RAT RACE BLUES: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce

By Noal Cohen & Michael Fitzgerald
Berkeley Hills Books

Romantic music par excellence, jazz is rife with myths about legends who suddenly burst onto the scene, dominated jazz consciousness for a time, then just as swiftly disappear, their vaporization related to drugs, alcohol, violence and sex — or some combination of all three.

Lee Morgan, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Bix Beiderbecke and Lester Young are most prominent among the ranks of these fallen idols, whose numbers can be multiplied tenfold. Alto saxophonist/composer Gigi Gryce, a devout Muslim who never drank liquor or smoked anything, makes this list by default. He had been so prominent on the New York scene from 1953 to 1962, and vanished so completely afterwards, that many were sure that his story fit the mold.

Well-educated musically and well-respected by nearly everyone, during that decade Gryce (1925 - 1983) was featured on acclaimed discs by trumpeter Clifford Brown, pianist Thelonious Monk and many others, had his tunes recorded by a cross section of players and led his own high-profile bands with partners like trumpeters Donald Byrd or Art Farmer. Because of his reputation, after 1962 rumors and suppositions made the rounds to explain his sudden absence.

Besides being an in-demand writer, arranger and performer, Gryce was one of the first Black jazz musicians to set up his own publishing companies. He also encouraged other musicians to do likewise, so they would benefit the most when their tunes were played and broadcast. Gryce’s hard work had angered the mobsters who really ran the jazz business, musicians whispered. His house had been firebombed and his family threatened, they added, and that’s why he quit the scene.

The truth, as Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald relate in this monumentally researched volume, was both simpler and sadder. As hard bop was being battered by the avant-garde on one side and the burgeoning pop-rock juggernaut on the other, Gryce, a more conventional soloist, found his musical work drying up. At the same time, when a few of the tunes registered with his publishing companies became hits, he had neither the time nor the clout to oversee proper royalties’ collection Those popular composers soon went elsewhere. Furthermore, with the jazz scene shrinking, record company owners, told musicians that publishing tunes through the labels’ subsidiaries would get them LP dates; publishing through Gyrce’s tiny firms wouldn’t. There weren’t any firebombs or threats against his family.

Always secretive, suspicious and insecure, the saxophonist conflated the evidence into a plot against him and became paranoid to the point where he wouldn’t answer the telephone or even provide business details to tenor saxophonist Benny Golson, who was his sometime publishing company partner. Subsequently overwhelmed by the concurrent break up of his 10-year marriage, Gryce gave up. He returned rights to all tunes but his own to their composers and left the jazz world. Subsuming his former personality under his Muslim name of Basheer Qusim, he became an inspirational teacher of music and other subjects at public schools in hardscrabble areas of New York. His contribution there was so monumental, that an elementary school in the Bronx was renamed in his honor after his early death from a heart attack.

Although they deserve kudos for solving the mystery of his final years, Cohen and Fitzgerald have done much more than that with this book. They’ve provided an exceptional chronicle of Gryce’s achievements as a working musician, and supplemented it with numerous particulars. The book includes an exhaustive Gryce discography, a list of Gryce’s compositions and those his companies’ published — hard bop standards like “Moanin’”, “Comin’ Home Baby” and “Little Susie” were initially administered by Gyrce’s firms — as well as enumerating all known recordings of Gryce’s best-known tunes, which includes “Minority”, “Nica’s Tempo”, Social Call and “Hymn To The Orient”.

Born in Pensacola, Fla., Gryce — real name George Grice Jr. — was such an exceptional musician that when he was drafted during the Second World War his talents soon landed him in a navy band. Following his discharge, he studied classical music and theory at the Boston Conservatory of Music for five years and for a brief time in Paris. By the time he graduated in 1952 and moved to New York, a few of his compositions had already been recorded by tenor saxophonist Stan Getz.

In Manhattan, the authors point out, while Gryce’s Charlie Parker-influenced playing was strong enough to quickly get him work with nearly every important figure on the solidifying hard bop scene from drummer Art Blakey to trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, it was his unique and captivating compositions and arranging skills which solidified his reputation. Influenced by bop pianist Tadd Dameron, who he described as “one of the greatest, most creative and exploring arrangers of our time”, and with whom he recorded in 1953, Gryce’s best-known pieces are full-blown compositions, not simple themes inserted between solos.

Hard bop combos, like his extensively recorded Jazz Lab Quintet co-lead by Byrd, which sometimes added extra horns for more tonal colors, brought Gryce’s name forward in the late 1950s. So did his desire to write what he termed “modern jazz standards” using unexpected chords, different dynamics and unique modulations. His associations also included playing with and arranging for unusually constituted experimental aggregations of the time such as vibist Teddy Charles’ Tentet and bassist Oscar Pettiford’s larger bands, both of which included French horns. Eventually, major jazz stars of the day such as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummers Max Roach and Buddy Rich — on the famous RICH VS ROACH LP — were using Gryce as an arranger and recording his compositions.

Despite his talent, personality-wise, Gryce was far too unassuming. While he was a perfectionist in his music, which endeared him to fellow players, he lacked the flair for self-promotion to capitalize on his talent. He also wasn’t flamboyant enough to gain a reputation for unconventionality like his erstwhile employers Monk and bassist Charles Mingus. Furthermore, with his fear of flying and even long car trips — road accidents had killed his close friends trumpeter Brown and vibist/pianist Eddie Costa — the saxophonist, who didn’t even have a driver’s license, limited his work to the New York City area.

Although his final bands with trumpeter Richard Williams — a quintet and another larger group — debuted more of his compositions and offered new treatments of others, by the early 1960s he seemed to be concentrating his arranging skills on creating striking variations on standards. Maybe this retrenchment was a response to the highly vocal avant gardists coming to prominence in New York at the time. At any rate, he soon abandoned recording and playing altogether to concentrate on his publishing companies, and that sour experience eventually took him out of the music business.

Strangely enough, for all his musical versatility, Gryce was involved with very few non hard-core jazz projects during his time in the limelight. The sum total included arranging some R&B tunes, recording with a couple of singers — including Betty Carter — and composing the soundtrack for a short dance film as well as the music for perhaps three soft drink commercials.

Had he wanted to follow that path, it seems that the breath of Gyrce’s musical sophistication could have given him a more marketable livelihood, composing jingles and TV themes, like his close friends Quincy Jones and Golson, and, like the later, eventually returning to jazz. But, as his subsequent commitment to teaching showed, it would appear that the composer/saxophonist could do nothing he didn’t believe in, nor do anything by half measures.

Cohen and Fitzgerald have produced the definitive book on this driven musician and one that in scholarship and attention to detailed, first-hand information can serve as a model for jazz biographies to come. While musical notation is included and musical theory discussed, the examples never become so recondite, or take up so much space, as to frustrate the non-musician. Overall, the one criticism of the volume could be, is that some of the interviews aren’t edited closely enough and allow the subjects to go off topic.

Minor quibbles aside, RAT RACE BLUES should be a definite addition to your shelf of jazz books.

— Ken Waxman