During Wardell Gray’s tragically short career, he proved to be one of jazz’s innovators. His career lasted just fifteen years. It began in the swing era and encompassed the bebop era. Then, just when Wardell Grey looked like fulfilling his undoubted potential, tragedy struck on May 25th 1955. 

Towards the end of his short career, Wardell dabbled with drugs. This isn’t good news for any jazzer. It undoubtably affects their chops. This was the case with Wardell. As his life neared its end, his playing suffered. The drugs took their toll. Then on May 25th 1955 Wardell was found dead. 

Mystery surrounds Wardell’s death. He was found was found dead on the outskirts of Las Vegas. His neck was broken. Despite this, the local coroner ruled accidental death. Maybe this isn’t surprising. After all, since then, it’s been alleged that Wardell may have fallen foul of the Mafia. Wardell’s death wasn’t so much an accident, but a mob hit. Even the coroner in fifties Vegas were wary of crossing the mob, who ruled Vegas by fear. Sadly, Wardell Grey may have been one their victims. As a result, jazz music was robbed of a pioneering player, Wardell Gray. Following his untimely death in 1955, Way Out Wardell was released on Modern Records. 

Way Out Wardell has recently been rereleased on Boplicity, an imprint of Ace Records. It features five songs recorded in 1947. Wardell is on barnstorming form. He blows his tenor saxophone with power, passion and aplomb. Accompanying him are an all-star case of West Coast jazzers. The result is a poignant and blistering performance from Wardell Gray and his tight, talented band. Quite simply, Way Out Wardell is the perfect way to remember one of jazz’s pioneers. Before I tell you about Way Out Wardell, I’ll tell you about Wardell’s short life.

Wardell Gray was born in Oklahoma City, in May 1921. He was the youngest of four children. For the first eight years of his life, Wardell lived in Oklahoma. However, in 1929, his family moved to Detroit, Michigan. He then transferred to Cass Technical High School. By 1935, Wardell was attending Northeastern High School. Wardell was already playing the clarinet. It produced several jazz musicians, Donald Byrd, Al McKibbon and EliLuckyThompson. However, Wardell didn’t graduate. Instead he dropped out in 1936. It was around this time that Wardell had a life changing experience.

He heard legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Immediately, Wardell decided to switch to tenor saxophone. Soon, he was playing with a small combo. Isaac Goodwin’s band provided the soundtrack to local dance clubs. This was just a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Having been heard by pianist Dorothy Patton, Wardell was asked to join her band. He stayed a year with Dorothy Patton’s band. After that, Wardell joined Jimmy Raschel’s band. Then Wardell joined Benny Carew’s band. This was a step up in class. with each move, Wardell was coming closer to making his name as a musician. In a sense, he was learning his trade. Another important thing that happened, was Wardell became a father.

It was during that time, that Wardell met  Jeanne Goings. They had a relationship and in January 1941, their daughter Anita, who was born. This was the start of a period where Wardell’s life on and off the stage was going well.

Wardell caught a break when as a twenty-one year old, he was asked to join the Earl Hines Orchestra in 1943. However, this wasn’t playing tenor saxophone. Instead, he was playing alto saxophone. For Wardell, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. He grabbed it with both hands. After all, jazz legends like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had made their name with the Earl Hines Orchestra. So did Wardell. Before long he was a soloist in the Earl Hines Orchestra. His spellbinding solos were showstoppers. He spent the next three years criss crossing the land of the free. Wardell also played on the Earl Hines Orchestra 1945 and 1946 recordings. However, in late 1946 the time came for Wardell to move on. 

Having left the Earl Hines Orchestra, Wardell flew to Los Angeles. The West Coast was where some of the most innovative jazz was being recorded. Wardell became friends with jazz legends like Chico Hamilton, Dexter Gordon and Charles Mingus. Each of the four musicians played on each other’s albums. A feature of each album was Wardell’s blazing saxophone. Wardell and his compadres hit pay-dirt on or Charlie Parker’s sessions for Dial. 

