The Mystery of Wardell Gray

I knew that bop-to-hard-bop tenor sax ace Wardell Gray had a short career and that the quality of his playing began to falter towards the end. I blithely assumed he had succumbed to the junk or even retired from music. Little did I suspect that he was found in a ditch in the desert outside Las Vegas in 1955, dead with a broken neck at the age of 34 (shades of Bird!). Even more puzzling, the incident has never been explained. He overdosed but his neck got broken when he was heaved into the ditch. Yeah, right. The pig Las Vegas law enforcement clearly considered him just another dead you-know-what and nobody will probably ever know the straight story.

I’m too ignorant to have a definitive Gray recommendation. If you want an outstanding hepster sample (the multiple takes are smartly restricted to two for three tunes, including his key legacy, “Twisted”) go for Light Gray (Cool Blue, 1994) which includes both rare and classic sides in a, yes, cool-daddy-o sequence.

Whole thing’s kinda tragic. Gray told younger lieutenants like Hampton Hawes to stay away from the smack, but Hawes was horrified to find that the last few times he saw Gray, he was strung out, too.


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