February 14, 2018

On Valentine’s Day: Wardell Gray’s Cry, Anne Elliott’s Labor of Love

By Stuart Mitchner

The phrase “labor of love” has been haunting me ever since I saw Anne Elliott’s drawings of her husband, Peter Gruen, who died in August. I’ve been an admirer of my former Town Topics colleague’s work for almost 15 years. Last week admiration gave way to awe. You know when you’re in the presence of what Henry James, among others, calls “the real thing.” The gallery attitude — you stop, you look, you move on, you go home, you think of other things — no longer pertains. Not this time, not when you’ve witnessed what happens when love and art become one.

Now and then in my life I’ve discovered artists whose work resonated so powerfully that I had to write about it, not for myself except to satisfy my feeling for the subject, but to alert others, to make them see or read or listen. In fact that’s often the motive force behind these columns, and this week’s is no exception. I was blindsided by the playing of tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray 20 years ago, and have written about his life and his music in several publications, and more than once in these pages, usually around the second week of February. He was born in Oklahoma City a day before Valentine’s Day in 1921. He was left for dead in the desert outside Las Vegas on May 25, 1955.

The Food of Love

Looking for a way to bring together Wardell Gray, love, Black History Month, and Valentines Day, who better to turn to but Shakespeare, the Elizabethan equivalent of the internet. There are passages that could be read in that light all through Emerson’s essay, “Shakespeare; Or the Poet,” in which the Bard “is like some saint whose history is to be rendered into all languages, into verse and prose, into songs and pictures, and cut up into proverbs …. So it fares with the wise Shakespeare and his book of life. He wrote the airs for all our modern music: he wrote the text of modern life.”

A plunge into the web of the Works takes me to Twelfth Night, first performed in February 1602, its opening words, “If music be the food of love, play on” spoken by Orsino, Duke of Illyria, a line undoubtedly smiled upon by the Duke of Ellington, who paid tribute to the Bard in his 1957 album Such Sweet Thunder and liked to tell his audiences “I love you madly.”

He Rides and Reads

Speaking through Orsino on “the spirit of love,” Shakespeare tells us “So full of shapes is fancy/That it alone is high fantastical.” For weeks now I’ve been listening to jazz’s high fantastical not as purveyed by the Duke, but by the Count, and never more powerfully than when Wardell Gray is soloing. Call it love, infatuation, fancy, or what you will, it’s how I feel when Wardell cuts loose over the full bore power of Basie’s big band driven by the under-the-radar heroics of guitarist Freddie Green. Gray’s most famous solo, on Neal Hefti’s “Little Pony,” has been translated into vocalese and sung at breakneck speed on the Lambert Hendricks Ross LP Sing a Song of Basie, but all the jazz in the world is no match for a passage in Emerson’s essay on Shakespeare I can’t resist bringing in, given how well it coincides with the metaphorical thrust of “Little Pony.” For Emerson, Shakespeare’s “means are as admirable as his ends; every subordinate invention, by which he helps himself to connect some irreconcilable opposites, is a poem too. He is not reduced to dismount and walk, because his horses are running off with him in some distant direction: he always rides.”

That’s Wardell Gray with Basie: he always rides, and he also reads Shakespeare. His “copious comments” on the Bard once moved a Melody Maker interviewer to frame the conversation in terms of a “literary tea party.” The only other subject Gray enthused about in that July 31, 1954 interview was Basie. “Count’s new band is so much together. It is the band in modern music.”

The sound of Wardell Gray in full fantastical flight with Basie at the Royal Roost in 1948 has been described by Mike Zwerin in his book, Close Enough to Jazz, as “the cry,” a sound Zwerin says has never left his head (“I will go to my grave with it”), calling it “A direct audial objectification of the soul. You know it when you hear it.”

It’s a cry that goes deep if you’ve listened to Gray’s music, know something of his life and loves, and know, too, that if he’d stayed with Basie, he might not have died an ugly death at the age of 34, less than a year after the Melody Maker article.

