Today, many parts of
Central Avenue largely consists of empty lots, burned-out stores, and terrible slums - the heart of the area known as South-Central L.A.
Once, though, it was the vibrant center of black
, a street whose music clubs gave birth to a myriad of jazz and rhythm-and-blues talents and showcased virtually every major African-American popular musician of the 1930s and '40s. Los Angeles
Almost every key American city had its
Central Avenue: had the Storyville district and French Quarter; New Orleans had the uptown area of New York Harlem and later 52nd Street; had the “South Side” and "Bronzeville;" Chicago , had Washington, D.C. U Street; ; the Fillmore district. San Francisco
Just like Central Avenue, the old commercial district running through the Watts neighborhood in the South Central section of Los Angeles, all were thriving cultural centers for black America in mid-century, and all are gone or on the verge of extinction, many burned to the ground or abandoned in the mid-1960s. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Central was home to local jazz clubs that launched the careers of international jazz stars who hailed from
: Buddy Collette, Sonny Criss, Eric Dolphy, Dexter Gordon, Charles Mingus, and many others. It was L.A. 's L.A. Harlem, with blacks and whites flocking to see the best local and international jazz musicians.
The history of jazz in
from this period is woefully under-documented, and this chapter from California Bob Gordon’s book is a major contribution to redressing that imbalance.
© -Robert Gordon, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
CENTRAL AVENUE SCENE
As word of the ill-fated gig at Billy Berg's and of Charlie Parker's subsequent troubles in California spread, Los Angeles came to be saddled with a square reputation it didn't entirely deserve. One statement of Charlie's came to be widely quoted at the time. Shortly after he had returned to
, Charlie told Leonard Feather, 'Finally on the Coast I didn't have any place to stay, until somebody put me up in a converted garage. The mental strain was getting worse all the time. What made it worst of all was that nobody understood our kind of music out on the Coast. I can't begin to tell you how I yearned for New York ." [Leonard Feather, Inside Jazz, New York: DaCapo, 1980, p. 14] But while it seems obvious that Bird's talents weren't appreciated by the audience at Billy Berg's, it simply is not true that nobody understood modern jazz on the Coast - as Parker himself knew well enough. Unfortunately, this kind of blanket condemnation was all too often taken at face value. New York
One of the problems was that the response of the
Hollywood audience was accepted as typical by the true believers back east. In truth it was typical of only one portion of the LA audience. There were enthusiastic supporters of jazz in in those post-war years; they just weren't to be found among the regulars in the Los Angeles Hollywood nightclubs. Several miles to the south of the Hollywood hills - and all but unknown to the mass of white Angelenos - a wealth of nightclubs, restaurants and after-hours spots served up a steaming potpourri of jazz nightly. These clubs were clustered along or near the mainstern of LA's black community, Central Avenue, in a setting that rivaled 's famed New York 52nd St.
The focal point of the Avenue was the Club Alabam, a favorite of the crowds for several decades. The Alabam had been founded (as the Apex Club) in the twenties by drummer-bandleader Curtis Mosby, and featured dancing and entertainment nightly. During the boom years of World War Two Lee Young led the house band; his lead altoist for a time was a white teenager just beginning to make a name for himself in jazz circles, Art Pepper. Art described the Alabam as:
‘one of the old-time show-time places, a huge room with beautiful drapes and silks and sparklers and colored lights turning and flashing. The bandstand was plush and gorgeous with curtains that glistened. The waitresses were dressed in scanty costumes, and they were all smiling and wiggling and walking around, and everywhere you looked you saw teeth, people laughing, and everybody was decked out. It was a sea of opulence, big hats and white fluffy fur.' [Art and Laurie Pepper, Straight Life: The Story of Art Pepper,
: Schirmer, 1979, p. 42] New York
There was a balcony and a spacious dance floor and, along one wall, an eighty-foot bar.
Clustered nearby were such clubs as Lovejoy's, the Downbeat, Memo, Bird in the Basket, Last Word and Turban Lounge. Lee Young remembers:
‘They had so many little clubs. Next door to the Alabam was a Mexican restaurant, and it had a piano in the back, and piano players used to go in there, and I'm speaking about Art Tatum. Adjacent to that was the Downbeat. Within two blocks they had about six clubs where musicians were working, and so, like, we used to take long intermissions and go across the street and listen. We'd go next door and they'd come over to hear us play. It was a West Coast
52nd St, but you never really heard. of that much, then, where music was concerned.’ [Ibid, p.46] Los Angeles
There were, in addition to the regular nightclubs, numerous after-hours rooms, bottle clubs (bring your own bottle; they'd supply the set-ups) and restaurants that featured jazz of one style or another.
Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker both knew of the
Central Avenue scene, of course, because they'd go down after their job at Berg's and jam with the locals. They had no difficulty finding musicians ready and eager to play. Dexter Gordon - LA's most famous native son - was out of town when the Dizzy Gillespie Sextet dropped by, but musicians like Sonny Criss, Teddy Edwards, Wardell Gray, Bobby and Jay McNeely, Art and Addison Farmer, Howard McGhee, Al Killian, Dodo Marmarosa, Hampton Hawes, Charles Mingus, Chuck Thompson and Roy Porter were available at a moment's notice.
There was at least one first-rate bebop combo playing in the
area even before Diz and Bird arrived. This was the Howard McGhee Sextet with tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards. McGhee and Edwards were recent settlers on the Coast who shared similar backgrounds. Howard was born in Los Angeles in 1918, but grew up in Tulsa . There he attended Detroit , which also numbered jazzmen Wardell Gray and Milt Jackson among its alumni. Maggie served the usual apprenticeship in the big bands of the period, starting with road trips and one-nighters in territorial bands in the late thirties. In 1941 he joined Lionel Hampton and subsequently spent time in such name bands as Andy Kirk's Clouds of joy, Charlie Barnet, Georgie Auld and Count Basie. He settled in Cass Technical School in 1944, just in time to join the brewing bebop revolution. Originally heavily influenced by Roy Eldridge, Maggie forged an original style for himself that combined the bravura flash, broad tone and vibrato of the trumpet masters of the thirties with the fluid agility and advanced harmonic ideas of Dizzy Gillespie. Howard quickly made a name for himself on the New York 52nd St scene, and when Coleman Hawkins formed a combo for a West Coast tour Maggie was picked for the trumpet slot.
