A kid . . . who stood slumped with his horn and blew like Wardell . . . and we all stumbled out into raggedy American realities from the dream of jazz. Jack Kerouac, Visions of Cody
The author of a 1954 Melody Maker piece, "Return of the Thin Man," compared interviewing tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray to "attending a literary tea . . . with copious comments on chess, Shakespeare, James Jones, Norman Mailer and other Gray favorites." Since Gray also read Sartre and Camus and was involved in leftist politics and the NAACP to the extent that the FBI had a file on him, he would have found much to interest him in Norman Mailer's 1957 essay "The White Negro." As a black jazz musician nourished intellectually and creatively by a predominantly white culture, he might even have taken the title personally. In Mailer's depiction of the white hipster, it's the other way around, of course: "The source of Hip is the Negro" who "must live with danger from his first day."
Wardell Gray could never have read "The White Negro" because the dangers he lived with killed him at 34, less than a year after the Melody Maker interview. If the manner of his deathan unsolved mystery involving narcotics and abandonment in the desertwas a grim illustration of Mailer's dynamic, the character of his life suggests something else. While it's true that he lived and died in Mailer's "Wild West of American night life," he managed to play chess, read broadly, become a culinary virtuoso, and enthuse about a wide variety of subjects including classical music and other arts. According to Hampton Hawes in his autobiography Raise Up off Me, "When white fans in the clubs came up to speak with us, Wardell would do the talking while the rest of us clammed up and looked funny."
In Abraham Ravett's 1994 documentary, Forgotten Tenor, a white friend who knew him in Michigan when she was in her teens suggests that he was "ahead of his time as far as knowing who he was as a person and he wasn't about to back off or be treated unfairly." She saw that he "would have a problem because he didn't have that better-know-your-place attitude."
One place Wardell Gray knew he belonged was the jazz hierarchy. Sought after and admired by Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Benny Carter, and Charlie Parker, among others, he was praised in Jazz on Record for his "unparalleled ability to create long swinging solos devoid of the tautology which mars so much of the work of LP-era musicians." When asked by Leonard Feather who the best player of the post-war generation was, Lester Young "gave a blanket endorsement of Wardell Gray." Having been quoted more than once on his distaste for bop, Benny Goodman heard the Thin Man firsthand at a California concert and admitted to a Metronome interviewer, "If Wardell Gray plays bop, it's great. Because he's wonderful." Within months, Goodman formed a new septet featuring Gray. Even after being chosen by the King of Swing, Gray's sense of "who he was" was so strong that when people were congratulating him for being with Goodman, he told his wife he wished somebody would talk about how Goodman was playing with him.
Still, he lived with the day-to-day knowledge that no matter how accomplished a musician he became, no matter how much he read, thought, or hoped, he would never escape the prison defined by prejudice. Nor would he escape heroin after spending most of his life resisting it and counseling against it. Prejudice was the place he lived in and died on May 25, 1955, his body found in a drainage ditch in the desert near Las Vegas with a broken neck and head injuries. If he'd been white, the police would have conducted a thorough investigation. As it was, they were in a hurry to close the case, leaving questions that inspired Bill Moody's 1997 detective novel, The Death of a Tenor Man.
Seven years before his death Gray was onstage at the Flamingo in Jim Crow Las Vegas playing with Goodman's big band. Thanks in great part to his exposure with Goodman, he had jumped from 27th to fourth in the tenor sax division of the 1948 Metronome poll. He was the only African American in the band, and its star soloist and bandmaster, expected to lead in the leader's absence. He was not expected to eat in the dining room, however, nor permitted to enter through the main entrance, and he had to room apart from the others in a house in the black district. In Forgotten Tenor, trombonist Eddie Bert tells of the night when Goodman was absent during the dinner show, and Gray led the band while performing a send-up of the Goodman manner that had the musicians and the audience laughing. For a prop, he used one of Benny's clarinets, loaned to him when the two had traded instruments at a New Year's Eve party in New York. He had all the moves down, including the famous Goodman glare known as "the Ray." He was probably unaware that his boss happened to be dining in the room. Incensed, Goodman charged up to the bandstand, fired him in front of everyone, and then pursued him through the kitchen loudly demanding the return of his clarinet. The next day Goodman rehired him.