By February 14, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Random Thursday musings


Yesterday would have been Wardell Gray’s 92nd birthday. Why does that matter, and who the hell was he, you might ask? When I first started playing tenor saxophone back in the early 1970’s, I was oddly lucky to be turned on to Lester Young before almost any other saxophone players. Especially odd considering Young had been dead since I was a baby, and should have taken a back seat to dozens of more contemporary players as influences, but it was serendipitous for me, regardless.

As one of Young’s more prominent post-war disciples, it was less odd that Gray quickly became one of my subsequent favorites. Gray is one of those technicians who immediately dazzle young players with his speed, and I was no exception at that age. His melodic conception and very personal approach to bebop were elements that revealed themselves to me more slowly, and his playing still offers surprises almost 40 years after first hearing him, and almost sixty years after his death at the age of 34.

Hopefully, we’ll talk more about Wardell and his music as we move forward, but there are a few things that make Gray an interesting figure to those outside of the jazz world. First, he was one of those angry young black intellectuals who began to filter into American life after World War II. Not only was Gray a great musician, he was active in leftist politics, he read existentialist authors, and he generally carried himself in ways that infuriated the white establishment. Second, he is mentioned prominently in that seminal beat novel—one that was still must reading for young hippies like me in the early ’70’s—Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. The third matter is that of his death, which I—and many others—presumed was from an overdose suffered as the result of a longstanding heroin addiction. In fact, his death may have been a much darker, and more complex, affair.

Here are a couple of articles to check out in this regard. For a good general introduction to Gray’s place in both the beat generation and the post-war civil rights movement, and his place in Kerouac’s world, here’s an old piece from the Village Voice called “Song of the Thin Man” by Stuart Michner. Then, check out this piece about Gray’s mysterious death in Las Vegas back in 1955. It was originally posted at the Jazzitude site, but that site is, unfortunately, no more. It’s quoted in its entirety at the link you can find by clicking here.

Speaking of birthdays and other milestones, it should be noted, even six weeks into the new year, that 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the debut of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, “The Rite of Spring”. Famously, its debut sparked a quite literal riot inside the Theatre des Champs-Elysees in Paris. Fisticuffs, assaults and all manner of mayhem accompanied what was seen that night as either the first act of a brilliant new wave, or the death of an ordered universe. Sadly, we lament that not much in the world of music seems capable of causing that sort of reaction anymore. Oh, we get angry here about the state of contemporary music, but the public at large seems content enough with the status quo.

Given what we see as complacency in American culture, don’t get us started on “the death of classical music”. Just don’t. We already have enough trouble with critics and authors who disagree with us, so we don’t want to end up like Wardell Gray. More musings soon.

Posted in: Jazz, Odds & Ends

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