by Marshall Bowden originally published at Jazzitude
On May 25, 1955, the body of a 34 year-old black man was found in the desert outside of Las Vegas. The man’s neck had been broken, and the body had apparently been dumped from a car. Even though this scenario may sound like it would warrant an autopsy, none was performed. The local coroner and law enforcement officials ruled that the man had died of a drug overdose and the case was closed. It has never been explained how the body came to be in the desert nor how or why its neck was broken. That the body belonged to Wardell Gray, one of jazz’s best West Coast bop tenor players and heir apparent to the legacy of Lester Young, was of no consequence to the authorities.
Gray was born in Oklahoma, making him one of a handful of “western swing” players whose style was characterized by a full and open tone as well as a relaxed but fiercely swinging improvisational style. Though Gray’s folks moved from Oklahoma City to Detroit before he took up the saxophone, he is still identified, along with Don Byas, as a great “western-style” bop tenor player. Wardell played with Earl “Fatha” Hines’ group from 1943 to 1945, and during this stint he recorded with Hines and began to receive recognition as a solid tenor soloist. Coincidentally, Gray joined the band as an alto sax and clarinet player before switching to tenor, just as his predecessor in the band, one Charlie Parker, had done. Following his stint with the Hines band, Gray moved to California, living in Los Angeles, which was fast attracting a large number of musicians inspired by the bebop movement spearheaded on the other coast by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It was during this time that he met Dexter Gordon and began to play club dates with Gordon during which the two would engage in musical “battles of the tenors”. It was only natural that the two should record together, the most notable example being the popular Dial Records recording “The Chase”.
In 1945, Central Avenue was Los Angeles’ version of 52nd Street, and there were plenty of musicians and plenty of clubs for them to play in. Some of the notables hanging our in L.A. at the time included Sonny Criss, Charles Mingus, Hampton Hawes, excellent bop pianist Dodo Marmarosa, and Art Farmer. This was the same year that Parker & Gillespie brought their bop group to Billy Berg’s club. The first week the club was packed with musicians who responded enthusiastically to the music, but the general public did not understand or care for the music being played by these East Coast musicians, and the group got the cold shoulder. They left to go back to New York, but Parker, deep in the grip of his drug habit, stayed on in L.A.
The young musicians in town idolized Bird, and unfortunately many of them felt they could be better players by studying not only his recordings and improvisational style, but also by becoming heroin addicts. Gray, who was looked up to almost as much as Parker, acted as a role model for younger musicians by not using heroin and telling anyone who would listen that drug use was not the way to become a better player. As Doug Ramsey notes in his piece on Wardell Gray:
“After Bird, the skinny tenor man from the Billy Eckstine band was the musician most admired and respected by the younger players. He spoke quietly and articulately, admired the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and the politics of Henry Wallace, boosted the NAACP and advised fledgling jazzmen on music and life, particularly in regard to the futility of messing with drugs.”
But Parker’s playing did influence Gray, a fact that can be heard on the recordings he did with Benny Goodman’s group in 1948 after moving to New York. Goodman had lost his place as a foremost jazz musician with the advent of bebop, as swing music became seen as passe and overly commercial. Goodman decided to put together a band that would play bebop, and he brought in musicians familiar with the idiom, including Gray, Doug Mettome, and Sonny Iggoe. Fats Navarro also participated in one session. On most of these recordings all of the soloists play in the bebop style, but Goodman’s solos are relatively unaffected by the new stylistic considerations, sounding somewhat out of date.
While Goodman did admire players like Gray and Navarro, he found the harmonic ideas of bebop much more interesting than the rhythmic concepts the music introduced. Realizing it was something of an all-or-nothing proposition, Goodman abandoned the bebop style a year later. Wardell Gray was a hit with the group; more than one reviewer commented on his playing as the focal point of the group. The group did some recording for Capitol as well as some air checks during a stint at a resort, and the record Benny Goodman Rides Again provides a good sampling of what this Goodman group sounded like. Goodman was unbridled in his enthusiasm for Gray: “If Wardell Gray plays bop, it’s great” intoned the King of Swing, “because he’s wonderful.”
In 1949, Gray recorded a session with a rhythm section comprised of pianist Al Haig, Tommy Potter on bass, and drummer Roy Haynes. The group cut a B-flat blues entitled “Twisted” that had all the elements of a bebop standard–a latinesque opening, a concise and melodic head, and a great, lyrical solo by Gray that includes a lengthy quote from “Would You Like to Swing On a Star”. A few years later vocalist Annie Ross recorded lyrics set to Gray’s solo, and her version became a popular hit, exposing a huge array of music fans, most of whom had never heard of Wardell Gray, to his solo.
