Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Sublime and Neglected Wardell Gray

© Gary Carner. Copyright Protected. All rights reserved.

How many have heard Wardell Gray's magnificent opening solo on the Count Basie 1950 small group Snader transcription "I Cried for You?"


I can't think of a more perfect one-minute introduction to the swinging and sublimely beautiful playing of little known tenor master Wardell Gray. Wardell Gray's tone, time and lyricism was a huge influence on Pepper Adams in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Gray grew up in Detroit, attended Cass Tech and often returned to Detroit to play gigs there, including gigs with Pepper, where they traded horns. Apart from Sonny Stitt, Pepper cited Wardell Gray as the best baritone player he ever heard. Gray had a distinguished career in the bands of Earl Hines, Benny Carter, Billy Eckstine, Benny Goodman and Basie. He's particularly known for his tenor duels with Dexter Gordon. With lots of work experience, he served as a strong role model for younger players in Detroit, and in Los Angeles where he lived for a time. Pepper and Wardell were very close and Pepper was a pallbearer at Wardell's funeral in 1955. Wardell, like Bird, died in 1955 at the age of 34.

Read Pepper's description of Wardell and his death here:

The Basie performance above plays a prominent part in Abraham Ravett's 1994 documentary Forgotten Tenor. 

See excerpt here:

Interviews with family members, Clark Terry, Eddie Bert, Art Farmer, Buddy DeFranco and especially Teddy Edwards are extremely illuminating in the film. They give an account of his death, true, but also a character portrait that will help me explain Pepper and Wardell's friendship in my forthcoming biography. Others have very interesting points here and there to make about Wardell's personality and musicianship. Basie bassist Jimmy Lewis, for one, says about Wardell, "On the bandstand he was very serious about his music."Another noted that Wardell sometimes would exhort the entire band to dig in when it was his time to solo, saying things such as"C'mon! Let's go!" Another interviewee pointed out that Wardell enjoyed quoting in his solos and once played Dvorak's Humoresque on the bridge of Honeysuckle Rose. Pepper became a great paraphraser himself and might have been inspired early on from Wardell's use of musical quotation.

Wardell Gray was very bright, very funny and he could be sarcastic at times. Generally speaking, he was a happy-go-lucky guy and extremely friendly. Yet his letters late in life to his wife reveal his loneliness on the road and his frustration with not be able to send home enough money for the family. Imagine if a letter or two he might've sent to Pepper would turn up somewhere? Pepper, too, became a voluminous letter and postcard writer. Maybe another Gray influence?

Because my copy of Hampton Hawes' very fine autobiography Raise Up Off Me is packed, I can't cite parts of it. But I understand that Hawes writes about Wardell's influence on the young players like himself on the West Coast. Art Farmer said in the film that Wardell was more of a big brother than a father figure. Farmer said, "He was an excellent example for us in Los Angeles because he was doing what we wanted to do." We can probably safely assume the same with Pepper, though Pepper was fatherless at age 9 and Wardell may have filled in other gaps for him. After all, when Pepper was 17 or 18 in Detroit, attending college and mastering the baritone sax, Wardell Gray was 28 and had traveled widely in name bands.

Like Pepper, Wardell Gray was funny, studious and a sports nut. Wardell liked doing practical jokes, unlike Pepper, who preferred puns and subtle humor. Unlike Pepper, too, Wardell was very emotional and could cry easily. You kind of get that sense in his playing--so emotional--but especially in the poignant recitation of letters that his widow reads in the film.

Pepper has said that the hallmark of Detroit jazz playing is the time feel. Perhaps best embodied by Elvin Jones, you know where the beat is but Detroit musicians imply it and have a sophisticated plasticity in respect to the beat. According to DeFranco, Wardell had a natural way of swinging. He could fool with the time--play behind or forward or on it. I suggest that, apart from Wardell's behind-the-beat lyricism that Pepper adopted, Wardell's time feel was a huge influence on Pepper's solo conception. John Vana and I will explore Gray's influence on Pepper in our forthcoming study.

As Art Farmer said in the film about Gray, "He influenced my playing in striving for excellence. He was 
very strong in melodic content and very strong in rhythm. . . . I loved the way his lines just flowed."
Pepper felt the same way.

Listen to Wardell's great feature on Little Pony, that Pepper mentioned to me when I interviewed him in 1984:

Anybody think that Pepper's great 1968 date Encounter with Zoot Sims (see photo below) is kind of a second coming of Pepper and Wardell?

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