Ken Downs’ interview with Wardell Gray

Daily Trojan, Vol. 40, No 109, March 30, 1949, page 4

Sax Player Defends Defamed Musicians

“Just because a few guys get out of line now and then, jazz musicians as a whole have been branded as having bad extracurricular habits by newspaper columnists filling up space and politicians trying to get publicity,” said Wardell Gray, Benny Goodman's ace tenor sax player.

Commenting on columnist Earl Wilson’s occasional blast at be-boppers and a congressman who said that jazzmen are all slaves to immoral addictions, Gray said a musician can’t “goof around” these days and still keep eating.

“Since the war,” Gray said between sets at the Palladium, “things have tightened up in the music business. For awhile [sic], anyone with a horn could get a job; now a musician has to be a businessman, too.[”]

Gray, who was with Earl Hines for two years, admitted that some of the bad reputation jazz musicians have is partly their own fault. “A lot of the boys take to bad habits either to escape or to keep going. When you are on the road with a band, you play a job, hop in a car or bus and try to sleep while you ride 500 miles, play another job, and then start all over again.”

Gray added that another reason musicians[’] reputations have suffered is that they and their work are always in the spotlight. “Musicians work at night and in places where, if they get out of line, everyone sees them,” he added.

“Music is creative, and many musicians who are real artists have a tendency to be individualistic,” he said. “I know musicians who can play anything, but they can't do much else and they don't care about anything but music. Even though some of these guys don’t have bad habits, they wander around in their own world, and everyone thinks they are peculiar.”

Gray summed up his argument by saying that there are two types of musicians: Those playing for “kicks” and what pennies are thrown their way, and the “craftsmen” playing for money.

The second type is by far in the majority. Mainly, they are the men working in movie and radio studios and those playing with big commercial bands. They have to be sober and businesslike because of the highly technical conditions under which they work. “Playing tight and complicated arrangements takes clear thinking,” said Gray.

“Jazz is going ahead with bop,” Gray said, “but otherwise, musicians are getting conservative because of bad business and rough competition. "Look at band uniforms. Sure, Kenton decked out his boys in mourning clothes, and Gillespie's band wears berets and mad colors, but it's all commercialism. In Benny's band, we're wearing black suits and black bowties.”

Gray ended with, “These guys who slam jazz musicians don’t know what they’re talking about. If they would seriously study the popular music business, they would find that it is settling down like other businesses. And musicians who are not steering a straight and narrow line are falling by the wayside.”