"One for Prez"
To the late Hampton Hawes, Wardell Gray was "a keeper of the flame, one of the first to put it all together. There were times at sessions when he even made Bird turn round and take not ice; weren't many who could make Bird do that." The importance of this superlative saxophonist cannot be overstated yet he remains something of a mystery man and even his death has never been satisfactorily investigated nor explained. To the jazz historians he was the essential link between the barrier breaking work of Lester Young and the phenomenal innovations of Charlie Parker. To me he was, quite simply, my favourite tenor player.
Wardell was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on the 13th February 1921. He moved, with his family, to Detroit at some unspecified time and it seems that his brother Harry, who played bass, got him interested in the clarinet. He certainly studied the instrument at Cass Tech. High and for those with a desire to do research it would be useful to examine the musical department the launching pad for other Detroit jazzmen including trumpeter Donald Byrd, trombonist Bernie McKinney and Charles "Harneefan Mageed" Greenlee, saxist Lucky Thompson, bass player Al McKibbon and pianists Hugh Lawson and Dorothy Ashby, a number of whom furthered their studies at nearby Wayne State University. Wardell, however, seems to have moved on into the life of full-time professionalism. He worked with a local band, that of Benny Carew which operated out of Lansing, about fifty miles west of Detroit and had youngsters such as Hank Jones and Lucky Thompson in its ranks, although it has not been established if they were with Carew at the same time as Wardell. He also worked with the Detroit-based band of Jimmy Raschel (some references misspell the name Rachel). Raschel led bands throughout the Thirties (he actually made some records for the Champions label in 1932 but only one title seems to have been issued). At various times the Raschel band had a number of burgeoning jazzmen in its ranks; the Buckner brothers (Milt and Ted) in 1935. Al McKibbon (playing guitar) the following year, Trummy Young in 1937. Booty Wood in 1940, Howard McGhee, briefly, and saxists Bernie Peacock and George "Big Nick" Nicholas.
In September, 1943 an event occurred in the Earl Hines band which was to have an effect on Wardell's later career. Billy Eckstine, Earl's singer, was attracting so much attention that he left Hines to go out on his own, and a number of Earl's Young Turks, including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, also handed in their notices. To offset the loss of his stellar vocal attraction Earl, the showman, took on a girl string section, girl bass player, girl guitarist and a girl harpest. "I was trying to do something like Fred Waring did," Earl told Stanley Dance ("The World of Earl Hines," Charles Scribner's Sons, New York) "only with girls." It was around the time of the rehashing of the Hines band that Wardell joined along with Texas tenor Harold Clark. Cliff Smalls, who played trombone and second piano with the band, remembers that "Wardell Gray came in on alto at first. Scoops Carry, the strawboss, didn't like Wardell or Harold. I think he wanted to bring in some of his own buddies, and I'll never forget a rehearsal at the old Nola Studios. Scoops took the numbers at tempos almost twice as fast as we usually played, and Wardell and Harold just ran through them, straight through them. 'See what you got?' John Williams (baritone saxist in the band) cried 'I've been here all the time, and they're playing them better than I am!"
Carry switched Wardell to tenor in a band which had quite a number of bop-orientated musicians including Shorts McConnell, Bennie Harris and Idress Suliman (trumpets), Benny Green (trombone) and singer-pianist Sarah Vaughan. Wardell remained with the band throughout 1944 and 1945, acquiring valuable name band experience as well as playing on the records Hines was making for the ARA label. In July, 1946 Earl had a serious car accident outside Houston which necessitated an eye operation. Cliff Smalls played piano during Hine's absence but it is possible that some musicians, including Wardell, took the opportunity of leaving the band. In Wardell's case it was probably while the Hines unit was playing engagements in California for, at that time, there was a most productive jazz scene in being around the Central Avenue area of Los Angeles. Charlie Parker had come west with the Dizzy Gillespie sextet at the end of 1945, turned the Central Avenue scene on its head, took a solo on Lady be good at a Jazz At The Philharmonic concert which pianist John Lewis said "made old men out of everyone on stage that night," collapsed on a recording session in July, 1946 and spent six months getting into shape at Camarillo State Hospital.
Meanwhile the jazz excitement reached fever pitch on occasions back in Los Angeles with men such as Dexter Gordon, Howard McGhee and the army of soloists out of Boyd Raeburn's crazy big band. There is a most valuable and readable essay by Patricia Willard covering this period of jazz out West on the two-LP set "Black California" on Savoy SJL2215 in which Patricia describes the two-tenor "battles" between Dexter Gordon and Wardell.
