Published in Jazz Improv, V 4, No. 3 (12/2003)
Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Gryce, by Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald. 456 Pages. Published 2002 by Berkeley Hills Books.
Review by Virginia A. Schaefer
Gigi Gryce (1925-1983) has been a mysterious figure since the early 1960s, when he dropped out of an outstanding career as a jazz composer, reeds player, and independent music publisher. In this first Gryce biography, Noal Cohen and Michael Fitzgerald attempt to answer the question "Whatever happened to...?" about a man who was unusually private with his emotions and motivations. The authors uncover some explanations for Gryce's puzzling conduct and through interviews and analysis, they thoroughly explore Gryce's musical accomplishments. A discography documents Gryce's recorded output, much of it available on CD.
George General Grice, Jr. (original spelling) was the next-youngest child born into a large, prosperous family in Pensacola, Florida. When he was eight years old, his father died of heart failure, leaving the family without income in the Depression. His mother sold the family business, and they had to move from their comfortable home in a mixed-race neighborhood to a smaller place in a poorer, mostly black part of town. The family scraped by thanks to his mother, grandmother, and older sisters, who took jobs teaching and doing factory work. The local black community's tradition of mutual support helped George Gryce and his younger brother Tommy gain an education in their shabby high school.
The turning point for the teenaged Gryce was a project sponsored by the WPA, a Federal program employing artists, that brought music instruction to low-income areas. He studied clarinet and joined the school band, and he quickly became absorbed in playing and then writing music. Gryce took up alto saxophone and after graduation joined the local "jazz orchestra" of one of his teachers. Drafted in 1944, he joined the Navy and soon won a place performing and arranging with a renowned Navy band near Chicago. Learning from fellow band members – who included Clark Terry and John Coltrane – and in the clubs of Chicago, he became a follower of the bebop idiom.
After finishing his service in 1946, he went to Hartford, Connecticut and lived with one of his sisters while he played, wrote, and studied jazz. On visits to New York, he got to know major players like Thelonious Monk. In 1947, Gryce moved to Boston to enroll at Boston Conservatory, where his influential teachers included composer Alan Hovhaness. Gryce studied music theory, including the Schillinger System, which had influenced other jazz composers. Gryce performed his compositions in clubs and jam sessions, along with area musicians like Jaki Byard, Alan Dawson, Sam Rivers, and Quincy Jones, with whom he became longtime friends. Gryce fit well into the Boston jazz scene, which put a high value on knowledge of classical music and the theoretical foundations of jazz. Gaining a regional reputation as a harmonically innovative composer while a still a student, Gryce taught theory-based music lessons to fellow musicians.
Sometime in 1951, Gryce had the opportunity to study in Paris, and later he often later cited his Fulbright Scholarship to study with composer Arthur Honegger and educator Nadia Boulanger. The authors' research indicates that Gryce probably visited Paris briefly (not on a Fulbright) with the intention of study, a venture cut short when he had a nervous breakdown. He recovered quickly, spent a few months in New York, and returned to Boston. Around that time, Gryce converted to Islam, which for him consisted of private ritual and study. He took the religious name Basheer Qusim; he continued public use of his original name, but changed the spelling from Grice to Gryce.
In 1951, a fellow young musician with a Hartford connection, pianist Horace Silver, recommended Gryce's compositions to his new employer, saxophonist Stan Getz. Getz liked Gryce's work and recorded six of his compositions. Gryce graduated from Boston Conservatory in 1952 and moved to New York to pursue the life of a professional jazz musician.
Living the Musical Life
With his training, experience, and single-minded determination, Gryce was poised to succeed in the New York jazz world of the early 1950s. Although Gryce's soloing was uneven, in the authors' frankly assessment, he was valued as a top-notch sight-reader and quick study on his main instrument, alto sax, and on flute and clarinet. Gryce landed gigs with leaders such as saxophonist Lucky Thompson and drummer Max Roach. In 1953, he played with and composed for a sextet led by trumpeter Howard McGhee, which included Horace Silver. Their critically acclaimed recording included two Gryce compositions; one, "Shabozz", was in 32-bar song form that had complex chord progressions.
