Song of the Thin Man

Wardell Gray's Princely Lament

From all accounts, he got along well with his bandmates. In Swing, Swing, Swing, Ross Firestone's biography of Goodman, however, Chico O'Farrill says that Wardell "sometimes felt the brunt of racial discrimination in a very strong way," and Buddy Greco claims that racism drove him from the band: "There were times when he couldn't check into the hotel or eat in the restaurants. And then, when we worked down in Virginia, some Ku Klux Klanners burst into the little apartment Doug Mettome and I shared with him and threatened to lynch him . . . We had a lot of problems with racial situations and Wardell finally had enough."

Forgotten Tenor features interviews with Wardell's first wife, Jeri, and his widow, Dorothy. Both women speak of him as if the news from Las Vegas had come four months rather than 40 years ago. Asked about how he died, Jeri is still angry: "It was a bad death . . . Wardell died from a broken neck. He didn't die from overdose of drugs, he died because he was left in the desert with his neck broken." Dorothy Gray reads aloud from some of the letters he wrote to her between 1950 and his death. In a 1951 letter, at the time he was leaving the Basie band and hoping to settle down in Los Angeles with Dorothy and his stepdaughter, he imagined how home life would be for them: "All working hard, studying, going to school, perfecting ourselves for one another. What a vast sense of accomplishment there will be in the atmosphere."

While Charlie Parker and Lester Young were his most significant influences, Gray was no less inspired by the challenge of the many Los Angeles sessions where he played head-to-head with Dexter Gordon. "At all the sessions," Gordon told writer Stan Britt, "there would always be about ten horns up on the stand. Various tenors, altos, trumpets, and an occasional trombone. But it seemed that in the wee small hours of the morning—always—there would be only Wardell and myself." The two tenors turn up in On the Road "blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume," and again when Dean and Sal play catch to "the wild sounds of Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing 'The Hunt' "—two heroes of the Beat generation playing along with two heroes of the swing-to-bop generation.

Wardell Gray, Stan Hasselgaard
photo: courtesy Richard Carter
Wardell Gray, Stan Hasselgaard

Their tenor battle in "The Hunt" invites boxing analogies—Dexter the hard-hitting Joe Louis, Wardell the float-like-a-butterfly sting-like-a-bee Ali. Wardell comes out of his corner dancing while Dexter's first moves are comparable to solid body blows, except the only body is the audience and in case anyone doubts the true nature of the event, his first quote is from the "Wedding March." The closest they get to a real punch-counterpunch confrontation is when Wardell begins the third round and Dexter breaks in briefly; when it's Dexter's turn, Wardell returns the favor with a quick, playful knock on Dexter's door. As the other players begin riffing in the background, the excitement peaks with a loop-the-loop from Dexter followed by a move of Wardell's that provokes an ecstatic shout from someone in the audience. Flights like this are what Mike Zwerin is getting at, in Close Enough for Jazz, when he writes that "the sound of Wardell" with Basie's big band at the Royal Roost in 1948 has never left his head—"I will go to my grave with it." Zwerin calls that sound "the cry": "A direct audial objectification of the soul. You know it when you hear it."

On those Central Avenue nights when they had people standing on tables and chairs cheering them on, Dexter and Wardell were so deep in tenor heaven they left the rest of the band behind. In Central Avenue Sounds, an oral history of L.A. jazz, pianist Gerry Wiggins reports that he and Charlie Mingus simply gave up and left the stage one night after the two tenors had been through 20 or 30 choruses "and they didn't stop. They went right on with the drummer. Didn't miss us at all."

While it may seem to clash with the image of a hard-swinging, crowd-pleasing battling tenor, at least one writer has referred to Wardell Gray as a "princely" figure, an image that is implicit in the critical language his playing inspires ("rare grace and beauty," "elegant yet powerful") and in photographs taken at various times in his life. He looks especially princely in a photograph of him smilingly enduring the playful embrace of Stan Hasselgaard, the Swedish clarinetist who played with him in Goodman's septet and considered him "the best tenor in America today." In films of Basie's small group made in 1950, Gray is the only musician who seems to have no time for the camera. Swaying along to the music, he shows such a tender regard for his instrument and for the act of improvising that when he steps forward to play his solos he looks less like royalty than a divinity student absorbed in prayer. Playing a courtly, warmly insistent preface to Helen Humes's ebullient vocal on "I Cried for You," he treats the tenor as if one false or unfelt note would permanently wound it. The song of the Thin Man cries for us all.

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