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Wardell Gray Quartet

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Remembering Wardell Gray

These recordings were produced in New York City on November 11, 1949 with the following Personnel: Wardell Gray (tenor sax), Al Haig (piano), Tommy Potter (bass), and Roy Haynes (drums).

Wardell Gray was born in Oklahoma City on February 13, 1921. The youngest of four children. His early childhood years were spent in Oklahoma, before moving with his family to Detroit, Michigan in 1929. In early 1935, Gray began attending Northeastern High School, and then transferred to Cass Technical High School, which is noted for having Donald Byrd, Lucky Thompson and Al McKibbon as alumni. He left in 1936, before graduating. Advised by his brother-in-law Junior Warren, as a teenager he started on the clarinet, but after hearing Lester Young on record with Count Basie, he was inspired to switch to the tenor saxophone.

His first big break came when he was hired by the Earl Hines Orchestra at the age of 21. The nationally known group had nurtured the careers of some of the emerging bebop musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Although most of them had left by the time Gray joined, playing with the Hines band was still a marvellously lively and stimulating experience for the young tenor player. Wardell spent approximately three years with Hines, and matured rapidly during this time. He soon became a featured soloist, and the band's recordings show a relaxed, fluent stylist very much in the Lester Young mold. He left Earl Hines group late in 1946, settling in Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles, Wardell worked in a number of bands including Benny Carter, the blues singer Ivory Joe Hunter, and the small group that supported singer Billy Eckstine on a tour of the West Coast. But the real focus in LA at this time was in the clubs along Central Avenue, which was still thriving after the boom years brought about by the huge injection of wartime defence spending. It was here that Wardell held his tenor battles with Dexter Gordon. These two were ideally matched: Wardell's light sound and swift delivery were more than a match for Dexter's big, blustering sound, and their tenor jousts became a kind of symbol for the Central Avenue scene. Gordon later recalled: "There'd be a lot of cats on the stand but by the end of the session it would wind up with Wardell and myself... His playing was very fluid, very clean... He had a lot of drive and a profusion of ideas". Their fame began to spread, and Ross Russell managed to get them to simulate one of their battles on "The Chase" which became Wardell's first nationally-known recording and has been assessed as "one of the most exciting musical contests in the history of jazz".

The success of "The Chase" was the break that Wardell needed, and he became increasingly prominent in public sessions in and around LA, including the "Just Jazz" series of jam sessions organised by the disc jockey Gene Norman. There were concerts at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and the Shrine Auditorium and other venues.

He seems, tragically, to have become involved in the drug scene. How this could have happened, given his maturity and his understanding of the consequences, is still a mystery; nevertheless, friends reported that it was beginning to take its toll. His playing was now less fluent, and a studio session in January 1955, which was to be his last, shows strong but (by his own standards) rather unsubtle playing.

Gray was still working regularly, though, and when Benny Carter was engaged in May 1955 to provide the band at the opening of the Moulin Rouge Hotel, he called on Gray. He attended rehearsals but, when the club opened on 25 May, Wardell was absent. The next day he was found on a stretch of desert on the outskirts of Las Vegas dead with a broken neck.

Although, by most accounts, there was a poor examination of circumstances, Gray's demise was ruled an accidental death. Foul play was suspected by some, especially given Gray's possible association with mob boss Meyer Lansky.



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