Unlike many players, Wardell wasn’t overawed by being in the presence of greatness. Quite the opposite. It was as if Wardell was inspired by Byrd’s presence, especially on Relaxing’ At Camarillo. After this, Wardell seemed to grow in stature. 

On a Dexter Gordon session for Dial, Wardell and Dexter got toe-to-toe on The Chase. It’s a blistering performance from two jazz virtuosos. With Wardell Gray playing as if his very life depended upon it, surely it wasn’t going to be long before Dexter’s solo career began?

That looked like being the case. When Wardell played at the  Shrine Auditorium, Los Angeles, on 27th February 1947. That night the tapes were running. Two tracks were recorded. This includes the Ben Bernie, Kenneth Casey and Maceo Pinkard penned Sweet Georgia Brown. The other tracks was Jesse Greer and Raymond Klages’ Just You, Just Me. These two tracks featured an all-star band, including trumpeter Howard McGhee, tenor saxophonist Vido Musso and pianist Arnold Ross. The rhythm section featured drummer Don Lamond, bassist Harold Babasin and guitarist Barney Kessel. This was the band that breathed life and meaning into the two tracks. Then two months later, other three tracks were recorded, albeit with a different lineup. What didn’t change was the quality of music.

At the Civic Auditorium, Pasadena on 29th April 1947, the tapes were running again. Three tracks were recorded featuring Wardell Gray’s band. They’re Edwin Frickel’s Blue Lou, Count Basie’s One O’Clock Jump plus Walter Gross and Jack Lawrence’s Tenderly. The band featured trombonist Vic Dickenson, alto saxophonist Benny Carter and trumpeter Howard McGhee. They were joined by a rhythm section of drummer Jackie Mills, bassist Red Callendar and guitarist Irving Ashby. Wardell unleashes a series of masterclasses on his tenor saxophonist. Sadly, these musical masterclasses weren’t heard until after Wardell Gray’s death.

For the next eight years Wardell’s career continued. Wardell was always a sideman. He never took centre-stage. However, he was the man jazz’s biggest names called when they’d a session. This included Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Benny Carter. Indeed, it was with Benny Carter than Wardell was working when he met his untimely and mysterious death.

Benny Carter’s band were playing three shows a night in the Moulin Rouge Casino, Las Vegas. Wardell played the first two shows on on May 25th 1955. However, Wardell missed the third show. He was found was found dead on the outskirts of Las Vegas. His neck was broken. Despite this, the local coroner ruled accidental death. Since then, it’s been alleged that Wardell may have fallen foul of the Mafia. By 1955, Wardell was dabbling with drugs. Some people allege Wardell was also a gambler and owed the mob money. There was a problem though, Wardell couldn’t pay. So Wardell had to make the long walk into the desert where he met his fate. That night, jazz music lost one of its most promising and pioneering players, Wardell Gray. Way Out Wardell, you’ll realise, is a poignant tribute to Wardell’s talent.

Blue Lou opens Way Out Wardell. Errol Garner’s piano sets the scene for Wardell’s rasping tenor saxophone. Meanwhile, the bass propels the rhythm section along. Wardell’s solo is spellbinding. He ensures the song swings seamlessly. Not once does he miss a beat. His solo cascades, soaring above the arrangement. Later, he combines power and control. Stabs of piano add to the drama. However, it’s Wardell’s rasping tenor saxophone that steals the show. Then the baton passes to pianist  Errol Garner. Errol unleashes a jaunty, flamboyant solo. It’s as if he’s been inspired by Wardell’s solo and pulls out the stops. Then later, the two join forces as the track reaches a glorious crescendo.

To rousing applause Sweet Georgia Brown, unfolds. Howard Babsain’s bass powers the arrangement along, before barnstorming solos from Wardell and trumpeter Howard McGhee. The band sound as if they’re having a ball. Hollers accompany drummer Howard Mills as he pounds at his high kicking drums. Soon, everybody is showboating and the crowd love it. They raise the roof, encouraging the band to greater heights. This works. Wardell’s band do what seems impossible and raise their game. Following blistering tenor saxophone and trumpet solos, pianist Arnold Ross gets in on the action. So does drummer Howard Mills. Everyone enjoys their moment in the sun as Wardell and his all-star band breath new life and meaning into an old classic, Sweet Georgia Brown.