The Coleman Hawkins Quintet (McGhee, Hawkins, Sir Charles Thompson, Oscar Pettiford and Denzil Best) played an extended engagement at Billy Berg's in early 1945. The band featured a fascinating synthesis of swing and bop, and apparently was conservative enough to find favor even with the crowds at Berg's. More importantly, the group recorded while in
, and the sessions - one for Asch and three for Capitol produced some outstanding examples of jazz in transition from the swing to modern idioms. On ballads like 'Stardust' and 'Talk of the Town' the group is cast in a traditional mould, yet the up-tempo numbers - such as 'Bean Stalkin' ' from the Asch session and 'Rifftide', 'Hollywood Stampede' and 'Bean Soup' from the Capitol dates - find the band in a boppish mode. California
When Coleman Hawkins returned to
in March, McGhee decided to stay on in New York . He wanted to form a band along the lines of the Hawkins group, using many of the same arrangements, and it was here that Teddy Edwards entered the picture. Teddy was born in Los Angeles in 1924. He took up alto sax at the age of eleven, and was soon playing professionally with local bands. In 1940 he moved to Jackson, Mississippi , where one of his jobs was with the Stack Walton band. Howard McGhee was also in the Walton band, as were Wardell Gray, Matthew Gee and Al McKibbon. Teddy moved to Detroit in 1944 and settled in California , where he soon renewed his acquaintance with McGhee. Maggie called on Edwards when it came time to form his band. 'They had a library,' Teddy remembers, 'and Howard wanted to use most of that. He couldn't find anybody he liked, so he persuaded me to give the tenor a try. [Lester Koenig, notes to Contemporary 7588] Teddy took up the larger horn and found it a challenge because, 'while changing horns I also had to learn the band's book at the same time. This was kinda tough, but it taught me a lot.' [John Tynan, “Teddy Edward: Long, Long Journey,” Down Beat, Los Angeles 24 May 1962, p. 19]
The group played jobs around
throughout 1945 and 1946. Work wasn't always steady, but McGhee had a way of finding gigs if any were available. The personnel varied but usually included McGhee, Edwards, Dodo Marmarosa or Vernon Biddle on piano, Stanley Morgan, guitar, Bob Kesterson, bass, and Roy Porter on drums. During the spring and summer of 1946 Howard spent some time playing with Charlie Parker (as we have seen) in an attempt to keep Bird's head above water. Following Charlie's breakdown and departure to Los Angeles , however, Howard was once again free to work with his own group. By October of 1946 he and Ross Russell agreed that the band was ready to record. Camarillo
The musicians gathered at the C.P. MacGregor studio in
on 18 October. Dodo Marmarosa was the pianist and studio veteran Arvin Garrison sat in on guitar; McGhee, Edwards, Bob Kesterson and Roy Porter completed the band. Dodo Marmarosa - the nickname is a diminutive of 'Dodobird', which referred to the pianist's rather large head and slight frame - was one of the brilliant group of white pianists (Al Haig, George Wallington and Joe Albany were the others) who helped spearhead the bop, revolution. His given name was Michael. Bob 'Dingbod' Kesterson was a free spirit who commuted to gigs, bass and all, on an Italian motor scooter. With the exception of Garrison, the musicians had been playing together on and off for well over a year, and in the autumn of 1946 the band was the equal of any bebop unit on either coast. Hollywood
The band cut four sides for Dial that night. The first tune was released under the title 'Dilated Pupils' and attributed to McGhee, but it is simply a remake of the 52nd St favorite 'Max Makin' Wax'. Teddy Edwards, in his recording debut, is remarkably at ease at the rapid tempo, and Maggie caps the performance with a well-balanced solo in cup mute. In fact, Howard stays in cup through all four tunes. ' at Minton's', an original of Maggie's, is a medium-tempo ballad. The highlight of the session is a blues with altered changes in the first four bars, 'Up in Dodo's Room'. Once again the tune is attributed to McGhee, but Teddy remembers that the tune was written by Hat Vernon, a
pianist. The performance remains a favorite of Teddy's, who calls it 'one of my best solos'. The final tune is a smoking version of the bop standard '52nd Street Theme' – re-titled 'High Wind in Hollywood' - in which the soloists tame the rapid chord progressions with ease. The four sides caused an immediate stir among the jazz public. Speaking specifically about 'Up in Dodo's Room', Teddy Edwards says: 'This was the first record to come out with a sound different from what groups led by Hawkins and Lester Young had been getting up till then. By this time I'd been very much influenced by Charlie Parker, and this accounted for the different sound. It surprised a lot of people at the time." [Loc cit.] Los Angeles
Unfortunately, the group did not record again. When Charlie Parker returned from
, McGhee once again hired the altoist to share the front line of the quintet he was leading at the Hi-De-Ho club. The pianist for that gig, incidentally, was a teenager just out of high school named Hampton Hawes. For a time - before Bird left for New York - McGhee organized an eight-piece band that included Charlie Parker and Sonny Criss on altos, Teddy Edwards and Gene Montgomery on tenors, Earl Ecklin, piano, and Bob Kesterson and Roy Porter on bass and drums. The combination sounds intriguing, but no recordings of the group seem to have been made. Shortly afterwards Bird returned to the Apple and Howard himself soon left town with a jazz at the Philharmonic troupe. Teddy Edwards stayed on in LA. Maggie's departure left a serious void in the Camarillo jazz scene, but it was soon filled by another young giant when LA's own Dexter Gordon returned to the fold. Los Angeles
Dexter had already achieved national fame as one of the pioneers of the modern-jazz movement. He had played with Dizzy Gillespie in Billy Eckstine's roaring big band and Charlie Parker's combo on 52nd St. He had recorded with both Gillespie and Parker in a number of contexts - the best-known being his collaboration with Diz on 'Blue V Boogie' for the Guild label and had cut many sides for Savoy under his own name. He was, quite simply, the leading tenor saxophonist of the modem school.
Dexter Gordon had been fortunate from the beginning in growing up in a sympathetic musical environment. He was born in
on Los Angeles 27 February 1923. His father was a well-known doctor who counted Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton among his patients; he was also an avid jazz fan, and introduced Dexter to the music at an early age. Dr Gordon started his son off on clarinet lessons and saw to it that he studied harmony as well. At the time (that is, throughout the 1930s) the black community offered an exciting milieu for young musicians. Dexter would remember later: Los Angeles
There was a very strong musical thing in my neighborhood and we had some very good teachers. I went to
with people like Jefferson High School Hamilton, Melba Liston, Ernie Royal, Vi Redd. In another neighborhood there was a school with Charles Mingus, the Woodmans, Buddy Collette and others. In high school we had a very good teacher named Sam Brown - very dedicated. He had all these wild young dudes. We used to call him Count Brown. We had a school marching band, an orchestra that used to play light classics, plus a swing band that played stock arrangements of Benny Goodman and Basie hits. Chico
I studied with Lloyd Reese. At that time he was playing lead trumpet with Les Hite's band. He taught Mingus too. Reese formed a rehearsal band. Every Sunday morning we used to go down to the union building and rehearse. And different people - professionals - would write charts for us to practice. Nat Cole wrote a couple for us. He was one of the local piano players at the time. So I got a foundation in music in
. I studied harmony and theory for two or three years. Studying with Lloyd Reese was important. He taught more than exercises in the books. He gave us a broader picture and an appreciation of music. He made us more aware. He was teaching us musical philosophy. [Michael Ullman, Jazz Lives: Portraits in Words and Pictures, Los Angeles : Perigee Books, 1982, pp. 93-94]. New York
Lloyd Reese is remembered with affection and respect by all musicians who studied with him. Buddy Collette, a fine reedman and one of the first black musicians to break into the lucrative confines of the
Hollywood studio orchestras, credits much of his success to a thorough grounding in basics drilled into him by Reese. 'He wanted all his students to play the piano, to learn the keyboard,' Buddy says. 'He wanted you to learn all the chords to different songs in different keys, and he used the Roman numeral system so you could transpose easily. He liked you to be very versatile in reading and playing tunes, because he knew what was going to be demanded of us. " Collette introduced several budding musicians to Reese, including Charles Mingus, Bobby and Jay McNeely, Bill Douglass and the young Eric Dolphy. [Personal interview with Buddy Collette, 30 September 1982. All further unreferenced quotations by Buddy Collette are from this interview]