A Night in May

One night in late May 1955, a high school junior crashes a fraternity house event with a copy of Basie’s first Dance Session album in his hand, hoping to get the band to sign it. When the concert’s over, the first person he heads for is guitarist Freddie Green, who smiles, shakes hands, and says a few kind words, every bit the quiet, subtle, sympathetic presence suggested by his demeanor on the bandstand. Everyone, including the Count, signs the kid’s album. The lead tenor that night is Frank Foster.

Closing my eyes on the scene half a century later, I imagine my teenage self approaching the player who wasn’t there but should have been. The tall thin ghost towers over me. His shadow is as long as the room is wide.

Death in Las Vegas

Decades before I discovered Wardell Gray, Freddie Green was my favorite member of the Basie band. He was the opposite of a virtuoso, never soloing, his labor of love keeping the 4/4 rhythm. It’s said that the only solo he ever took was on a song called “On the Sentimental Side.” Searching just now for the track on YouTube, all I can find is Billie Holiday’s version from 1938, a Valentine’s Day coincidence since she and Freddie were lovers off and on for years. Green went on to have “the longest job in jazz history,” staying with Basie from March 1937 until the night of March 1, 1987, when he died of a stroke after playing the first two sets of a show in Las Vegas, where his friend and bandmate Wardell Gray had played, and died, some 30 years before. Green died in his hotel room watching TV. Gray died “under mysterious circumstances” after playing a set with Benny Carter’s orchestra at the Moulin Rouge, the first mixed-race casino. That was in late May, the same time his former Basie bandmates were signing my album.

Dorothy Gray Calls

In June 2003, shortly after my article in the Village Voice came out, the phone rang, my wife answered. “It’s someone called Dorothy Gray,” she said. It took about ten seconds to register. Wardell’s widow was calling me. We talked for 20 minutes and there were several other phone calls before she died later that year. She told me how they met, connecting because they both had the same birthday, February 13, on the eve of Valentine’s Day. They would have married then but someone passed along some misinformation and it was ten years before they actually tied the knot, as she put it. “We did it twice,” she said. “Two weddings. First in Chicago, then in Las Vegas.”

I didn’t ask her why she wanted to be married in Las Vegas. As Hemingway would put it, it was better not to think about Las Vegas.

“Sounds and Sweet Airs”

Wardell Gray was doomed to fall to the lure of drugs, even though he’d cautioned others for years against using. As a reader of Shakespeare, he must have connected with certain characters. While he might have found something of himself in Hamlet, there’s a character and a passage in The Tempest that would have caught his attention. It’s when Caliban hears “Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not./Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments/Will hum about mine ears.” If you know Wardell Gray’s story, there’s special poignance in the speech’s concluding lines: “and then, in dreaming/The clouds methought would open and show riches/Ready to drop upon me that, when I wak’d,/I cried to dream again.”

Labor of Love

I tried to set aside my feelings for Anne Elliott’s contribution to the group show, “The Impact of Art,” but, obviously, I couldn’t let it go. Or it wouldn’t let me go. In her note for the exhibit brochure, she mentions being “totally absorbed” with her husband’s care, “too sad and distracted” to continue with her studio work. But then, “I decided to start again … during our last months together. I began drawing his face, turning once again to my art. I suppose I wanted to keep him with me always in a way. Doing the portraits was an expression of love for him.”

Wardell Gray’s music is all over the internet and available on CD at the Princeton Public Library, along with the oral history DVD Forgotten Tenor. The photograph showing him with his wife Dorothy looking on was taken circa 1950, around the time of their marriage.

“The Impact of Art” will be on view at Art Times Two, the gallery at Princeton Brain and Spine, through August of this year. The other artists represented are Karen Fitzgerald, Shellie Jacobson, Charlene Lutz, Sarah Morejohn, and Maria G Pisano. For more information visit www.arttimestwogallery.com.