Gryce played with a nine-piece band led by composer-pianist Tadd Dameron, whose "melodic, impressionistic, and lyrical" compositional style was an important influence. The Dameron group also included Benny Golson and Clifford Brown, whom Gryce admired musically and personally. Gryce and Brown had in common a refusal of mood-altering substances; Gryce spurned not only hard drugs but also alcohol and tobacco.
Later in 1953, Gryce joined the jazz orchestra of Lionel Hampton, then starting a run at The Bandbox in Manhattan. As were many other young musicians, Gryce was willing to wear silly outfits and accept low pay for the chance to play big-band swing spiked with bop and R&B. Fellow band members included Clifford Brown, Quincy Jones, and trumpeter Art Farmer. Gryce also played in and wrote for a small group of Hampton band mates, led by Brown and including Quincy Jones, drummer Art Blakey, and pianist John Lewis, whom Gryce admired. The group recorded a well-received LP that included Brown's performance of Gryce's "Hymn to the Orient", one of the best known recordings of a Gryce composition.
In fall 1953, Gryce went with the Hampton orchestra on a three-month tour of Europe and North Africa. Stops included Scandinavia, Germany, Algiers, and Paris, where Gryce enjoyed more success than on his first trip. In addition to enjoying the enthusiastic audience reception, many band members jumped at the chance to record with admiring European colleagues. The clandestine recording enraged Hampton, who threatened mass firings (not enforceable, under the musicians' union rules). Gryce was pleasantly surprised that his writing credentials had preceded him to Paris, and he played and contributed originals to several recordings, some under his name. The authors mention that one Gryce composition, "Paris the Beautiful", had tonal centers a third apart, a harmonic trait advanced for the time.
Back in New York in December, Gryce celebrated a quiet wedding with Eleanor Sears, who worked at a New York hospital. After leaving the Hampton orchestra, he entered a successful musical partnership with Art Farmer. Both men emphasized "structure and lyricism" in their solos, and Farmer's superlative trumpet playing was an ideal vehicle for Gryce's compositions. With a rhythm section of varying personnel, the Art Farmer-Gigi Gryce Quintet made a recording on Prestige in 1954 and another in 1955, with Gryce playing as well as providing most of the compositions, and in 1954 the Art Farmer Septet recorded several Gryce arrangements. For Gryce's piece "Social Call", singer Jon Hendricks wrote lyrics, and Ernestine Anderson (married to Art Farmer) sang it on a Quintet recording.
Gryce was emerging as one of the leading writers in the idiom of hard bop, revered among colleagues. For example, Art Blakey chose Gryce compositions for all but one number on his 1954 album Blakey. Gryce played alto sax on a recording of Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1955, and later he composed and played for another Gillespie recording. The Gigi Gryce Quartet recorded "Nica's Tempo" with Thelonious Monk, who played a rare sideman role. In a 1955 interview in Down Beat, Miles Davis said that next to Gil Evans, his favorite writers were Gigi Gryce and Gerry Mulligan.
In addition to composing and performing, in 1955 Gryce started a company to publish his own and colleagues' compositions. Rather than letting record companies act as their publishers, musician-controlled publishers could distribute to the composers the royalties that the recording companies usually kept. Gryce was one of the first jazz musicians to publish music, and his venture was known and admired by his colleagues as a means of self-determination and particularly as a way for black musicians to counteract domination by a white-controlled music industry. Horace Silver, who formed his own publishing company and record label, published some works with Gryce.
From 1955 to 1957, Gryce played with and wrote for several groups led by bassist Oscar Pettiford. One Pettiford group included instruments unusual for jazz, such as harp and French horn, and tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson also played with and wrote for the group. Gryce played with the Teddy Charles Tentet in 1955 and 1956. Charles was a vibraphone player and composer who favored jazz compositions and arrangements that molded and integrated solo parts while giving soloists the freedom to improvise. Gryce gained insights as he soloed masterfully on pieces written by previous and current members, such as pianist Mal Waldron and composer George Russell. Gryce later worked in a group led by Waldron.
Nineteen-fifty-seven was Gryce's peak year for recording. With trumpeter Donald Byrd he co-led the Jazz Lab, which was variously a quintet and nonet, making several recordings on the prestigious Columbia label. Gryce and Byrd aimed to please a wide audience by playing their own hard-bop originals plus arrangements of standards, adding a fair taste of blues. The success of the Jazz Lab was helped by a rotating rhythm section that included pianists Wynton Kelly and Hank Jones and drummer Art Taylor. Gryce's other activities that year included soloing on a Thelonious Monk recording that included John Coltrane and appearing on a TV special with a number of other hard-bop players.