Dexter Gordon decided early on a musical career, dropping out of high school at seventeen to play tenor with a local group known as the Harlem Collegians. He soon got a call to join the Lionel Hampton band. One of the tenor saxophonists had suddenly given notice, and
desperately needed a player. 'So Marshall Royal, who was playing lead alto in the band, called me. He and his brother Ernie were both in the band, Ernie and I had been in the school orchestra together. I only had three days to get ready, which I'm sure is one of the reasons I got the call. There wasn't time to get someone of professional quality' Dexter found himself in a sink-or-swim situation. 'We played the first night without rehearsal. I didn't play a right note all night. Nobody said anything. The next couple of days we rehearsed, so I got a chance to become acquainted ... That was like going to college for me.' [Ullman, op cit., pp. 94-95] Hampton
Dexter credits Marshall Royal especially as being a mentor while in the
band. Hampton was ten years older than Dexter and had a wealth of experience in big bands. Marshall
There's a cat who showed me a lot - Marshall. I didn't really come to appreciate it until recently - a few years ago. He used to stay on my ass all the time in that section. I'd say, 'Oh, man, won't this guy ever get off my back?' But everything he told me was right - breathing, phrasing. 'Man, tune up, tune up, man.' [Ira Gitler, Jazz Masters of the Forties,
: Collier, 1974, p. 204] New York
Dexter stayed with
for three years, then moved back to LA and worked for Lee Young and Jesse Price, before joining Louis Armstrong's big band. While he remembers Armstrong with affection, the same couldn't be said of the band itself. 'I had more to play than with Hamp, but the band wasn't saying too much. Pops was using all those old, thirtyish arrangements... "Sleepy Time", all those funny things.' Dexter stayed with Armstrong for six months, then joined the brash new band that Billy Eckstine had formed. Hampton
‘I remember coming out of Louis Armstrong's band into Eckstine's band, which was like night and day - because there was nothing but happenings, excitement and enthusiasm in Eckstine's band; whereas in Pops' band, everything was just blah. You played a job, and that was the whole thing. Of course, Pops sounded very beautiful at that time - I loved the way he sounded.’ [Ibid, p. 206]
The Billy Eckstine band of 1944-46 has long since taken on near-mythical overtones. Nearly every major figure of the bebop revolution put some time in with the band, including - at one time or another: Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Wardell Gray, Leo Parker, Oscar Pettiford, Shadow Wilson and Art Blakey. The band was a showcase for Eckstine's vocals, of course, but Billy respected his musicians (he played trumpet and valve trombone himself) and gave free rein to his arrangers. Dexter joined the band on the road. They were playing the
in Howard Theater and once again Dexter had to go in cold, without a rehearsal. Washington, DC
I just went onstage and made it with them. I didn't know what was going on. And they had an opener they used to use called 'Blitz' - it was a Jerry Valentine thing, up-tempo - short for 'Blitzkrieg'. I don't think I made a right note in the whole thing, 'cause it was flying! Buhaina [Art Blakey] was dropping all those bombs back there. I just kept comin' out of the seat. [Ibid, pp. 206-207]
Dexter quickly had the book down and soon became a major voice in the band. At a recording session for Deluxe in December of 1944, Dexter and Gene Ammons engage in a tenor-sax duel on a tune called 'Blowing the Blues Away'. The format of a tenor-sax chase was to become an important one in Dexter's subsequent career. Soon after the Deluxe date, Dexter left Eckstine to freelance in
. He played with Charlie Parker's combo at the Spotlite club and on 9 February 1945, he recorded 'Blue V Boogie' with Dizzy Gillespie for Gad. In the latter part of 1945 Dexter recorded extensively for New York under his own name. By the end of the year he was recognized by most fans as the premier tenor saxophonist in modern jazz. Savoy
Gordon returned to the West Coast in the summer of 1946, moved briefly to Hawaii for a two-month stay with the Cee Pee Johnson band, then returned to LA. He soon became a fixture on the Central Avenue scene, bringing his own brand of fiery playing to the casual jobs and numerous jam sessions that ran night and day at various clubs. These jam sessions often turned into old-fashioned cutting contests as the younger musicians tried to make a name for themselves by outplaying the established stars. Dexter was the master gunfighter who had to face a new challenge each time he took the stand. The audience and fellow musicians kept score.
One of the few musicians who could consistently keep up with Dexter was the tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. Gray had been born in Oklahoma City in 1921, but moved at a young age to Detroit, where he attended Cass Tech and played alongside Howard McGhee in the student band. He gained further experience in territorial bands and in 1943 joined the Earl Hines big band that featured Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Gray stayed with Hines for two years, then moved to the Coast, where he made a name for himself in a series of 'Just jazz' concerts for promoter Gene Norman. He was a significant contributor to Charlie Parker's 'Relaxin' at Camarillo' session, as we have seen. And he was a frequent and welcome voice in the
Central Avenue clubs and jam sessions.
Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray complemented each other both musically and in their physical appearance. Both were tall, handsome men with commanding stage presence. Dexter stood six foot five and had an athlete's matching build, while Wardell almost as tall - had a slight, willowy frame. Their musical styles seemed to match their physiques. Both had originally based their tenor styles on Lester Young's pioneering work of the thirties, although each subsequently modified his style under the influence of Charlie Parker. Dexter's tone had a harder edge to it, and his brusque solos incorporated more of Charlie Parker's fire. Wardell, especially during this period, remained more under Lester's spell; his solos were lyrical, his tone light. Both were relaxed swingers who could cope with any conceivable tempo, and each dug the other's work. In the latter part of 1946 and early 1947 they met often onstage in the
Central Avenue clubs and increasingly came to be recognized as a duo simply because they would outlast and outplay the other musicians. 'There'd be a lot of cats on the stand, but by the end of the session, it would wind up with Wardell and myself,' Dexter remembers.' [Ibid, p. 209]
One of the regular listeners at these events was Ross Russell, who naturally thought of the opportunity this pairing presented for Dial records. 'Dexter and Wardell were playing around Los Angeles, conducting this musical chase almost every evening,' he recalls, 'and it was creating a great deal of comment. It seemed like a good idea to get them into the studio and record it. [Ross Russell, Down Beat,
December 3, 1963, p. 17] There remained some problems, though. At the time, recording techniques and equipment were not equal to the task of recording on location, so a 'live' date was out of the question. The problem (and it remains one for jazz recordings to this day) was how to retain the spontaneity and excitement of a nightclub atmosphere in the formal and even sterile confines of a recording studio. The musicians gathered at the C.P. MacGregor studios on 12 June 1947 to see if they could overcome the difficulties. The rhythm section consisted of several regulars from the Central Avenue circuit: Jimmy Bunn, Red Callender and Chuck Thompson. As it turned out, the results of the session exceeded everyone's fondest expectations.
The tune decided upon for the tenor-sax chase was an original of Dexter's, entitled simply 'The Chase'. It was a thirty-two-bar AABA tune based - at least in the A sections - on the old Basie specialty 'Doggin' Around' (a tune that featured contrasting solos by Basie's great tenor men, Herschel Evans and Lester Young). An eight-bar introduction - Charlie Parker would use it later on his recording of 'Klactoveesedstene' - is followed by a statement of the theme in unison. The theme itself is based on a motif almost as old as jazz, the Alphonse Picou clarinet obbligato for 'High Society'. (Both Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker had incorporated the lick in earlier recorded solos.) Dexter takes the first solo, stretching out for a complete chorus, then Wardell answers in his contrasting style. They each take one more chorus, then relinquish the mike to Jimmy Bunn. After the piano chorus, the real chase begins. Wardell leads off this time for 32 sixteen bars and Dexter becomes the counter-puncher; this order remains as the length of the exchanges shortens to eight and then to four bars each while the excitement mounts apace. Finally there is a restatement of the theme, with the intro tagged on as a coda.
