Wardell Gray was ready for an Oscar years ago: let's hope he makes it this time--says Ted Hallock

INTERVIEWING Wardell Gray is more like attending a literary tea at Aspen, Colorado, than questioning a jazz veteran. Wardell—the thin man of the tenor Sax- wants to talk about James Michner or Colette's newest book. Not about music. Of course, he puts in a few jazz quotes now and then; but you have to work hard to get them. Wardell's appearance is deceptive. He looks as though he started to study his instrument last night at five o'clock—an impression belied by the first facile phrase he blows onstage. But he’s been a well-paid, well-known, well-blown jazzman for seven years now.


Gene Norman discovered Wardell at a Charlie Parker benefit concert In Los Angeles back In the forties and subsequently featured him as a "Star Of Tomorrow" during his own stage shows. “Blue Lou,” one of the records made during his first Norman concert-in 1947 —won the French Grand Prix Du Disque the following year. But now—seven years later—Wardell is still a “Star Of Tomorrow.” He has never netted the recognition he really deserves. He had a short spell with Benny Goodman—but the association didn't last long. During this period he played with the Sextet and the short-lived bop band. Wardell doesn’t have much to say about jazz at all. He has even less to say about Goodman; and what he does say isn't too flattering.

Always the gentleman, he won't elaborate on what or who he did not especially appreciate in Goodman and/or the band. His later association with Basie was happier. He blew with the famous Basie Sextet, which included Buddy De Franco and Clark Terry. And alto with Count's big band.

Today he wants to live in Southern California, and is now planning a quintet to job around Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Only sideman he’s sure he wants is drummer Chunk Thompson. But with all the records he's doing these days, there's a chance fans will at last recognise the potentialities of Wardell Gray.

In conversation, he keeps jumping back to Basie; whatever you’re talking about.


“Count's new band is so much together. It is the band in modern music. I believe it will hold together and recapture the same vitality and popularity that Basie won with his Kansas City band.”

He has no current urges to join anybody's big band, but adds:

“Basie is the greatest bandleader ever. I’ve had ten years on the read. Now I'm going to stay home with my wife and kiddie.” Gray, 33 years old, still likes jazz: "Actually, swing I like; music I appreciate. I like Woody and Stan; good, loose bands. “Swing is coming back. The bop movement will be integrated in it. Bop is swinging; and swing is taking on the harmonic advances of bop . . . if you follow me.”

We did. Only time we got lost was when the literary hour began, with copious comments on chess, Shakespeare, James Jones, Norman Mailer and other Gray favourites.

Not that we’re stupid. Just that we can always kick T.S. Eliot around in our local claque, and we seldom see Wardell.

In Britain, too, Wardell Gray is on the way back—says Alun Morgan

TENORMAN Wardell Gray is coming back into the news. A number of recent but unconnected happenings have all served to bring his name before the jazz public again. Six years ago, Parlophone issued Charlie Parker's “Stupendous” and British collectors heard Wardell on record for the first time. Now, Vogue are scheduling an LP and three 78 couplings which portray his work from his earliest recordings--1946, with Earl Hines's big band—to a Quartet date in 1950 when he was a member of the Basie orchestra.


In between, are four examples of his 1947-vintage swing. “Californian Conquest” and “Just Bop” each occupy one side of an LP and come from a Gene Norman “Just Jazz” concert of February, 1947.

Edited and shortened versions of these have been available on French Jazz Selection for some years, but this new LP contains many choruses previously unheard. With Wardell on these are fellow tenor-man Vido Musso, trumpeter Ernie Royal, and a fine rocking rhythm section comprising Arnold Ross, Barney Kessell, Harry Babasin and Don Lamond.

“Conquest,” a thinly disguised “Sweet Georgia Brown,” was once quoted by Gray as his own favourite recorded solo. Also dating from 1947 is a coupling by J.C. Heard and his orchestra on which Wardell is in the company of Al Haig, Benny Green, Joe Newman, etc.

The 1950 date by the Quartet produces two further sides to add to the previously issued "Dell’s Bells”/“Easy Swing.” Dodo Mannarosa, Red Callender and the late Doc West again back Wardell; this time, on “One For Prez,” which is harmonically the modernists friend "How High The Moon," and the ballad tempoed “Man I Love.”

Vocalist Annie Ross has based several of her “vocalese” pieces on Gray solos.

The long, melodically rounded lines of the original tenor solos are well suited to Miss Ross's individual treatment, and it is significant that she has turned again and again to Wardell's work rather than the better publicised, but leas swinging, solos of Getz and Sims.

Brunswick have recently given us long concert versions of “The Chase” and “Steeplechase" (LA 8646) from a February, 1952, Gene Norman concert, and it is satisfying to have this aural confirmation that Wardell is still a tremendous tour-de-force. American Victor have also issued an LP front the same concert—this time show-casing the talents of harmonica player Les Thompson, and subjugating Messrs. Gray, Gordon and Candoli to a background role.

On the West Coast, Wardell has cut several sessions for Prestige, including one with a group led by “Nu Di” vibesman Teddy Charles. The same company has also issued his concert versions of “Move” and “Scrapple From The Apple” under the titles “Kiddo” and “Jazz On Sunset,” as well as Wardell's own definitive “Jackie,” “Bright Boy,” “Farmer's Market,” etc.

His latest journeys to the recording studios have been at the instigation of Norman Granz and, with the eventual local tie-up with Granz’s jazz label, it may not be too long before we are able to hear Wardell at an all-star jam session playing alongside Stan Getz, Buddy DeFranco and Count Basie.

Wardell has found it unnecessary to change the fundamentals of his style during the last decade, for his honest, natural swing has served as a universal passport to all kinds of gatherings. For consistently top-grade jazz with a beat, the name is Gray.