bobby Shad, Warden's exemplary sense of swing oversails the technical limitations of the recording equipment on Matter And Mind (a thinly veiled Idaho) and Stoned, a twelve bar. Light Gray (Fine and Dandy) and The Toup (virtually an alternative master of Stoned) from the same session have yet to be issued in Britain, although the former pair of titles will be found on Vogue EPV1064.

When Goodman gave up the Sextet in the summer of 1948 Wardell remained in New York and spent some weeks in the Count Basie band, playing the "Royal Roost" club booking and taking most of the tenor solos, while Bernie Peacock was featured on alto. On his evenings off he appeared with the Tadd Dameron Sextet at the same club and blew alongside Allen Eager and Fats Navarro, The beginning of the following year saw the relaxation of the record ban and the subsequent formation of a new big band by Benny Goodman. Wardell rejoined BG who immediately promoted him to the position of deputy leader, to front the band in the event of Goodman's absence. This feeling of admiration however was not mutual and in later years Wardell was reluctant to speak of his term of service with Benny.

The band recorded for "Capitol" although Wardell was not featured greatly. He did not solo on the studio recording of the band's best number, Undercurrent Blues, although a broadcast transcription of the number once used as a signature tune on AFN had three solo choruses of Gray's tenor. The twelve bar Hucklebuck a commercialized re-hash of Parker's Now's the Time, has a typically efficient chorus by Wardell, while the original coupling, Having A Wonderful Wish, has a dolorous vocal by Buddy Greco which is redeemed by eight bars of Warden's tenor in his best ballad style. Just prior to his visit to England to play at the London Palladium in the summer of 1949, Goodman recorded four titles with his sextet for "Capitol", three of which had fine solos by Wardell and trumpeter Doug Mettome. Mary Lou Williams' tune In The Land Of Oo-Bla-Dee has instrumental solos inset into the vocal choruses sung by Greco, while the choice of Blue Lou was probably activated by the success of Wardell’s previous record taken from the Gene Norman concert. Bedlam is a retitling of the blues which Gray recorded the year before as Stoned.

In April of 1949 pianist Al Haig made two sessions for American "Seeco", a label which, until then, had specialized in Latin American music. On four sides Haig chose Stan Getz as the featured tenor soloist, replacing him with Wardell Gray on the remainder. For two of the latter titles Goodman vocalist Terry Swope harmonised with the tenor man in the thematic choruses. In A Pinch utilizes the chorda! progression of All God's Children. Five Star is I Got Rhythm with a new middle-eight, while Sugar Hill Bop is a twelve bar with Wardell in fine form. The closing Talk Of The Town is a beautiful and sensitive interpretation of the ballad played with ail of Gray's warmth of feeling and respect for melody.

On severing his association with Goodman later in 1949 Wardell went back to the Basie fold and remained there until 1951. He played on the Columbia Basie sides dating from this period, notably Little White Lies, I’ll Remember April and his own tune Little Pony. He recorded two sessions for "Prestige", the first in New York with the combined Charlie Parker-Stan Getz rhythm section (Al Haig, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes) which produced the aggressive but swinging Twisted and the smooth, slow Easy Living. He cut the second set of four titles in Detroit with a locally recruited rhythm section including Art Mardigan on drums. In Hollywood with Basie, he made some sides privately for Eddie Laguna which were released both here and in France by Vogue, but which have not, apparently, appeared in America. Of these the outstanding titles are the confidently played and well-titled Easy Swing (actually the Parker tune Steeplechase) and the perennial Gershwin ballad The Man I Love.

Although a native of Oklahoma City, Wardell made his new home in Los Angeles after leaving the Count.  The wheel had turned full circle from 1947 to 1951 and deposited Wardeil back at his point of departure after a tour which had taken in many of the forty-eight States. West Coast concerts at which he appeared later were taped by Gene Norman (Chase and Steeplechase with Dexter Gordon and Conte Candoli on Brunswick LA8646) and by "Prestige" (Jazz On Sunset and Klddo with Clark Terry, Sonny Criss and Hampton Hawes). "Prestige" also recorded Gray at a not entirely successful session with his protégé Frank Morgan on alto and "Nu Di" expert Teddy Charles on vibes. 

A far better set of six titles was made for the same label in January !952 using Gray's regular group which contained trumpeter Art Farmer, pianist Hampton Hawes and drummer Larry Marable. Four of the tunes have now appeared here on "Esquire' (EP 91) comprising two blues, Jackie and Farmers Market (both vocalized later by Annie Ross with suitable lyrics), April Skies based on the I’ll Remember April sequence and Bright Boy.

Gene Norman, the man who had recognized Gray's talents in 1947 and devoted so much record time to his work, organized an eight-title session built around a small Ellington group. Wardel! was added to the Ducal line-up and was given a long solo feature on the Hodges stand-by The Jeep is Jumpin. On Billy Strayhorn's arrangement of Johnny Come Lately the tenor man blew one of the best solos of the day and was obviously very much at home in yet another set of musical surroundings.

Norman Granz picked Wardell for the large band he assembled in the "Clef" studio under the leadership of Louis Bellson and featured him strongly on Don Redman's For Europeans Only. Granz used Gray later in an all-star Jam Session with Stan Getz, Harry Edison, Buddy De Franco, Count Basie, etc. The last recordings before his death were made with a group under the leadership of Frank Morgan (to be released here by Vogue) and supervised by Gene Norman.

Wardell Gray achieved an excellent reputation amongst other musicians as a man of consistency, imagination, technique, unfailing good taste and, pervading all these other qualities, a sense of swing almost unrivalled in jazz. Due to his encouragement and help, younger men, notably Art Farmer, Frank Morgan, Frank Foster and Paul Quinichette, gained experience and a guiding hand along the difficult pathway to progress. Wardell was possessed of a likeable personality and an equable temperament which eschewed petty backstage bickerings. Through no fault of his own he lacked only one important quality, namely the respect and public recognition due to an artiste of his calibre.

Jazz is very much poorer by his passing.”

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