'The Chase' was released on two sides of a single 78 disc and soon became the number-one record in the Dial catalogue, outselling even Charlie Parker's sides. It also gathered a great deal of critical acclaim. Martin Williams, for instance, has written, 'It was one of those rare records that not only went beyond the studio but had an excitement that's rare even in a club.' [Loc Cit.] However, it did little to further the commercial careers of its principals. Dexter later attempted to analyze the situation.
Somehow my thing with Wardell was never exploited - at least in a positive way. There was nobody to promote it. We did things together, but it would just be a different club every night. We talked about traveling together, but in those days there were few managers or promoters around who might be interested. Most of the people in the business were gangsters. And also our personal lives were pretty chaotic - we weren't the most stable people in the world. [Ullman, op cit., p. 95]
Nor was Gordon's statement about the gangland influence in jazz mere hyperbole; many nightclubs and small record companies of the time were indeed run by gangsters. In view of the success of tenor duos in later years ~Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Johnny Griffin and Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis) it does seem a shame that the pairing of Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon wasn't capitalized on further.
Dexter cut three more tunes the same day, all with Wardell laying out. These quartet performances are only a little less interesting than 'The Chase'. The first, 'Chromatic Aberration', was an up-tempo original of Dexter's with (as the name suggests) a great deal of stepwise chord movement. Next came a ballad long associated with Coleman Hawkins, 'It's the Talk of the Town', showcasing Gordon's romantic approach. Finally there was another Gordon original, 'Blues Bikini'. The form is one long favored by jazz musicians, a blues with a channel: that is, an AABA tune in which the A sections are twelve-bar blues. (In this case, a minor blues.) Dexter's solo is well constructed, with no superfluous notes. There seems to have been doubt among some jazz writers as to whether the title refers to the bathing-suit or to the island; both were in the headlines in 1947. Gordon's sardonic subtitle - 'All Men are Cremated Equal' - leaves no doubt as to which he was thinking of.
Dexter recorded two other times for Dial in 1947. The first session, which actually took place a week before the pairing with Wardell Gray, featured trombonist Melba Liston. Melba, originally from
, had moved to Kansas City, Missouri in 1937. Only twenty-two at the time of the session, she had been playing professionally from the age of sixteen. She had started out with a community youth band organized by Alma Hightower, a great-aunt of alto saxophonist Vi Redd. Melba credits Mrs Hightower with recognizing and developing a great many talented youngsters. 'After school we would go to the playground and she would work us in theory and harmony, scales and stuff like that, and we would play stock arrangements, and she put this little big band together. We played at the YMCA, dances, churches; we'd play on street corners and pass the hat and all that kind of thing.’ [Sally Placksin, American Women in Jazz: 1900 to the Present, Their Words, Lives and Music. Los Angeles : Seaview Books, 1982, 9. 180] Melba's first professional job was with the pit band of the Lincoln Theater; later she moved over to Gerald Wilson's big band; she also studied arranging with New York . Although she thinks of herself primarily as an arranger, her skills as a trombonist were always recognized by other musicians. Obviously Dexter thought highly enough of her to call her for the recording date. Melba herself thinks the opportunity might have been a bit premature: Wilson
When [Dexter] got his record date, he said, 'Come on, Mama' - I think they were callin' me Mama already back then, 'cause I used to fuss with them about smokin' their cigarettes or drinkin' their wine - and they'd come and get me when something was goin' on, and I would play little gigs with them. I was scared to go in the studio, though, because I didn't really hang out with them when they were jamming and stuff. I was home trying to write, so I didn't have that spirit on my instrument as [an] improvisational person. I was really very shy. I really didn't wanna make that record session. I don't know which was worse - makin' it or trying to persuade them to leave me out of it. I'm happy for it now. I'd rather not hear it, however.[Ibid, p. 181]
With a rhythm section of pianist Charles Fox, Red Callender and Chuck Thompson, Dexter and Melba cut two tunes on the date: 'Mischievous Lady', an original of Dexter's, and 'Lullaby in Rhythm'. Melba takes a sixteen-bar solo on 'Mischievous Lady'. She doesn't take many chances, but it's a competent performance, certainly nothing to be ashamed of. On 'Lullaby' taken at a much faster tempo - Melba is heard only in the ensembles. In later years, as she gained experience and confidence, Melba Liston became a much sought-after performer; she was a member of the Quincy Jones all-star orchestra that toured
Europe in 1959 and 1960, playing alongside such musicians as Jimmy Cleveland, Quentin Jackson, Phil Woods and Clark Terry.
Dexter Gordon's final session for Dial was held in December of 1947. This was on the eve of an American Federation of Musicians recording ban, and the record companies were scrambling to get a backlog of masters in their vaults to issue later during the ban. Once again Ross Russell (obviously thinking of the sales of 'The Chase') proposed a tenor-sax battle this time pitting Gordon against Teddy Edwards. The rhythm section for this meeting would be pianist Jimmy Rowles, Red Callender and Roy Porter. Dexter opened the proceedings with two ballad performances, 'Ghost of a Chance' and 'Sweet and Lovely'. 'Ghost' features Dexter at his romantic best, sparked by the lush block-chording of Jimmy Rowles. 'Sweet and Lovely', taken at a faster than expected clip, features Gordon all the way.
Teddy Edwards then joined Dexter for the tenor-sax chase. Once again Gordon supplied an original line, 'The Duel', based this time on the standard 'I Got Rhythm' changes. In this case there is an alternative strain in the second eight, so the tune's format is ABCA. The order of solos is much the same as for 'The Chase': two full choruses each by Gordon and Edwards, a chorus by Jimmy Rowles, then the chase sequence - a series of increasingly shorter exchanges culminating in a chorus of simultaneous improvisation. There is less of a contrast between Dexter and Teddy Edwards than had been the case between Dexter and Wardell Gray. Both Gordon and Edwards are straight ahead, damn-the-torpedoes swingers. If there is more excitement at times on 'The Duel', there is withal a loss of warmth and relaxation compared with 'The Chase'. Still, the performance sold well and boosted the reputations of both saxophonists.
