Friday, October 10, 2014

Wardell Gray and Pepper Adams

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

How many have heard Wardell Gray's playing? How many know how big an influence he was on Pepper Adams? For the last year I've been thinking a lot about Gray's influence on Pepper. Last fall I had the opportunity to lecture about Pepper and Gray at a number of colleges while on a second Pepper Adams book tour. The trip took me to the University of Illinois, Western Illinois University, Wayne State University, Humber College, Concordia University, Hunter College, William & Mary, the University of North Carolina, and the North Carolina School of the Arts. I was traveling with eminent UK arranger/composer Tony Faulkner, one of the world's foremost authorities on Duke Ellington and Thad  Jones. As part of the tour Faulkner conducted workshops and rehearsed his Pepper Adams big band charts with college and professional bands. It was a great trip and we made a lot of new friends.

My lecture discussed the effects of Wardell Gray and Art Tatum's playing on Pepper Adams. Wardell Gray, for his part, was Pepper's greatest Detroit mentor. Already a world class player by the time Pepper relocated to Detroit in 1947, Wardell was based in Detroit and he would return after tours with name bands, such as Benny Goodman and Count Basie. Wardell was one of many great Detroit jazz players that attended Cass Technical High School. Pepper and Wardell Gray played together in Detroit at the Blue Bird Inn and elsewhere and the two would trade horns. Wardell was the first baritone saxophonist that Pepper heard who played with precise articulation. That coupled with Wardell's elegant lyricism and his unparalleled gift for creating beautiful melodic lines ultimately worked its way into Pepper's style.

Accentuating that lyricism was Wardell's penchant for pulling the time back, playing behind the beat. Pepper made it into an art form, often accentuating the swing feel when playing heads, and, when doing so, creating an interesting tension against the rhythm section. Moreover, Pepper often "back phrased" passages of his solos to swing even harder and alternate with his blistering double-time diminished lines. In my lecture I referred to these two things as polar opposites and as the yin and yang of Pepper's solo style.

Besides being a huge early influence on Pepper's saxophone playing, Wardell was also a close friend. Both were very scholarly, well informed and conversant on many topics. Wardell's early and controversial death at age 34 was a personal tragedy for Pepper and for jazz. Wardell died in 1955, two months after Charlie Parker. At the Diggs Funeral Home Pepper served as a pallbearer at Wardell's funeral. For Pepper's take on Wardell, please read my interview excerpt taken from the 1984 interview I did with Pepper. Click "Wardell Gray" at the homepage's link "Reminiscensces."

I write about Wardell not just because I'm spending time listening to his music. Just yesterday I came across a nice overview of Wardell Gray written by New England Public Radio host and blogger Tom Reney. Here's the link:  Within Reney's post was a link to a documentary film on Wardell, Forgotten Tenor, done by Hampshire College professor Abraham Ravett. So delighted to learn about the film, I emailed Ravett and heard right back from him. He had no idea of Pepper's relationship with Wardell, nor was he aware that Pepper carried Wardell's torch and passed it down to virtually every baritone saxophonist playing today. I'm eager to see the film, which Ravett is mailing me to preview. Let me know if you want to see it and I'll put you in touch with him. 

Abraham and I are trying to put together some kind of program at Hampshire College or elsewhere in Western Massachusetts to raise awareness for both Pepper and Wardell and to rekindle an awareness of his film that was first released in 1994. I've also suggested that the film be aired at the Detroit Jazz Festival, hopefully as part of a tribute to Wardell Gray. As Rachel Maddow says, "Watch this space."