Tenderly sees the tempo drop. The piano takes centre-stage. It’s wistful, before flamboyant flourishes are unleashed. Wardell is content to let other members of the band shine. He realises the soloist needs space, so doesn’t crowd Errol Garner. This is something of a masterstroke, as Errol Garner’s flamboyant, beautiful and wistful solo is one of the highlights of Way Out Wardell. It’s a heartachingly beautiful track.

It’s all change on Just You, Just Me, another ten minute epic. The growling horns and rhythm section join forces, and power the arrangement along. Trumpeter Howard McGhee and tenor saxophonist Vido Musso join Wardell. They’re the perfect foil for each other on this bebop influenced track. Again, Wardell allows the soloists to shine. He’s content for his band to shine. One of the finest performances comes from trumpeter Howard McGhee. Guitarist Barney Kessel unleashes a crystalline solo. He combines jazz and blues. Then it’s time for pianist Arnold Ross to take centre-stage. He and drummer Howard Lamont play daring do as the soloists enjoy their moment in  the sun. Then later, the band join together as this ten minute epic draws to a close. Not before reminding the audience what’s gone before. By that I mean a stunning slice of bebop.

One O’Clock Jump closes Way Out Wardell, and is another Magnus Opus. It lasts eleven minutes. This means the soloists get the chance to stretch their legs. A cocktail piano and shuffling rhythm section join forces. They play their way into the track. Then the horns sweep in. What a lineup. Alto saxophonist Benny Carter joins trumpeter Howard McGhee and trombonist Vic Dickenson. Add Wardell to the equation and something special is beginning to unfold. Just like previous tracks, the band are revelling on the atmosphere. They encourage each other to greater heights. Somehow, the solos are even more innovative. It’s as if Wardell and his band are determined to pay homage to Count Basie, who wrote the track. Blistering tenor saxophone solos are played with power, speed and control. Then the alto saxophone picks up the reins. Just like previous solos, Howard’s soar above the shuffling, bass lead arrangement.  Wardell Grey seems to have kept the best until last. He and his band kick loose and reinvent a Count Basie classic.

Listening back to Way Out Wardell is quite poignant. After all, Wardell Gray was cut down in his prime. He was a pioneering jazz musician, whose solo career had hardly began. By his death in May 1955, Wardell hadn’t even released a solo album. It’s a case of what might have been? What if Wardell hadn’t allegedly dabbled with drugs or gambled? He’d never have come to the attention of the mob. Then Wardell would never have had to make the long walk into the desert. It was a walk where Wardell surely knew he’d never return. What’s unbelievable is that there was no real investigation into what happened to Wardell Gray?

Who knows, maybe a man found with a broken neck on the outskirts of Vegas was a regular occurrence? In the fifties, it was a city like no other American city. Regular rules didn’t seem to apply there. It was a city where shills, spills and thrills were regular occurrences. This was after all, Vegas. Vegas and Wardell Gray weren’t a good combination. Especially when he seemed to have crossed the wrong person. He wasn’t going to live to tell the tale. 

As a result, a wife lost a husband and a daughter her father. Jazz also lost one of its most promising and pioneering players, Wardell Gray. Who knows the heights Wardell Gray might have reached? Listening to Way Out Wardell, the death of Wardell Gray robbed jazz lovers of an innovative and inventive player. By 1947, when Way Out Wardell was released, Wardell Gray was blossoming into potentially one of the finest tenor saxophonists of his generation. The five tracks on Way Out Wardell, which was recently rereleased by Ace Records are proof of this. Way Out Wardell is also a reminder of that jazz lost one of the finest tenor saxophonists of his generation that night on 25th May 1955.






1 Comment

  1. Kevin Eide

    My very first jazz album was Way Out Wardell. I was 17 and just dug jazz and blues! This was mid ‘60’s. Besides the sax playing, it was the bass that really thrilled me on those tracks.
    This was the first I’be heard of his passing.
    He was great listening.

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