Shortly after Dexter's final Dial session, an AFM recording ban went into effect. As had been the case with an earlier ban during the war years, the issue was the lack of royalties accruing to musicians for records played on the radio and on jukeboxes, and as also had been the case with the earlier ban, this one was only partially successful. The second ban began on
30 December 1947, and lasted until the following December. There was some clandestine recording, especially by the smaller independent labels, but for the most part the ban held. Unfortunately, it hurt the young modern-jazz movement almost as much as it did the major record companies who were its prime target. Ross Russell has argued that the ban marked the end of the bebop era. Although that's an exaggeration - many sides cut by Parker, Gillespie, Bud Powell and others in the years 1949-53 are considered classics of the genre - it does seem as if the style traced a declining trajectory from that time on.
jazz scene was hurt by the ban. Ross Russell had already moved the headquarters of Dial records to Los Angeles to be closer to his major artist, Charlie Parker; the Dexter Gordon-Teddy Edwards session was in fact the last Dial date to be held on the coast. Faced with the impending curtailment of all recording, the musicians scrambled to place themselves in favourable situations. Dexter left for New York (a more promising ground for freelance jazzmen) shortly after the Teddy Edwards session, and sat out the ban in the Apple. Wardell Gray also left town the following spring to work with the Benny Goodman Sextet. Once again New York seemed destined to slip out of the ken of the jazz audience. Los Angeles
By 1948 Dexter Gordon, Howard McGhee, Wardell Gray and Teddy Edwards were, thanks in large part to their
recordings, well known in jazz circles. One other musician who would eventually make an even larger impact on the jazz scene was in the meantime practicing his craft in relative obscurity. Charles Mingus is now recognized as a major composer and one of the finest bassists in jazz history, but much of that recognition came belatedly. In fact, many of the compositions that critics and fellow musicians lauded in the late fifties and early sixties had actually been composed - and some even recorded - a decade or more earlier in California . California
Charles Mingus was born in
on Nogales, Arizona 22 April 1922, but grew up in LA's Southside community of Watts. His mother died when he was less than six months old, and Charles was raised by his father, a quick-tempered retired army sergeant, and a loving but religiously strict stepmother. The elder Mingus bequeathed his son not only his temper but his light skin, and so placed Charles in an ambiguous position which would cause problems throughout his life. Watts, in the 1920s, was a mixed blue-collar neighborhood which was only beginning to receive the influx of black families that would transform it in later decades to an overcrowded black ghetto. As a child, Mingus was not fully accepted by either his black or white schoolmates, and so came to feel that he was, as both the title and contents of his autobiography make clear, Beneath the Underdog.
The Mingus household was self-consciously middle-class and jazz music was definitely not allowed, but Charles did get an introduction to black music by attending the neighborhood
with his stepmother. One of the instruments used to provide accompaniment to the gospel-style singing in the church was a trombone, and this was Charles's first choice as an instrument. Unfortunately, his initial instruction by the church's choirmaster was lackadaisical at best, and Charles had to pick his way mainly by ear. He was able to gain a shaky proficiency on the horn and brashly tried to challenge another of the neighborhood’s trombonists, Britt Woodman, to a cutting contest. Woodman, two years Mingus's senior, came from a musical family - his father, William Woodman Sr. also played trombone, William Jr. played trumpet and saxes, and brother Coney played piano - and Britt had received a thorough training on the horn. Nevertheless, he was more amused than annoyed by the youngster's chutzpah and took Charles under his wing. Britt suggested that Charles take up the cello, since one was needed in the school orchestra. This Mingus did, but again his training was haphazard and largely by ear. He did get some help from his sisters Grace, a violinist, and Vivian, a pianist, and the three formed a trio which played concerts at the Methodist church his father attended. None the less, he was later denied a spot in the Holiness Church orchestra. Finally one of his classmates at Jordon, Buddy Collette, suggested that Charles take up the double bass, and thus won Mingus's lifelong gratitude and friendship. Buddy also introduced Mingus to bassist Red Callender, and for the first time (at the age of sixteen) Charles received adequate instruction on his chosen instrument. Jordon School
Buddy Collette, born William Marcell Collette 6 August 1921 in
, served as Charles's lifelong friend and mentor. He was the one person who could calm Mingus down when the bassist's explosive temperament was set off. 'We never got into a fight, we had a special relationship...' Buddy would later remember. 'In fact, sometimes when Mingus was getting into trouble and just about to go off on someone, they might say, "We're going to call Buddy," and he would say, "No, no, don't do that. " [Interview with Paul Bullock and David Hoxie, Jazz Heritage Foundation, Vol. III, No. 1, January, 1982] Los Angeles
Buddy also introduced Charles to Lloyd Reese, and Mingus began studying piano and music theory with Reese. He was soon playing in Reese's Sunday-morning rehearsal band that met in the union hall of the segregated Local 767. Dexter Gordon was also in the band at the time. Buddy Collette and Mingus also played with the Al Adams band, which featured such future stars from nearby Jefferson High as Gordon, Chico Hamilton, clarinetist Jackie Kelso and trumpeter Ernie Royal. (Marshall Royal, Ernie's older brother, was playing lead alto for Les Hite at the time.) Buddy remembers Charles's intense enthusiasm throughout this period:
He was at my house every day for two years - bringing his bass from
108th St to 96th St, carrying it on his back - to practice and jam with me. And also when we started rehearsing in Los Angeles, which was a long trip from Watts, we'd get the Red Car [Pacific Electric interurban] at 103rd St, and Mingus was so excited about playing, he'd get on the car and zip the cover off the bass, and we'd start jamming on the streetcar... He was always a very open guy with all his thoughts: 'Let's play! Are we gonna play today?' And I'd say, 'Well, OK,' and get the alto out, and the conductor and the motorman would wave they didn't mind...
It was also during this period that Charles began to concentrate on writing, and two of his compositions that would not be recorded until decades later were written in these pre-war years: 'The Chill of Death' and 'Half-mast Inhibition'.
Following high school Charles seriously considered working for the post office (mainly due to his father's insistence) but finally opted for music - which meant several years of scuffling. When World War Two broke out many of his friends, including the Woodman brothers and Buddy Collette, joined the service. Charles failed his medical and continued to gig around
. In 1943 he toured briefly with the Louis Armstrong orchestra, but quit when he found out the band was going on an extended road trip through the South. He then worked intermittently with Lee Young's band at the Club Alabam. (Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper were in the band at the time.) He also kept up his studies on the bass, first with Red Callender, then for several years with Herman Rheinshagen, formerly with the New York Philharmonic. By 1945 Mingus was well on his way to becoming one of the finest bassists in jazz. Los Angeles
Charles also began to record in 1945, mostly as a sideman on pick-up sessions for obscure labels. There were dates with both Russell Jacquet and Illinois Jacquet that were as much rhythm and blues as jazz, and others that found Mingus backing vocalists Ernie Andrews and Dinah Washington. There were also dates under Mingus's own name in the summer of 1945 and January 1946 for the Excelsior label. Both were largely vocal affairs, and titles such as 'The Texas Hop', 'Lonesome Woman Blues' and 'Ain't Jivin' Blues' give the flavor of the recordings. Nevertheless, the second session produced the first recording of 'Weird Nightmare', a ballad which would become a staple in the Mingus book.
In the spring of 1946 Mingus and Buddy Collette (home from a stint as a navy bandleader) helped form a co-operative group known as the Stars of Swing, which should have - but didn't advanced the careers of all its participants. The band did, however, have a memorable run at the Down Beat club on
Central Avenue. The members of the septet were John Anderson, trumpet; Britt Woodman, trombone; Collette, alto sax; Lucky Thompson, tenor; Spaulding Givens, piano; Mingus, bass; and Oscar Bradley, drums. Buddy still looks back on the band with fondness and the sense of a missed opportunity:
It was an exceptional band because of the guys and because about five of us wrote: Mingus, Lucky, John Anderson, Spaulding Givens and myself. Lucky also had some arrangements by Jimmy Mundy for seven pieces. We rehearsed for about a month - none of the guys were busy at that point and we'd rehearse at Mingus's house every day, five, six, seven hours. We'd go have lunch and come back and work on dynamics; we did everything possible to have a good band ... It was better than anything around, because when you've got that kind of talent and you work that hard, well... So when we went into the Down Beat, people couldn't believe it; their mouths fell open. 'Huh? What is that? How could they be this good?' I'm talkin' about - not solo-wise, because most groups are good that way - but we were good solo-wise and sectionally, which you don't hear very much, because nobody spends that much time.