It was during this period that the titles on this present release were recorded yet, strangely, never appeared on any American release. The first issue of the tracks was in France on the Jazz Selection label 78 rpm records when it was assumed (incorrectly as it transpired) that the recording session had taken place in the summer of 1950, around the time Wardell was with Count Basie. The date was supervised by Eddie Laguna and was probably intended for release on Laguna's own "Sunset" label. For the session Laguna assembled a rhythm section from the Central Avenue "pool" of musicians. Pianist Dodo Marmarosa had come West with the Artie Shaw band and had immersed himself completely in the Los Angeles jazz and recording scene. Red Callender had been very much a part of the film city's musical community since he arrived on the West Coast as a member of Louis Armstrong's band back in 1938. Doc West, who often worked with Callender at this time as members of the Erroll Garner Trio, had subbed for Chick Webb for several months prior to that drummer's death, had recorded with Charlie Parker in New York and was one of the most experienced jazz drummers in Los Angeles.
The complete session is contained here, false starts, snippets of studio conversation, previously unissued takes. It is the most revealing document for admirers of this singular saxophonist, master of his instrument and a man who appreciated the grace and elegance of Lester Young as much as he understood and used the rhythmic options and harmonic extensions of the boppers. There is nothing to be gained by giving a blow-by-blow account of the music for its clarity and timelessness are self-evident. It may be worth providing a few sign-posts; Dell's bells is, harmonically, What is this thing called love and you can appreciate the difficulties the quartet had in daringly trying to get into the theme statement on the early run-through without the help of Doc West's hi-hat rhythm. One for Prez uses the chords of How high the moon and the loping Easy swing is, in fact, a tune which Charlie Parker recorded almost exactly two years later under the title Steeplechase, claiming the composer credit himself. The three takes of Man I love are masterpieces of re-composition for none of George Gershwin's melody remains as Gray produces some of the most memorable ballad tenor you will ever hear. With the four tunes satisfactorily recorded the session was over. Or was it? It seems likely that Doc West had to leave and it is possible that Chuck Thompson, a friend of both Wardell and Hampton Hawes (who may well have been in attendance at the date as a spectator, for he was close to Wardell), took over at the drums for the spontaneous The Great Lie, based on the Fine and dandy chord sequence.
After this session Wardell went on to greater things, recording with Charlie Parker, appearing at Gene Norman's "Just Jazz" concerts, joining Benny Goodman as principal tenor and deputy leader, working with Count Basie's sextet and leading a band of his own. He was rehearsing with Benny Carter's orchestra in the spring of 1955 ready for an opening in Las Vegas when his body was found out in the Nevada desert under circumstances which have never been explained. He had apparently died from a broken neck and head injuries on 25th May, just ten weeks after Charlie Parker passed away in New York. "We never found out what happened in the desert," wrote Hamp Hawes years later. "Wardell, who couldn't have weighed more than a hundred pounds and wouldn't hurt a flea, read French philosophers and talked about Henry Wallace."
1. Dell's Bells (162-5) (a) 02:50
2. One For Prez (163-5) (a) 03:08
3. The Man I Love (164-3) (a) 03:04
4. Easy Swing (165-2) (a) 02:58
5. The Great Lie (166-1) (a) 04:41
6. Dell's Bells (162-4) (b) 03:00
7. One For Prez (163-4) (b) 03:12
8. The Man I Love (164-2) (b) 03:20
9. Easy Swing (165-1) (b) 03:04
10. Dell's Bells (162-1) 03:05
11. Dell's Bells (Incomplete) 01:36
12. Dell's Bells (162-3) 03:06
13. The Man I Love (164-1) 03:28
14. One For Prez (163-1) 03:03
15. One For Prez (163-2) 02:52
16. One For Prez (163-3) 02:45
WARDELL GRAY (Tenor Saxophone), DODO MARMAROSA (Piano), RED CALLENDER (Bass), HAROLD “DOC" WEST (Drums), CHUCK THOMPSON (Drums On “Great Lie" Only
(a) Previously Released On Jazz Selection / Vogue 78's
(b) Previously Released On Fontana LP FJL 907
Tracks 10 To 16 Previously Unreeased
Recorded In Hollywood, California 23rd November 1946
Supervised By Eddie Laguna
Album Produced By Alan Bates
Sleeve Photograph: Ray Avery
Design: Malcolm Walker
This Compilation _ + (c) 1998 Phonoco International Ltd.
Remastering By: THEIN Studios