Thursday, September 04, 2014

Listening to Prestige Records, part 28: Wardell Gray

Benny Goodman was right about Wardell Gray. He was wonderful. He gets better every time I listen to him, and this session, recorded in Detroit, is a treasure -- because of the music, and because of the story behind it. There is much to say about Wardell Gray, and I'll say more as he comes up again in the Prestige story, but the story is Detroit, and the rhythm section that backed Wardell on this session, and the Bluebird Inn, where they were the house band.

J. R. Monterose was born in Detroit. So was Pepper Adams, who said of those heady days when bebop was young,
In Detroit, the standards were so high that to compete for local gigs you had to really play awful goddamn good! If you were good enough to be competitive in Detroit, you were ahead of what the rest of the world’s standards were.
And there were more. Here's Wikipedia's list of jazz musicians from Detroit (perhaps incomplete -- I know that J. R. had been omitted, so I added him:  Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, Thad Jones, Howard McGhee, Tommy Flanagan, Lucky Thompson, Louis Hayes, Barry Harris, Paul Chambers, Yusef Lateef, Marcus Belgrave, Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Curtis Fuller, Julius Watkins, Hugh Lawson, Frank Foster, J. R. Monterose, Doug Watkins, Sir Roland Hanna, Donald Byrd, Kenn Cox, George "Sax" Benson, Sonny Stitt, Alice Coltrane, Dorothy Ashby, Roy Brooks, Phil Ranelin, Faruq Z. Bey, Jaribu Shahid, Hakim Jami, Pepper Adams, Tani Tabal, Charles McPherson, Frank Gant, Billy Mitchell, Kirk Lightsey, Lonnie Hillyer, James Carter, Geri Allen, Ralph Armstrong, Ali Jackson Jr., Rick Margitza, Kenny Garrett, Betty Carter, Sippie Wallace, Robert Hurst, Geri Allen, Rodney Whitaker, Clarence Penn, Karriem Riggins, Harold McKinney, Ray McKinney, and Carlos McKinney.

Jazz at the Blue Bird Inn in Detroit "started in 1948 when the Blue Bird hired pianist Phil Hill and told him to assemble a house band specializing in the newest thing from New York City - bebop." Here's the full story, from Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert.

Here's a photo of the Blue Bird from 2010, with a history of the building, and a sad story at the end of it:
Use in 2010:  Vacant building ready for sale
City of Detroit Designated Historic District: Not listed
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Not listed
National Register of Historic Places: Not listed

The songs on this session are "A Sinner Kissed an Angel," "Blue-Gray," "Grayhound," and "Treadin' with Treadwell." "Treadin'" is Wardell's tribute to jazz DJ and historian Oscar Treadwell, also celebrated by Charlie Parker in "An Oscar for Treadwell" and Thelonious Monk in "Oska T."

Phil Hill is a jazz legend who seems to have almost never recorded. I can only find two listings -- this album. and a live session with Wardell Gray the previous year, which may never have been released. The bassist on the Prestige session is listed as John Richardson. On the unreleased live recording, it's James "Beans" Richardson, who has to be the Jimmy Richardson of the Blue Bird poster (subsequent house bands at the Blue Bird included Elvin Jones, Frank Foster and Yusef Lateef). I can't tell whether the John and Beans are the same person, but it seems likely -- a mistake on the Prestige session notes. In any event, here's a nice tribute to Beans by his niece. Art Mardigan played with Woody Herman, Pete Rugolo and Stan Getz after his Blue Bird days, ultimately returning to Detroit and the Detroit music scene.

Here's a nice tribute to the Blue Bird:

And here's Wardell Gray with his Detroit trio:

And this beautiful ballad:

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