February 25, 2020- Today's BHM topic is: Tenor Battles of Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray
By the time Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray got together in Los Angeles in 1947 they had both become nationally known as pioneers of modern jazz on the tenor saxophone.
Dexter was a Los Angeles native, born there in 1923. He was a product of the legendary Sam Browne music program at Jefferson High School. Dexter’s classmates included Chico Hamilton, Vi Redd, Ernie Royal, Jackie Kelso and Melba Liston. The number of jazz greats that came through Sam Browne’s program at Jefferson is mind-boggling.
Dexter developed as a saxophonist so quickly that he was able to join Lionel Hampton’s new big band while still in his teens. By the time he was 20 he had been with Hamp for three years. After Hamp he worked with Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine and by the mid-forties was part of the modern jazz explosion on 52nd Street in New York. He was the first of that generation of Los Angeles jazz musicians to make it big. When he returned home in 1946 he was treated as a conquering hero by both fans and fellow musicians In New York he had signed with and already recorded for Savoy Records. But that didn’t stop Ross Russell from signing him to Dial not long after he arrived back in town.
Wardell Gray came to Los Angeles by way of the Earl Hines band. He and Dexter had actually met in 1943 in Detroit but didn’t come together until they both landed on the west coast in 1947. The two became good friends and started a regimen of nightly tenor battles on Central Ave. Their home base was the Downbeat Club at 41st and Central where they would go at it until the club closed for the night. From there they would move up to Jack’s Basket Room and continue on until the wee hours of the morning. Some nights Wardell would come out on top and some nights Dexter was unbeatable.
Ross Russell wanted to capture the excitement of the two tenors for Dial records. He brought them together on June 12, 1947 to try to re-create their nightly battles under studio conditions. The result was “The Chase” which ran for 7 minutes and filled up both sides of a 10” 78rpm record. The Chase outsold everything Dial had recorded up to that time.
A few weeks later on July 6, 1947 both Dexter and Wardell took part in a concert at the Elk’s Auditorium on Central Ave. A concert that has now reached legendary status.
Following two days of Independence Day celebrations It was billed as “Jack Williams Presents A Jazz Concert Dance Series.” Besides Dexter and Wardell the concert featured Howard McGhee, Sonny Criss, Hampton Hawes, Barney Kessel and Trummy Young. Producer Ralph Bass recorded the proceedings in hopes of selling it to Savoy Records. Instead he issued it on several 78s on his own “Bop” label. Later it was issued on Savoy as “Jazz West Coast Live.”
The Elk’s recordings are a great example of what happened every night with Dexter and Wardell. It’s a jam session format in front of a crowd of 2000 people who are driven into a frenzy as they listen to Dexter and Wardell chase each other for close to 20 minutes on “The Hunt.” Thanks to Ross Russell and Ralph Bass the legendary tenor battles were
immortalized on record.
They were also immortalized in literature by two of the beat writers that would emerge several years later. Jack Kerouac mentions “The Hunt” in his classic “On the Road”. The
passage reads: “Moriartry stands bowed and jumping before the big phonograph listening to a wild bop record….The Hunt, with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.”
The other was John Clellon Holmes who wrote in his classic novel “Go”: “The Hunt, listen there for the anthem in which we jettisoned the intellectual dixieland of atheism, rationalism, liberalism-and found our group’s rebel streak at last.”