Unfortunately, the band didn't last much longer than its six-week engagement at the Down Beat. Worse, it was never recorded. Britt Woodman remembers that they did audition for one company, but the label soon folded and the demos were never found.
With the break-up of the Stars of Swing, Mingus returned to freelancing once more. In May 1946 there was an octet date under his leadership for 4 Star records in which 'Weird Nightmare' was again recorded (under the title 'Pipe Dream') as well as another ballad entitled 'This Subdues My Passion'. Later in the year he played a one-nighter with an otherwise all-white bebop group led by altoist Dean Benedetti; the band also included trombonist Jimmy Knepper, who would later be a mainstay of the famous Mingus groups of the late 1950s.
The following year, 1947, proved to be pivotal in Mingus's career. Early in the year he somehow managed to talk
records officials into recording his composition 'The Chill of Death' with a large studio orchestra. Although the recording was never released - it was undoubtedly far too 'advanced' for the Columbia brass - it did bring encouraging comments to Charles by none other than Charlie Parker, who was present at the recording session. ('The Chill of Death' was ultimately recorded - and released this time - by Columbia in 1971.) Then in the summer of 1947 Mingus was hired by Lionel Hampton, which finally led to national recognition for the young bassist. In November the Columbia band recorded Charles's composition 'Mingus Fingers', an up-tempo number on 'I Got Rhythm' changes that featured an extended bass solo by Mingus. The recording was for Decca, which meant national distribution for the side. Hampton
Mingus toured with the
band through most of 1948 (the year of the recording ban) but returned to LA to freelance late in the year. The exposure he had got with the Hampton orchestra had undoubtedly helped his reputation, but that didn't translate immediately into superior jobs; he was once again forced into a routine consisting largely of casuals and one-nighters. It was one such gig, however, that led indirectly to a momentous shake-up of the Hampton music scene. Sometime in 1949 Mingus was called to play for a big band backing singer Billy Eckstine in a concert at the Million Dollar Theatre. Buddy Collette remembers what happened next: Los Angeles
I don't know who called the band together, but Billy was coming to town and the contractor usually does that. And it was an all-white band, except for Mingus, who is very light-complected. . . He didn't like that and he hassled all those guys, made them all feel uncomfortable. 'Well what the heck, why aren't there any other black guys here? What are you guys, prejudiced or something?' It was the sort of thing he did; he wasn't a guy to hold his feelings. And a lotta times that's good, too, because he was saying something that most people would just [shrugs his shoulders], but he brought it out in the open. And it got to the point where guys were trying to avoid him, but it was still the truth ... I probably wouldn't have said anything, but sure would have felt it: 'Hey, it would have been nice if they would have hired a few blacks.' And especially with Billy Eckstine being a black artist, because there'd be a lot of black people in the audience, and they'd be thinking, 'Hey, where are they?'
It was this incident which eventually led to the amalgamation of the segregated Los Angeles Musicians' Union locals.
Collette and Mingus discussed the situation with a few others and came to the conclusion there would never be an influx of black musicians into well-paying jobs as long as the musicians' locals were segregated. They set about rectifying that situation and immediately found that it wouldn't be easy. 'The black union was located in a broken-down building on Central Avenue, with terrible pianos, but the officials, who were older, liked it that way and said, in effect, let's keep our own union and our own building. Don't rock the boat. [Ibid] The dissidents also discussed the matter with some sympathetic white musicians, including percussionist Milt Holland:
He suggested joint meetings, but I knew many of our guys wouldn't come to meetings, so I suggested starting an integrated rehearsal orchestra, in this case a symphony orchestra, because that would prepare everyone for studio work. I knew I needed it, because on flute there were still things that gave me trouble. Milt said, 'Get as many blacks or other minorities as you can, and I'll fill in the other spots.' We only had about nine, so he had a lot of filling-in to do: Bill Green, Red Callender, Jimmy McCullough, Britt Woodman, Jimmy Cheatham and Percy McDavid, an excellent conductor - one of the few black orchestra conductors. [Ibid]
We had our first rehearsal at Town Hall ... and the place was packed with press and everyone. Nobody had heard of an interracial symphony orchestra before. 'What? Blacks and whites playing symphony music together?' We lucked out, as you always do when you are doing something like this. Players from the LA Symphony volunteered, wanted to be part of this.
Forming the orchestra was an important first step, but progress was slow; it took three years in all - the unions did not merge until 1951 - and by that time Mingus was no longer in Los Angeles to enjoy the fruits of his labors. Through 1949 he gigged around LA, taking such jobs as were available. There were recording sessions for the Dolphins of Hollywood label (named after a hip music and record store miles from
in south LA) and another for the Rex Hollywood label. These records sunk almost immediately out of sight, following the earlier 4 Star and Excelsior sides into oblivion. Discouraged by the lack of opportunities, he dropped out of music completely by the end of the year and took a job with the post office. Hollywood
He was still working as a mailman the following year when Red Norvo, came to town for an extended trio gig at The Haig and found himself in need of a bassist. Pianist Jimmy Rowles recommended Mingus and Charles readily accepted the job. The Red Norvo Trio (Norvo, vibes; Tal Farlow, guitar; Mingus, bass) had a very successful run at The Haig, and also cut some records for Discovery that sold quite well. The group was another manifestation of the trend towards cool jazz during this period, but it would be hard to think of a better showcase for Charles's by now phenomenal technique on bass than the trio. The dynamics were such that the bass was on an equal footing with the other instruments, and Mingus was able to use his entire arsenal, including arco solos, double-stops and counter melodies. (It was probably no accident that Gerry Mulligan, having listened to a later edition of the trio at The Haig, applied much the same principals of group dynamics and interaction to his original quartet.)
By the close of 1950, the Norvo trio was high in the polls of the trade magazines, and Charles was beginning to get some of the attention he deserved. There had been a road trip to
during the year, and in the summer of 1951 the group travelled to Chicago for a successful run at the Embers. At this point things began to go awry. The trio was invited to appear on a series of television broadcasts from station WCBS with vocalist Mel Torme, but the station executives, fearful of offending sponsors and Southern sensibilities, decided that a white bassist would be a better choice. Red Norvo was unhappy with the decision but felt the professional opportunity was too good to miss and reluctantly went along. He did offer to retain Mingus on the job at the Embers, but Charles felt the time was right to try his hand at freelancing on the New York scene. By the next week he was working at Birdland with Miles Davis, and from that time on Charles was a permanent resident of New York . In the meantime, back in New York City , Buddy Collette was beginning to reap the dividends of the efforts begun several years before. The inter-racial orchestra was still meeting regularly and often drew interested musicians as spectators. One auspicious night Jerry Fielding, musical director of the Groucho, Marx show, dropped by just in time to catch Buddy working out on a difficult part for solo flute. As Buddy recalls the evening: Los Angeles
So Jerry Fielding showed up, and this night I had a flute solo ... it was Bizet, and it was all harp and flute for about sixty seconds ... so we get through and the bows are tapping. And after it was over, we all go out - it was in
, at Le Conte junior High - and I walk into Fielding, and he said, 'That was nice.' And he asked if I knew Marshall Royal, and I said 'Sure, why?' And he said, 'Because I have an opening on the Groucho show and I need a saxophone player and a flautist. Too bad you don't play saxophone.' And I said, 'Well that's my instrument.' And I didn't really try to hurt Hollywood , but I said, ' Marshall is not in town, and Marshall doesn't play flute.' Which was true; Marshall hadn't played flute at all then, and he had also just joined Count Basie, so he was gone. So I said, 'I just study on flute; I also play sax and clarinet.' Marshall
A couple of days later, Fielding's contractor contacted Buddy and old him he had the job. The bandleader was dubious about Buddy's reading, and set up a meeting before the first show.
