Wardell Gray

Gray 3Carl Wardell Gray was born in 1921 in Oklahoma City and his family moved to Detroit, Michigan in 1929. Gray attended Cass Technical High School in downtown Detroit, which is noted for having Donald Byrd, Lucky Thompson, Howard McGhee, and Gerald Wilson as alumni. He started on the clarinet, but later switched to the tenor saxophone. His main influence on tenor was Lester Young. Through an acquaintance Wardell was recommended to band leader Earl Hines and was hired in 1943. The Earl Hines Orchestra had nurtured the careers of a number of emerging bebop musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Unlike many of his early contemporaries, Hines was sympathetic to the new developments in jazz that were underway. Wardell spent approximately three years with Hines, and became a featured soloist.

Wardell Gray - Episode 1

Gray left the Hines band in July of 1946 and resettled in Los Angeles and became a fixture in the Central Avenue jazz scene. He recorded his 1st session under his own name in 1946. This was a quartet date, known as "One for Prez," for Sunset Records. The other players included Dodo Marmarosa (piano), Red Callender (bass) and Chuck Thompson (drums). Wardell was also a member of Gene Norman's All Stars and successfully toured up and down the West Coast with them in a manner reminiscent of Norman Granz’ JATP concerts. The highlight of most of the concerts was a battle between two leading players, and in the case of the Gene Norman concerts it was usually Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray.
CompositionArtistYear
Groovin' HighWardell Gray/Howard McGhee Sextet1947
Straight LifeWardell Gray/Earl Hines & His Orchestra1946
Let's Get StartedWardell Gray/Earl Hines & His Orchestra1946
BambyWardell Gray/Earl Hines & His Orchestra1946
Dell's BellsWardell Gray Quartet1946
One for PrezWardell Gray Quartet1946
Easy SwingWardell Gray Quartet1946
Blue LouWardell Gray/Errol Garner GNP1947
BebopWardell and Friends/Howard McGhee Sextet1947

Wardell Gray - Episode 2

The successful pairing of the two tenor players led to the recording of "The Chase" on Dial Records in June, 1947. This was released as a "battle of the tenors" affair over the two sides of a 78 rpm record and received much attention among jazz fans at the time. They both exhibited great technical prowess on their instruments, but were stylistically quite different with Gray's lighter touch complementing Gordon's more forceful attack. In 1948 Wardell relocated to New York and became a regular at the Royal Roost on Broadway. The Roost was home to the Tadd Dameron/Fats Navarro group, the Miles Davis Nonet, and for a period, the Count Basie Orchestra. While Gray was with the Benny Goodman Septet in 1948, he still had opportunities to participate in his own recording sessions and to appear with other groups including Tadd Dameron.
CompositionArtistYear
The ChaseWardell Gray/Dexter Gordon1947
Light GrayWardell Gray Quartet1948
Cookin' On UpBenny Goodman Septet1948
Bye Bye Blues BopBenny Goodman Septet1948
Stealin' ApplesBenny Goodman Septet1948
SymphonetteTadd Dameron Sextet1948
ShawnWardell Gray Quintet1948

Wardell Gray - Episode 3

And after leaving Benny Goodman in late September of 1949, he was based mainly in the mid-west, especially Chicago, appearing with a variety of artists including Billie Holiday. One of Wardell’s recording sessions produced the medium tempo blues "Twisted." A few years later vocalist Annie Ross put some very clever words to his solo and recorded a best-selling vocalese version of "Twisted." Count Basie was not immune to the pressures that Goodman faced and was forced to disband his full orchestra. In August of 1950 he decided to form a smaller group with Clark Terry (trumpet), Buddy DeFranco (clarinet) and Gray (tenor sax) as the front horn line. Gray soon established himself as the lead solo tenor player, thus assuming the role as one of Lester Young's successors with the Basie orchestra. He can be heard on "Little Pony" and "Every Tub" where he is prominently featured. In 1952 Wardell moved back to Los Angeles and would never return to the east coast. Gray participated in a number of memorable sessions in 1952 including work with Art Famer and drummer Louis Bellson.
CompositionArtistYear
Sugar Hill BopWardell Gray Quartet1949
In A PinchWardell Gray Quartet1949
TwistedWardell Gray Quartet1949
TwistedLambert, Hendricks and Ross1959
Little PonyCount Basie & His Orchestra1951
Farmer's MarketWardell Gray w/Art Farmer1952
The Jeep is Jumpin'Louis Bellson and The Just Jazz All Stars1952
Punkin'Louis Bellson and The Just Jazz All Stars1952