Thursday, February 12, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 82: Teddy Charles / Wardell Gray

Teddy Charles arrived on the West Coast in February of 1953 as Bob Weinstock's emissary, and immediately started putting together some extraordinary musicians.

Why Teddy Charles? Why expand to the West Coast? Probably because the jazz world was small and close-knit, and people did things because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Probably because Weinstock liked Charles, and Charles had mentioned that he'd love to go out to California. The other alternative is that Weinstock thought it through carefully, and said to himself, "I know! I'll take the most avant-garde musician I can find, and send him out to California! After all, look how well that worked seven years ago, the last time the most advanced musician of his day went out to California!"

In this case, unlike Charlie Parker's ill-fated West Coast debut at Billy Berg's, the world was probably ready for this incarnation of Teddy Charles, and Charles could hardly have put together a better group of West Coasters--including one musician who'd recorded with Bird during that West Coast sojourn, after Parker had relaxed at Camarillo.

This would be Wardell Gray's last recording session for Prestige. Two years later he was dead, his body found alongside a highway several miles outside of Las Vegas. It's quite possible -- probable -- that he was murdered, but the viciously racist Vegas of the 50s, no one cared. There was no investigation.

But this was an active period in Gray's life, and since we're saying goodbye in this blog to one of my favorite jazz artists, let's look at some of the recording gigs he made in the last part of '52 and '53, for an idea of his range and versatility.

  • A gig with Dexter Gordon, his partner on the famous "The Chase" recording.
  • A live recording at The Haig with Art Farmer, Hampton Hawes and Shelley Manne,
  • A  Shorty Rogers big band concert at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, with June Christy on vocals, and a band that included Chet Baker, Art Pepper, Gerry Mulligan, and Hampton Hawes. 21 songs were recorded on an Ampex reel to reel by Rogers's wife, and according to the Wardell Gray web page, they have only recently been released on 2 CDs available only to members of the Los Angeles Jazz Institute. A couple more dates with Baker, Pepper, Mulligan and Hawes were recorded during the fall. One has been issued but is, according to the website, of poor quality; the other unissued. It would have been a treat to follow that band around.
  •  A four-song date for Norman Granz with a Louis Bellson big band, including Harry "Sweets" Edison, Maynard Ferguson, Benny Carter and Barney Kessel.
  • A Norman Granz jam session which included Benny Carter, Sweets Edison, Buddy DeFranco, Stan Getz, Count Basie, Freddie Green and Buddy Rich.
  • A Little Willie Littlefield R&B date for Federal.
  • A Billy Eckstine session for MGM, with an orchestra that included Gray and Harry "Sweets" Edison.
A line that has stuck in my head for years: Annie Ross, in her vocalese rendition of Art Farmer-composed, Wardell Gray-influenced "Farmer's Market," sends her heroine from the sticks and her crew-cut cat with the crazy goatee off "touring the country with Wardell Gray." Somewhere, in some better place, they are still touring.

Back to Teddy Charles. 

This was Frank Morgan's first recording session. 

Most of Morgan's career took place late in his life, after he had finally overcome more than 30 years of addiction, Between his first arrest in 1955 and his final release from prison in 1986, he spent much of his time behind bars, and pretty much all of it in the clutches of heroin. And his late career was such a productive one, it's pretty much overshadowed his brief early days, including his very early days.

I had known that Morgan, like every alto player of his generation, was deeply influenced by Charlie Parker, but I hadn't known that he was actually a protege of Bird's. At age seven, his guitar playing father (sometime accompanist for the Ink Spots) had already started him on guitar, but when they went to hear Jay McShann's orchestra play in Detroit, and he heard Charlie Parker play the alto, that was all he wanted to do in life.

Not many 7-year-olds have that kind of epiphany, but even fewer have the followup. As a musician with some reputation, Stanley Morgan was able to go backstage with his son, where little Frank was introduced to Charlie Parker, and where Bird took an immediate interest in the boy. He arranged to meet him at a music store the next day, and picked out an instrument for him--a clarinet, as better suited to develop a 7-year-old's embouchure. He and Parker remained in touch.

Morgan was precocious in more ways than one. When he was 14, and living with his grandmother in Milwaukee, he was caught smoking pot,and sent to live with his father in Los Angeles -- presumably because his grandmother felt she couldn't handle him, not because LA was thought to be a more drug-free environment. There, he immediately was thrown into jam sessions with the likes of Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, and age 15 was offered Johnny Hodges's spot in Duke Ellington's Orchestra, but his father decided he was too young to be touring with a band, For the next several years, his credentials are stellar. And in 1955, the same year Charlie Parker died, the 22-year-old's career was shut down.

This may have been a tough session for Teddy Charles to put together. Wardell Gray was sinking into addiction, after resisting it for a long time. 20-year-old Frank Morgan and 22-year-old Sonny Clark were already addicted. Morgan finally overcame it; Clark never did. Ten years later he was dead. The Paris Review, in 2011, ran a two-part profile of Clark which is beautiful, devastating, and complete, so I'll refer you to it.

And move on to the music, which is inspired. Who knows what Bob Weinstock had in mind when he sent Teddy Charles out to Los Angeles, but what he got was a meld of talent and style between New York's most intellectual and avant-garde stylist this side of Lennie Tristano, and the West Coast's equally intellectual but earthy and crowd-pleasing giant of the tenor sax. The cover of their 45 RPM EP is posed, of course, but the way it shows all of them gathered around Charles, discussing a point of music, rings true.

I love all the songs on this session, but let me linger for a bit on "The Man I Love." I have a special weakness for bebop treatments of ballads from the Great American Songbook, and this one is no exception. Sonny Clark starts it off with a dense and moody piano intro, heavy on the sustain pedal, Wardell Gray comes in on top with an emotional statement of the melody, and then Teddy Charles comes in, under the piano at first, then above the piano but under the sax, then the two of them, Gray and Charles, improvising in tandem, one or the other of them taking the lead, or neither of them, with the tempo increasing, until it's time for a very young alto player, his head and heart full of Charlie Parker, to come an joyously take us into heart of Bebop Nation. There's no restatement of theme at the end--the tempo and the mood have gone too far beyond the aching plea for Mr. Right to come along. These guys are Mr. Right.

I could listen to this all day. In fact, I did. For the last couple of days.

It's more difficult than it should be to find composer credits for jazz compositions. AllMusic used to be good on this score, but they changed their format. "Lavonne"was pretty definitely written by Sonny Clark. I've seen "Paul's Cause" and "So Long Broadway" credited to both Charles and Gray, but the site that credited Charles also gave composer credit for the Gershwin classic "The Man I Love" to Davis, Sherman and Ramirez, who actually wrote "Lover Man." Still, Charles was the one who had recently said so long to Broadway, so there's a good chance it's his. Sonny Clark, much later, deeply in the throes of addiction, stole a tune from Thelonious Monk and recorded it as his own, but that was much, much later.

"So Long Broadway" was released as a single b/w a tune from a later West Coast session. All four tunes came out on a 45 RPM EP, and later on the Wardell Gray Memorial LP, Much later -- 2006 -- all the Teddy Charles California sessions were gathered on an CD, Adventures in California, but not issued by Prestige.

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