The spontaneous solos of Wardell Gray (1921-1955) on “Twisted,” “Jackie,” and “Farmer’s Market” have been immortalized in vocalese by Annie Ross, although few today might remember the great tenor’s name due to his early death.
Born in Oklahoma City, Gray grew up in Detroit, playing locally as a teenager. He was a member of the Earl Hines big band during 1943-1945 before moving to Los Angeles in 1945. Gray was a participant in the legendary Central Avenue jam sessions, taking part in tenor battles with Dexter Gordon (documented by their classic recording “The Chase”) and occasionally Teddy Edwards. Gray’s Lester Young–influenced style coupled with his openness to more modern ideas made him a favorite with swing and bop musicians alike.
Wardell Gray recorded with Charlie Parker in 1947 and worked with Benny Goodman the following year. After moving back to New York, Gray freelanced, his most notable associations including Tadd Dameron, the Count Basie septet and big band (1950-1951), and Norman Granz’s jam sessions of which he was one of the stars. Tragically he died under mysterious circumstances in Las Vegas in 1955 when he was just 34.
The tenor’s Prestige recordings of 1949-52 have been reissued on Wardell Gray Memorial vols. 1 and 2. Included are a quartet date with pianist Al Haig, a sextet session with altoist Frank Morgan, lengthy jam-session versions of “Scrapple from the Apple” and “Move,” another quartet outing, and a sextet with trumpeter Art Farmer and pianist Hampton Hawes. Heard along the way are Gray’s famous solos on “Twisted,” “Jackie,” and “Farmer’s Market” plus many alternate takes demonstrating that he was a very creative tenor saxophonist, one who deserves to be remembered.