We went to a little Italian restaurant and he showed me the book so that I could see what I had to do. I was glad of that, although I was a good reader by then, with all my studies and the symphonic orchestra experience. The hard part was not so much the notes, which I would make OK, but the routine they had on Groucho's show. Remember the secret word routine, when the duck would come down when a contestant said the word? The orchestra had to go immediately into the piece of music appropriate to that, and there were other routines we had to follow dependent on things that happened during the show... We tried it a few times so that I could get used to it, then walked over to meet the other musicians. They didn't know who was coming in, just that there were two new guys. They were really surprised, but friendly, and Groucho came in and said, 'Hey, I see we have a new guy.' Actually there were two new musicians but he just said a new guy. We got into it, and it went well; I don't think I missed anything, but if I did, it wasn't noticeable. The guy sitting next to me, first alto, said, 'Man, nice to have you around...' That's how I was hired into the studios. [Ibid]
Things were beginning to move: Buddy Collette's personal breakthrough took place in 1950, and the merger of the unions was finally achieved the following year. By this time the matter was becoming a cause célèbre. A benefit at the Club Alabam featured entertainers like Nat Cole and Josephine Baker and attracted much press attention; other public figures, including Frank Sinatra, spoke out. A slate of the musicians favoring amalgamation - including Marle Young, Benny Carter, Bill Douglass, John Anderson and Collette - finally wrested positions on the board of Local 767 and forced the old-guard leadership to negotiate. At the same time supporters in the white union Milt Holland, Phil Sobel and George Kast among them worked towards the same end. In large part it was simply a matter of drawing the attention of the white musicians to some of the practices that had been going on. Buddy Collette pointed out:
Another thing, was that our union was like a subsidiary - it wasn't supposed to be, but if a good job happened to come in to the black union, the president would have to call the white union to see if we could take it ... Also our dues, when I did Groucho, were about half that of the white union. And when the guys found that out they screamed. 'You're paying half the money we're paying!' and I said, 'All the more reason to get together.' I didn't want to pay more money, naturally, but at least we could watch these things [and keep us] from being played against each other.
All of the pressure finally paid off in 1951 when the unions were finally joined into the single Local 47.
At this point we'll have to backtrack to pick up a few threads in our narrative. In 1948 both Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray had left
, largely because of reduced playing opportunities due to the recording ban. Dexter spent the next few years freelancing in Los Angeles , while Wardell joined one of the biggest names in the business, Benny Goodman. Benny had heard Wardell in concert while visiting the Coast, and was sufficiently impressed to hire the young tenor man for his new septet. Wardell went east with Goodman and spent most of 1948 in New York, first with the Goodman septet and then with the small bands of Count Basie and Tadd Dameron at the Royal Roost, NYC's premier jazz club. In September there was a clandestine recording session for Blue Note with Tadd Dameron's sextet that produced the lovely 'Lady Bird', and in November Wardell rejoined Benny Goodman in the latter's newly-formed big band. He recorded several times with the band, but his best sides with Goodman were those recorded in a septet format, 'Stealin' Apples', 'Bedlam' and 'Blue Lou'. All were cut in LA and are fascinating blends of Goodman's swing style and the more adventurous styles of the younger bop influenced musicians in the band, including Wardell, trumpeters Doug Mettome or Fats Navarro, and drummer Sonny Igoe. Benny himself was never especially comfortable with modern jazz, but he was a strong admirer of Wardell's. 'If Wardell Gray plays bop,' Benny told one interviewer, 'it is great. Because he's wonderful. [Quoted by Doug Ramsey in notes to Prestige 24062] New York
In December of 1949, while still with Goodman, Wardell made some records for Prestige using Charlie Parker's rhythm section of the time - Al Haig, Tommy Potter and Roy Haynes. One of these sides, an original blues line named 'Twisted', featured a solo that quickly became a favorite of other musicians. (Singer Annie Ross later put words to Gray's solo and came up with a hit vocal.) Shortly thereafter, Benny Goodman broke up his band and Wardell went with Count Basie, who was then touring with an octet.
In August of 1950 the Count Basie octet came through LA and Wardell had the opportunity to renew old acquaintances. A Sunday jam session at the Hula Hut, a club on Sunset Boulevard, was the site of a reunion with Dexter Gordon, and this time recording equipment was present to catch the event 'live'. The two tenors were joined by Clark Terry, the trumpet player with the Basie octet, and altoist Sonny Criss, one of LA's brightest stars. Central Avenue regulars Jimmy Bunn, Bill Hadnott and Chuck Thompson comprised the rhythm section. Two extended performances on bop standards, 'Move' and 'Scrapple from the Apple', were recorded and released by Prestige. Each tune took up four sides of two 78s. Wardell's style by this time had changed; he was no longer a single-minded devotee of Lester Young. 'Scrapple from the Apple' (originally released as 'Kiddo') finds Wardell in a relaxed mood. His tone has a harder edge to it than had been the case on previous records, but his indebtedness to Prez is still evident in his phrasing. Dexter lays out on 'Scrapple', but his absence is more than made up for by the fiery alto work of Sonny Criss. On 'Move' (released as 'Jazz on Sunset'), Dexter and Wardell engage once again in a heated chase, both negotiating the rapid tempo with ease. Clark Terry adds much to the proceedings on both tunes with his fluid, fluent trumpet lines.
Wardell also recorded several times during this period with the Basie octet, but his best solo work with Basie came the following year with the leader's newly reorganized big band. Perhaps because he was holding down the chair once held by Lester Young in the band, Wardell's style on 'Little Pony', recorded in April of 195 1, once again reverts to a pure Lestorian mode. Shortly after the big-band sessions, however, Wardell gave Basie his notice and returned to the West Coast to freelance. He was to spend the remainder of his tragically shortened life based in
. Los Angeles
Wardell's move was a popular one with the younger
jazzmen. Hampton Hawes, in his frank autobiography Raise Up Off Me, spoke glowingly of Gray: Los Angeles
Of the regular players along
Central Avenue, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards (and Bird when he was in town) were the keepers of the flame, the ones the younger players held in esteem for their ideas and experience and consistency. Wardell was like a big brother to me ... He carried books by Sartre with him and talked about Henry Wallace and the NAACP. When white fans in the clubs came up to speak to us, Wardell would do the talking while the rest of us clammed up and looked funny ... Aside from Bird he was the player we looked up to most, one of the few of the older, experienced cats who wasn't strung, and when he'd now and then counsel those of us who were starting to fuck with dope to get ourselves together and straighten up, we may not have accepted the advice, but neither did we resent it. [ Hawes and Don Asher, Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hampton : DaCapo, 1979, pp. 33-34]. Hawes, New York
Hawes and several other up-and-coming LA musicians were featured on Wardell's recording date for Prestige in January 1952. Art Farmer, the trumpet player on the date, had moved to
from Los Angeles in 1945. Since then he and his twin brother Addison, a bassist, had played with many top jazzmen, including Charlie Parker. Hampton Hawes was a native Angeleno as was drummer Lawrence Marable. Bassist Harper Crosby and conga drummer Robert Collier rounded out the rhythm section. The group recorded six tunes in all. Buddy Collette's 'April Skies' (based on 'I Remember April') and Phoenix Kendall Bright's 'Bright Boy' are medium-tempo swingers; they are matched by a pair of ballad performances that feature Wardell all the way, 'Sweet and Lovely' and 'Lover Man'. The two remaining tunes are both blues: Hampton Hawes' 'Jackie' and Art Farmer's 'Farmer's Market'. The latter was something of a hit for Prestige, and once again Annie Ross paid Wardell the compliment of penning words to his (and Art's) solo and recording the tune as a vocal.
