Los Angeles in the 1940’s was the hub of artistic activity that would come to embody Old Hollywood; classic feature films were produced on massive studio lots, stars ascended, and diversity was decidedly not the soup du jour for the burgeoning world of entertainment.  Parallel to the twice-polished leading ladies and men it made famous, the west coast was an employment desert for many people of color attempting to establish themselves. Not just true of major film productions, this was occurring across entertainment. The resulting mess, however, seemed less effective in quieting the world of jazz. Full of bittersweet angst, California was referred to by some as the Mississippi of the west – a pretty strong statement in light of the sharp bigotry fueling southern law and life at the time. While Norman Granz was busy reviving the salon scene and integrating audiences with the Jazz at the Philharmonic series, the giants of bebop were arriving at Los Angeles’ Central Station – called as much by Granz as Billy Berg’s in Hollywood – unloading steamer trunks and horn cases for a bit of rest, relaxation, and recording; some headed for big bands, some jettisoned to the steady pay of small club dates, some to be consumed by the sweet respite of vice – all of them primed to affect the sound.

Looking to bandstands on the city’s Eastside, musicians found steady work away from the venues of greater patronage and glitzy notoriety. While bebop was the very tall order of the day in jazz by this point and quite a hard pill for some to swallow, it was also novel that two young musicians from the west coast could play it well enough to compete with the founders of the sound. This was a major step forward and possibly a first. Students of Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Ornette Coleman, Coleman Hawkins, and Illinois Jacquet amongst others, it made sense that the proliferation of the sound would be channeled through Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. The fact that their major arrival occurred in tandem was special. Gordon had already made something of a name for himself, but Gray was essentially introduced to the world as an artist with the release of their first collaboration and subsequent commercial success. These performances represented a coming out party for the west coast as a force in jazz – one that could keep up with its east coast counterparts, thanks in large part to the rising musicians who were huge fans of the sound and also happened to be employed by big bands organized and run by those musicians moonlighting out west.

While Dexter Gordon was native to the west coast, Wardell Gray arrived after a stint with the Earl Hines Orchestra. After years of crossing paths on the big band circuit, the two intersected when Dexter Gordon returned home in 1946. The two, very close in age, struck a quick friendship and began jamming every night. Posted in the clubs along Los Angeles’ Central Avenue, they waited for crowded bandstands to thin as the hours passed to resume their ritual contest.  Where Gordon was bombastic, Gray was efficient; not in a less is more kind of way as much as a less noise and more finesse approach was king. Both fearlessly at each other’s throats in competition, it began to make sense to record what was happening when they took the stage. With a clinician’s skill, the spirit of the typical raucous bandstand rivalry was coaxed out of them and laid down with tactical precision in the studio recording of “The Chase,” released as a 78 RPM pressing on Dial Records in 1947. “The Chase” was a recording instigated and eventually produced by Dial founder Ross Russell, to simulate the storied battles between Gordon and Gray that would inevitably occur at the end of every gig, as other musicians acquiesced the stage to two younger horn players with a penchant for trading blows well into the night. Who could play lowest on the register? Who could pack the most notes into one bar? Who would have bragging rights in the morning? This was music for the last man standing. Each solo full of swing and variations on the chorus, the man with the floor would build a wall of sound and the other would attempt, more dramatically than the last time, to blow it down.

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Anything but an easy conversation, the classic tenor battle was demonstrated on “The Chase” and later defined by “The Hunt” as Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray drew lines in the deep sand of the solo; their squawks and bleets, oft-traded barbs decreasing in length as they built to short bursts of flurried notes with an intensity profane enough to melt the manners off of a crowd.  What was left was a recording studded with the hollering and cat calls of an impassioned audience the likes of which would otherwise be found anchoring a juke joint or revival tent into the wee hours of the morning.  Emboldened by the kind of bravado that oozes almost exclusively from the pores of young men by the metric ton, Gordon and Gray already possessed the ego necessary to sustain a standing battle.  Armed with a surprising aptitude and abiding love for bebop – the perch from which the giants of the New York scene were changing the game – and instigated by a sea of onlookers likely betting on their favorites, neither man intended to yield to the last challenge of his contender.  While “The Chase” was exciting, “The Hunt” was impolite enough to make quick work of the idea that jazz was ever to exist at the behest and within the parameters of a stuffy crowd.  The music was performed less to please the people and more to please the players.

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What this produced was an electric recording of an even more vivid and frenzied performance.  It is at this point that the evolution of bebop and thus jazz begins to turn another corner, not just for the west coast but for musicians – tenor saxophonists in particular – who are suddenly charged to bleed, sweat, laugh, and cry through their instruments instead of just providing a few moments of excitement and contrast to the trumpet during a big band solo or a brazen outburst on the bandstand of a seedy dance hall.  The tenor saxophone suddenly became an instrument best utilized to convey the tenor of the situation, one obviously fraught with emotion when you consider the popularity of the music paralleled by the reality of the musicians making it, many of whom were black twenty years prior to the faintest whispers of integration or the civil rights era.

This change provided the circumstances necessary to produce the sounds of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, and musicians like them who clearly emoted through their horns – using them to survive and ultimately challenge the world around them.  Accidental diarists, these men – a handful in a massive lineage of saxophonists – would embody an impassioned movement, finding themselves able to say with their instruments what most people struggling in America could not for fear of violent reprisal or economic stifling.  As stated by Ornette Coleman, “The best statements Negroes have made of what their soul is, have been on the tenor saxophone,” the medium that found them chasing spiritual and creative freedom as fervently as Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray began as boys – flexing their muscles in the mirrored brass of their horns, chasing bragging rights.

Words by Karas Lamb


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