Yesterday was the birthday of tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray (1921-1955). He is not widely known today, mainly because he very rarely led a working band; much of his recorded output is as a sideman. However, he was important as part of the first generation of bebop musicians, and as a mentor to some of the “cool school” players on the West Coast in the 1950s. Gray toured extensively with the bands of Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, and Count Basie; he also recorded with Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, and Tadd Dameron. His playing combined the influences of Lester Young and Don Byas into a smooth yet rather dark sound characteristic of the early beboppers. His improvisations had an elegant, singing quality which made them particularly good for writing lyrics to, as Annie Ross famously did for his solo on the blues “Twisted” which he recorded in 1949.
There is little footage of Wardell Gray, besides a few clips with the Basie band in 1950; this one has a good example of his soloing style.