Wardell Gray

Born February 13, 1921
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, United States
Origin Detroit, Michigan, United States

Died May 25, 1955 (aged 34)
Las Vegas, Nevada, United States
Genres Jazz, swing, bebop
Occupation(s) Tenor saxophonist
Instruments Tenor saxophone, clarinet

Wardell Gray (February 13, 1921 – May 25, 1955) was an American jazz tenor saxophonist who straddled the swing and bebop periods.

Wardell Gray was born in Oklahoma City, the youngest of four children. His early childhood years were spent in Oklahoma, before moving with his family to Detroit 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.

Gray’s first musical job was in Isaac Goodwin’s small band, a part-time outfit that played local dances. When auditioning for another job, he was heard by Dorothy Patton, a young pianist who was forming a band in the Fraternal Club in Flint, Michigan, and she hired him. After a very happy year there, he moved to Jimmy Raschel’s band (Raschel had recorded a few sides earlier in the 1930s but did not do so again) and then on to the Benny Carew band in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was at around this time that he met Jeanne Goings; together they had a daughter, Anita, who was born in January 1941.

Just up the road from the Congo Club was the Three Sixes; Jeri knew Earl Hines, and when the Hines band came through Detroit in late 1943, she persuaded Earl to hire Wardell—on alto, since there was no tenor vacancy at the time.

This was a big break for the 21-year-old, as the Earl Hines Orchestra was not only nationally known, but it 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 lively and stimulating experience for the young tenor player. They toured the country, and it was when they were in California that Gray met Dorothy Duvall. They were immediately attracted to one another. Dorothy was married but, although the marriage was on the point of collapse, an unfortunate intervention by a “friend” led Gray to believe that this was not so, and he returned to Jeri; they were married in Chicago in September 1945.

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. While some of the live Jubilee sessions have been reissued on CD (1), the studio recordings from 1945-46 are still available only on LP.

He left Hines late in 1946, settling in Los Angeles, California; soon after arriving there, he recorded the first session under his own name. This was a quartet session for Eddie Laguna’s Sunset label, and on it Wardell had strong support from Dodo Marmarosa on piano. The date produced some excellent sides, notably “Easy Swing” and “The Man I Love”; there is a reissue of the whole session, including alternate takes (2), but a selection is available on (12).

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.

Apart from a spell with a small band led by Al Killian (some Jubilee recordings by this group show Wardell in fine form) Wardell was still working mainly in one-off sessions during 1947. However, at a concert around the turn of that year which also featured Benny Goodman, Wardell so impressed the clarinettist that Goodman hired him for a small group which he was just setting up as part of his flirtation with bebop. Goodman had previously been highly critical of bop playing but, speaking of Wardell to Metronome magazine, he said that “if he’s bop, that’s great. He’s wonderful!”

At around this time his recording sessions started becoming fewer—though a live session with Dexter Gordon, recreating the excitements of Central Avenue, and a studio session with Art Farmer and Hampton Hawes (both on 18), have fine examples of Wardell’s playing.

However, there are increasing signs of a lack of engagement in Wardell’s work around 1951/52, notably in a further live session with Dexter Gordon from February 1952, and it seems that he may have been becoming disillusioned with the music business. That he was still capable of playing superbly is shown by his work on a live jam session at The Haig, but such sessions were by now very sparse, and more typical work from this period was recorded on a session with Teddy Charles.

At around this time, Gray apparently became involved with drugs; friends reported that this was taking 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.

Disappearance and death

Gray was still working regularly despite his drug problems, 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. Gray attended rehearsals but was absent when the club opened on May 25. 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.


(cross-indexed to the text above)

LaserLight 15 766 (Earl Fatha Hines And His Orchestra)
Black Lion Records BLCD 760106 (Wardell Gray: One For Prez) these sessions are also available on The Complete Sunset and New Jazz Masters CD.
Spotlite SPJ-(CD) 109-2 (Charlie Parker: The Dial Masters) 2-CD set
Spotlite SPJ-(CD) 130 (Dexter Gordon: Dexter Gordon On Dial – The Complete Sessions)
Giants of Jazz CD 53064 (Wardell Gray: The Chase …Guest: Dexter Gordon)
Giants of Jazz CD 53097 (Various Artists: An Unforgettable Session) live recordings from a 1947 Gene Norman Presents “JUST JAZZ” concert at The Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California.
Savoy SV-0164, SV-0165, SV-0166 (Various Artists: Jazz West Coast Live/Hollywood Jazz Live – Volumes 1, 2, 3)
Fresh Sound FSR-CD 156 (Sonny Criss: California Boppin’) 1947
Dragon DRCD 183 (Stan Hasselgard & Benny Goodman: Hasselgard and Goodman At Click) 1948
Blue Note CDP 72438 33373 23 (Fats Navarro & Tadd Dameron: The Complete Blue Note and Capitol Recordings) 2-CD set
Cool And Blue C&B-CD 116 (Wardell Gray: Light Gray) 1948–1950
Swingtime ST CD1 (Wardell Gray: Easy Swing) 1946–1955
Capitol CDP 72438 32086 23 (Benny Goodman: Undercurrent Blues)
Hep CD36 (Benny Goodman: Benny’s Bop) 1948–1949
Jazz Archives 90.510-2 (Benny Goodman)
Moon MCD 076-2 (Wardell Gray: How High The Moon)
Jazz Factory JFCD 22880 (Gerald Wilson: Big Band Modern)
Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-050-2 (Wardell Gray Memorial – Volume 1) compilation of sessions for Prestige Records from 1949, 1950 and 1953.
Original Jazz Classics OJCCD-051-2 (Wardell Gray Memorial – Volume 2) another Prestige compilation, these sessions are from 1950 and 1952.
Fresh Sound FSR-CD 157 (Wardell Gray Quintet – Live At The Haig) 1952
Savoy SVY17441 (3 CD set) (Bopland) 1947

As sideman

With Louis Bellson

Just Jazz All-Stars (Capitol, 1952)
Skin Deep (Norgran, 1953)

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