In 1958, Gryce made a few more Jazz Lab recordings without Byrd. He recorded with vocalist Betty Carter, and he contributed to an album by Benny Golson and trumpeter Lee Morgan. Gryce's "Minority" was becoming a modern standard, recorded that year by pianist Bill Evans and alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. In 1959, trombonist Jimmy Cleveland, a longtime colleague (and major interview source for the book), hired Gryce to write and play for a recording. Gryce also provided arrangements of standards for the album Rich Versus Roach, a battle of the bands of drummers Roach and Buddy Rich.
In fall 1959, Gryce formed the Gigi Gryce Quintet with trumpeter Richard Williams and a varying rhythm section that included Richard Wyands on piano, Reggie Workman on bass, and Mickey Roker on drums. To maximize the group's opportunities, Gryce had each member double on at least one other instrument. The Quintet played several New York clubs, starting at the Five Spot. The group recorded three albums, Saying Somethin', The Hap'nin's (where Gryce performs "Minority" the fourth time and "Nica's Tempo" the seventh), and "The Rat Race Blues". The authors remark that Gryce's playing showed some Coltrane influence, including rhythmic complexity and patterns from the diminished scale.
In 1960, Gryce added vibes player Eddie Costa to his group, which he renamed the Orch-tette to convey the group's versatility. The enlarged group continued to play clubs and made one recording in late 1960, Reminiscin', which was critically well-received. Among other projects, Gryce played on a album, Uhuru Afrika, by a large "all-star" group led by Randy Weston. In 1961, Gryce played and wrote for an independent art film, which included his piece "The Rat Race Blues". That year Gryce also did some commercial work.
Out of the Rat Race
Like many other jazz musicians in that time of decline in club attendance and record sales, Gryce was finding it harder to get work, despite his efforts to introduce into his work more popular traits, like blues, and his skill at making a small group sound larger. He didn't like travel, either by plane or by car. He was uninterested in pursuing more than minimal work in advertising or other commercial music. Then, sometime in 1961, Gryce started turning down gigs that he ordinarily would have welcomed, to the puzzlement of his colleagues. By the end of 1962, Gigi Gryce had essentially disappeared from the jazz scene.
The authors theorize that professional and personal problems converged to overwhelm Gryce. Perhaps the most troubling was that some industry representatives, displeased with Gryce's proselytizing about musicians' publication rights, threatened Gryce's clients with retaliatory blackballing by New York clubs. In addition, Gryce had fallen behind on the complicated business of collecting and distributing royalties. Although for most titles the amounts were small, owners of a few popular titles discovered they were losing significant royalty income and withdrew their works. Rather than resisting industry intimidation and getting help with handling royalties, Gryce went into a panic and decided to dissolve his business. Afterward, instead of becoming more relaxed, he developed irrational fears that people were trying to harm him and his family.
In his distressed state, Gryce could manage only some occasional work as a cook, putting his wife and two young children in financial peril. After giving birth to their third child in early 1963, his wife took a night job while he watched the children. Growing more disturbed, Gryce refused her entreaty to seek outside help. When his paranoid behavior became dangerous, such as trying to forbid a home telephone, Eleanor Gryce followed the advice of a social service agency and left with the children.
Gryce somehow regained enough of his mental equilibrium and self-sufficiency to start a new life. He took substitute teaching jobs in New York schools, in all subjects, and in 1974 he was hired full-time to teach music in a Bronx elementary school, where he worked until his death. He became a well-liked and very dedicated teacher, with unyielding expectations but a great deal of patience. He had only occasional contact with his children, and he resented his ex-wife's refusal to allow him a part in their upbringing. Gryce started using the name Basheer Qusim all the time, and in 1972 he remarried. In his new life, he did not write or perform music outside demonstrations for his students. Despite inquiries and rumors, he evaded discovery by his former jazz colleagues and even his family of origin.
In 1980, Gryce established a cordial relationship with his ex-wife, and in 1982 he regained touch with his siblings, visiting Pensacola after an absence of thirty years. In 1983 Gryce died of a heart attack, at the same age as his father. Gigi Gryce left an important musical legacy.