Lest We Forget:

Gigi Gryce (1927-1983)
By Ken Waxman

Arguably the most accomplished jazz musician to abandon his career at the height of his fame then make his mark elsewhere, was alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce. Gryce was one of jazz’s most creative composer-arrangers, whose precisely organized small groups and now classic tunes such as “Minority”, “Nica’s Tempo” and “Social Call” established new orchestral possibilities in the ‘50s and ‘60s. However he abruptly abandoned music in 1963 and spent the remainder of his life teaching music and other subjects full time. After his death, his educational achievements were honored when the Bronx public school at which he taught was renamed for him.

Born in Pensacola, Fla. on November 28, 1925, George General Grice, Jr. was an instrumental polymath who quickly mastered flute, clarinet and saxophones, and by the early-‘50s had attended Boston Conservatory and worked in many groups, most prominently on an overseas tour with Lionel Hampton’s big band that included Clifford Brown and Quincy Jones. By the end of the decade, established in New York, Gryce’s skills as composer, arranger and player made him nearly ubiquitous. His best-known band was the Jazz Lab quintet with trumpeter Donald Byrd. But he also played in large and small bands led by Teddy Charles, Oscar Pettiford, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and others, many of which featured his compositions. He arranged and conducted the famous Max Roach-Buddy Rich drum battle date, Rich vs Roach (Verve); and worked with Thelonious Monk. He’s the third saxophonist alongside John Coltrane and Coleman Hawkins on Monk’s Music (Riverside).

Gryce was also convinced that jazz musicians weren’t getting a fair share of publishing royalties. Business-oriented, he encouraged others to set up their own publishing companies, and from 1955 until 1963 ran Melotone Music/Totem Music to publish his own compositions and those of his contemporaries. Considering that many popular hard-bop tunes, including Ray Bryant’s “Little Susie”, Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford”, Bobby Timmons’s “Moanin’”, and Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly”, were administered by Gryce’s firms didn’t endear him to other publishers, record companies or bookers. Although most of the pressure exerted against him led to a slowing of work rather than outright threats, his already secretive nature soon turned paranoid. Eventually he returned rights to all tunes to their composers, cut himself off from the jazz world and taught under his Muslim name of Basheer Qusim until his death from a heart attack on March 14, 1983.

This abrupt change of direction after 1963 shouldn’t preclude an investigation of Gryce’s music. Even a cursory listen to sessions featuring his playing, arranging and especially his compositions, unmistakably reveal the breath of his contributions to jazz.

—For New York City Jazz Record November 2012