February 10, 2021

The Ballad of Wardell Gray: Celebrating a Jazz Legend at 100

By Stuart Mitchner

Looking out the back window Monday afternoon I saw three deer in the snow behind the big black boulder, our piece of the Princeton Ridge. Led by a stag with a classic set of antlers, they were there and gone in the space of a minute. Something in that snow scene, the sudden wonder of it, resonated with my thoughts about Wardell Gray, whose 100th birthday is this Saturday, February 13.

At that moment I was thinking someone should write a song for Wardell, something like “Percy’s Song” by Bob Dylan, the Fairport Convention cover, with Sandy Denny singing her heart out (“Turn turn turn again, turn turn to the rain and the wind”), infusing the words with so much passion and warmth that the monstrous injustice of the story makes you feel uplifted and brought down at the same time. But Wardell’s tale is deeper and darker than that. Dylan could write another song in the same key, or maybe something righteously outraged like “Hurricane.” For a kinder, gentler version with an edge, you could look to Stew, who wrote a lovely tribute to Thelonious Monk for his group the Negro Problem. Or better yet, something along the melodic lines of “Nature Boy” as rendered by Nat King Cole in 1948, the year Wardell came into his own as the star tenor sax soloist with Benny Goodman and then Count Basie, with his epic solos on “The King” and “Little Pony.”

Thanks in great part to the national exposure that came from playing with Goodman, Wardell jumped from nowhere to fourth place in the tenor sax division of the 1948 Metronome poll. To understand why Lester Young “gave a blanket endorsement” of Gray when asked who the best tenor man of the new generation was, all you have to do is listen to the Goodman small group performing “Mary’s Idea,” a nice, genteel, crisply swinging little number — until a tenor sax life-force blazes through the tidy chamber-music table setting and takes everything to another level. What you’re hearing is the epitome of the late Whitney Balliet’s phrase for jazz, “the sound of surprise” — joyous energy, moving fast and fluid, full of life and love in the playing.

Whether he was playing or speaking, Wardell Gray was one of the most articulate jazz musicians of his time, Black or white. Along with his interest in serious literature, classical music, ballet, gourmet cooking, leftwing politics, and existential philosophy, he belonged to the NAACP at a time when the group was considered radical enough to assure him a place in the files of the FBI. He was also devoted to his wife and stepdaughter, writing in one of his last letters that he looked forward to the three of them “working hard, studying, going to school, perfecting ourselves for one another.” Half a year later on the opening night of the first mixed-race night club in Las Vegas, his body was found in a drainage ditch on the outskirts of town. Though drugs were involved and foul play was ruled out after an abbreviated investigation, the circumstances were mysterious enough to inspire Bill Moody’s 1995 detective novel, Death of a Tenor Man.

The Curse

Abraham Ravett’s invaluable 1994 documentary Forgotten Tenor, which is available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library, contains numerous references to the “curse,” meaning the part heroin played in Gray’s death, which is discussed in detail by someone who was on the scene at the time, tenor man Teddy Edwards. Besides implying that this ugly death was emblematic of more than drugs and the stresses and excesses of the jazz life, Edwards seems to suggest that the Jim Crow environment of Las Vegas was itself a contributing factor. When Gray didn’t show up for the second show, Edwards knew that “something was drastically wrong because in Las Vegas at that time, black people weren’t allowed to go into the places on the Strip, and so he had to be in some form of trouble, either in the hospital or in jail or dead.” Later, when asked about “the inherent racism” in America, Edwards said: “We’ve been living with that demon all our lives …. Black people in America have six senses because that other sense has to deal with that monster out there.”

Infectious Fervor

Jazz biographer Dave Gelly describes what the jazz world lost on May 25, 1955: “Wardell Gray’s clear, bright, almost severe tone was matched by an improvised line of such sculptural purity that expressive devices of any kind would have been out of place. He negotiated the chromatic intricacies of bebop with spare, athletic grace and a burning intelligence that can bring tears to the eyes. He was the greatest of all bebop tenor saxophonists and his untimely death is a cause of infinite regret.”

In the chapter devoted to Gray in Ten Modern Jazzmen, Michael James writes: “When he died the modern jazz scene lost a man whose powers of imagination and execution, impressive as they were, had always been at one with the infectious fervor of his art.”

The range of responses inspired by Gray was attuned both to the style of his playing and his body language, as this compendium of various reviews and liner notes indicates: “elegant, yet powerful,” “rare grace and beauty,” “cruises effortlessly through the changes with a logical ease,” “long, smooth, swinging phrases,” “lithe melodic lines,” “lucid fluency,” “lyrical, blues-inflected angularity,” “unfaltering linear invention,” “smooth, consistent tone,” “constant emotional pulse,” “dreamy, lilting,” “beautifully agile,” “beautiful and sensitive,” and so on and on, with “consistency” one of the most used terms, along with “unremitting swing.” He has also been called the “Missing Link between Swing and Bop” and compared to “a comet tearing through the center of late 40s bop” or “a falling star” that “flashed across the jazz horizon.”

Playing His Heart Out

Interviewed in Forgotten Tenor, Count Basie bassist Jimmie Lewis provides an earthier, more spontaneous picture of Wardell in action: “He liked to tell jokes. But he was very tender hearted, he would cry in a minute, you know? Little things could upset him. He was very serious about all his music too, he liked everything to be just right, and when he’d come on the bandstand, it was all business, he always knew where he was going. His tone was very melodic, unless he was playing something fast. He used to create as he went along, you know? You can always tell when something new pops into his mind while he’s playing, because he’d always smile, you can see him smiling while he’s playing his horn. I’d like to see him featured in a film where he could really show off his talent. Say it was just the band playing in the background, and put him out front, and he plays the first chorus, and right in the middle of the thing he says, come on, let’s play, let’s play now! And he played that thing, he played his heart out man, and he gave the whole band a lift because he had so much to offer you know?”

Mind Reading

Besides being a time-traveler, YouTube’s a mind reader. Or so it seems when this ingenious and totally amoral  online illusionist follows me from Fanny Mendelssohn to Billie Holiday, Schubert to Wardell Gray without a hitch. Admitted, YT’s acts of association are triggered by the choices I’ve made, whether it’s the second movement from Schuberts Octet, or the second take of Gray’s reinvention of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” with spirited, sensitive accompaniment by Dodo Marmarosa. Heard for the first time late one night in November 1998, the familiar Gershwin melody never quite revealed itself, as if it were haunting a song I had never heard before.

The cover of Forgotten Tenor shows Wardell Gray smilingly enduring the playful embrace of Stan Hasselgaard, the Swedish clarinetist who played with him in the Benny Goodman septet and considered him “the best tenor in America.”