Wardell Gray / Feb 13, 1921 - May 25, 1955

Passing just two months after Charlie Parker was another genius of the saxophone, tenor player Wardell Gray. He was one of the bright lights of the West Coast scene of the late '40s/early '50s and it's a shame how relatively little-known he is compared to some of the other titans of the era, of which he surely should rank alongside. His style was flowing and melodic, not too heavy. He was one of the players who straddled the line between the swing and bop eras.

His first instrument was clarinet but he was inspired upon hearing Lester Young to switch to tenor. He came out of Detroit and got a job for three years in the Earl Hines big band (originally on alto), which included national touring. In '46 he moved to Los Angeles and cut his first disk under his own name, the classic "One For Prez". He worked up and down the jumping Central Ave nightclub scene where he would battle heavies like Dexter Gordon. He did some touring with Benny Carter and Billy Eckstine and cut some sessions for Dial with Parker. After the success of Gray's "The Chase", he found a gig in '48 with Benny Goodman, one of the biggest stars of the day. It was with the Goodman band that Gray came East and upon break-up of the group, he found some work with Count Basie, Tadd Dameron and others. Slowly, Gray found his way back West and started reducing his gigs. He found some work with Art Farmer, Al Haig, Louis Bellson, Sonny Criss, Teddy Charles and a gig in the brand new Las Vegas scene with Carter in '55. But he failed to show for the gig one night, with his body found in the desert and his neck broken. Official cause of death was ruled a drug overdose at 34. But was that the truth?

Here's another famous cut by Gray, an earlier version of "Twisted", which would become a bigger, lasting hit by vocalist Annie Ross.

Here's a clip of the Abraham Ravett documentary about Gray, titled The Forgotten Tenor:

Tagged: Celebrate Icons, documentary, jazz, Los Angeles, reeds, Video, vintage footage

Older Post Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published