Following his stint with Goodman, Gray joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1950, also working with the Basie Septet and recording with Tadd Dameron. From ’51 on, Gray worked mostly freelance, often forming his own groups for recording sessions in L.A. and accepting gigs that took him out of town. It was in 1955 that Gray was called to Las Vegas for a gig with Benny Carter, with whom he had previously worked. The gig was at the newly-opened Moulin Rouge, Vegas’ first integrated casino. Sadly, both Gray and the Moulin Rouge would be gone before the end of the year.
Las Vegas, The Moulin Rouge, and Wardell Gray
Las Vegas is usually thought of as a wild kind of place where “anything goes.” Most people are surprised to learn that, in terms of race relations, the city has a history much like any Southern town; in fact, Vegas was known as the “Missisipi of the West”. Segregation was widespread and enforced by laws that cut blacks out of any reasonable representation. Black people were not allowed to use city swimming pools and could only purchase cemetery plots in carefully delineated “black” burial areas. Interracial marriage licenses were not granted, and any black citizen requesting such a license with the intention of marrying a white was arrested. The first marriage license granted to an interracial couple in Las Vegas was not issued until 1959.
The same was true of the downtown casinos and the strip. Blacks were not allowed in the casinos to gamble and were usually not allowed to stay at the hotels and establishments on the strip where they performed. Bugsy Siegel was the first to hire black performers to entertain at his establishment, the Flamingo, because he wanted the best performers regardless of their race. Lena Horne performed there shortly after the Flamingo opened, but she was not allowed to enter the casino. While she was able to stay at the Flamingo during her tenure there, many performers were not so lucky. Generally the black bands, singers, and comedians who performed downtown had to stay in the area known as the Westside, an area on the west side of the railroad tracks where black Americans and their businesses were pretty much kept “hidden” from the rest of the town. Any establishment that would attract a “mixed clientele” (a euphemism for having black customers) was denied a business license unless it was located on the Westside.
In 1955, the Moulin Rouge casino opened at 900 West Bonanza Road. The casino had a clear policy of serving any and all patrons, regardless of race. Because of its open policy, it was able to draw many of the top black entertainers in the country. Black entertainers who performed on the strip would stay at the Moulin Rouge, and many white entertainers came there to relax and have a good time after their shows. Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Ed Sullivan were all frequent visitors to the Moulin Rouge’s gaming floor. The Moulin Rouge had a “third show”, unlike the strip casinos which only had a dinner show and a midnight show. This led to an “after-hours” atmosphere at the Moulin Rouge, similar to the jam session atmosphere at integrated jazz clubs in New York or Los Angeles. Nor was the casino merely a front for white businessmen–the management, dealers, and other workers at the Moulin Rouge were all black, a very radical concept a that time not only for Las Vegas, but large parts of the United States.
Benny Carter’s band played at the Moulin Rouge’s opening, and two days later Wardell Gray was dead. What happened? There have been several theories advanced over the years. The commonly accepted story, boosted by the official cause of death report, is that Gray had succumbed to the lure of heroin and either overdosed, resulting in his body being dumped in the desert to keep the Moulin Rouge from being implicated, or that he had been involved in a drug deal that went bad. While Gray’s sermons against drug use to younger musicians and the testimony of many colleagues that Gray was a lifelong non-user don’t disprove this, they certainly make it seem somewhat unlikely. So does the apparent unwillingness of Las Vegas law enforcement at the time to entertain any other theories.
Other people who knew Wardell swear that he was murdered because of a gambling debt. Given the nature of Las Vegas and its business, this not outside the realm of possibility. Still another possibility is that Wardell Gray was the victim of a racially motivated murder. Remember that an interracial marriage license wasn’t granted in Vegas for four years after this incident. Despite the success of the Moulin Rouge, black citizens of Las Vegas were still mostly confined to the Westside and there were sometimes eruptions of civil unrest. Whether Gray somehow provoked a racist individual or group by his mere presence or was in the wrong place at the wrong time, it does not stretch the imagination too much to see how something like this could have happened.
Another fact that lends an air of suspicion to events surrounding Gray’s death is the fact that the Moulin Rouge closed after only six months of operation, despite great popularity. Again, there are many theories as to why, ranging from poor business management to pressure from the casinos on the strip, who felt that the Moulin Rouge was too popular and was competing with their business. Whatever the reason, it seems clear that there were events in both the closing of the Moulin Rouge and the death of Wardell Gray that have not, and may never, come to light.