The following year found Wardell in another recording session for Prestige, his last for that company. The session was under the leadership of vibraphonist Teddy Charles, a visitor to the Coast, but the other musicians were all resident Angelenos. Wardell and Lawrence Marable were hold-overs from the 'Farmer's Market' date. Dick Nivison played bass, and a recent arrival, Sonny Clark, sat in on piano. This session also marked the recording debut of Frank Morgan - aged nineteen but already an altoist of surpassing ability. Born
23 December 1933 in , Morgan moved to Minneapolis when he was fourteen. His father, guitarist Stanley Morgan, ran an after-hours club named the Los Angeles at the time; Charlie Parker was a frequent attraction. Like Hampton Hawes, Frank Morgan was playing professionally while still in high school, and his playing on this session exhibits an authority that belies his youth. Casablanca
Four tunes were cut on the Charles date. 'The Man I Love', the only standard recorded at the session, starts out as a ballad vehicle for Wardell, but the tempo soon doubles. Then Teddy Charles jumps in and doubles the tempo again, and it stays at a breakneck pace for solos by Frank Morgan and Wardell. Sonny
Clark's 'Lavonne' is an up-tempo blues, paced by an agile Clark and soulful Morgan. The two remaining tunes are both Teddy Charles originals. 'So Long Broadway' is an up-tempo minor piece with adventurous chord progressions, while 'Paul's Cause' bounces along in a relaxed, happy groove.
For some reason, Wardell's work here is something of a let-down; his solos seem a bit perfunctory, and they suffer in comparison with Frank Morgan's spirited lines. Of course this was Teddy Charles's session, but Wardell had previously managed more than to hold his own with leaders as disparate and forceful as Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon and Benny Goodman. Perhaps the experimental character of some of the compositions put him off; Wardell's forte had always been straight-ahead swinging. Perhaps he just had an off day. In any case, he does not reach the heights he had gained in previous recordings.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Wardell's career was in slight but irreversible decline by this time anyway. For one thing, jazz had turned a corner by early 1953. Bebop was no longer the only, nor even the dominant, form of modern jazz. 'Cool' jazz was in the ascendancy, and men like Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon were in danger of becoming passé with the new generation of listeners. Certainly bebop was still being played - as for instance by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell at their reunion in Toronto's Massey Hall of that same year - but musical styles were changing radically, especially on the West Coast. Then too, some time during this period Wardell ensnared himself in the trap that took such a toll among the jazz masters of the forties and fifties. The man who had been admired by Hampton Hawes as a clean influence finally succumbed to drugs. The habit may well have cost Wardell his life.
Wardell's last recording date came early in 1955 as a sideman for Frank Morgan. At the time Morgan was recording for the Gene Norman Presents (GNP) label.
had already recorded the altoist in the company of an Afro-Cuban rhythm section, augmented by organist Wild Bill Davis. The results of that session are hardly memorable, but the date with Wardell is quite a different matter. Trumpeter Conte Candoli joins Frank and Wardell in the front line, and the three horns are supported by the powerful rhythm section of pianist Carl Perkins, guitarist Howard Roberts, bassist Leroy Vinnegar, and Lawrence Marable. Two ballad performances from the session feature Morgan and the rhythm section: 'My Old Flame' and 'The Nearness of You'. Carl Perkins has a tender solo on 'Flame', while Howard Roberts works closely with the altoist and contributes a fine solo on 'Nearness'. Four other tunes feature the entire septet. There are two blues: Morgan's own 'Neil's Blues', a mid-tempo walker, and Dizzy Gillespie's up-tempo 'The Champ'. Wardell, who is in fine fettle throughout the session, contributes commanding solos on both. The two remaining tunes are both up-tempo swingers. 'Milt's Tune' turns out to be 'The Theme', the traditional set-closer used by Miles Davis and Art Blakey during this period. Everybody has a ball on this one. 'Get Happy', taken at a very rapid pace, features a burning Frank Morgan all the way, although he does trade fours with Lawrence Marable at the exciting climax. Norman
The critical acclaim that greeted these sides boosted Frank Morgan's already fast-rising reputation and should have guaranteed him a place in the front ranks of jazz altoists, but sadly he was soon sidetracked by personal problems. Shortly following the recording session Morgan was busted for drug violations and spent a year in jail. His faltering career never quite righted itself and he spent several decades either behind bars or devoting his free time to extra-musical distractions. At that, he was luckier than Wardell Gray. The tenor saxophonist, whose work contributed so much to the Frank Morgan sides, was dead before the album was even released.
Wardell had landed a job with the Benny Carter big band, which had been hired to play for the opening of a new hotel in
. The Moulin Rouge hotel and casino had been built specifically to cater to the city's black visitors and gamblers. Two days following the hotel's opening, Wardell Gray's body was found in the Las Vegas desert, his neck broken. The official report claimed that he had died of a drug overdose, although no autopsy seems to have been performed. There were rumours at the time that Wardell had been the victim of a gang-style execution over gambling debts. In any event, the investigation was not pursued; the Nevada officials didn't seem overly concerned about the cause of death of a visiting black musician. Nevada
Wardell Gray's death came a scant three months after Charlie Parker's passing, and the proximity of the two deaths underscores the similar fates that had overtaken the two men. These two giants of the bebop era both died neglected figures, bypassed by the winds of fashion. Parker - due to the lack of job opportunities caused by his reputation as an unreliable performer - had very nearly been relegated to the 'whatever happened to?' category by many of the younger fans. And while Gray seems to have been working fairly steadily during his final years, more often than not the jobs came in the form of casuals or as sideman on recording dates for smaller labels, a roll ill befitting his stature as an artist. Not one but two revolutions had changed the course of jazz since the two had come to prominence in the mid-forties. In 1949, a series of recordings by Miles Davis and by Lennie Tristano had ushered in a style known as cool jazz. This style was to dominate jazz during the early fifties, and both Parker and Gray were thought in some quarters to be pass6. And although a counter-revolution had been launched in 1954 (once again led by Miles Davis) its popularity would come too late to help the careers of either Bird or Wardell. Both had to suffer the all too common fate of great artists in any field: re-evaluation and belated recognition of their accomplishments only following their deaths.
In the meantime, the music being given the widest attention in
the year of Wardell's death was a variant of the cool style known as West Coast jazz. It was a style that had been developed, and was largely played, by white studio musicians based in Los Angeles . At the height of its popularity in the mid-fifties, West Coast jazz spawned an acrimonious debate that rivaled that of the boppers and the Moldy Figs a decade earlier. In truth, this new style was neither as fresh and innovative as its partisans claimed, nor as anonymous and reactionary as its detractors held. To trace its beginnings we have to turn our attention to certain events that followed the 1948 recording ban in Hollywood . New York City