By Matt Micucci
This year, and more precisely November 28, marks the 90th anniversary of arguably one of the most influential, enigmatic and overlooked figures from the golden age of hard-bop – Gigi Gryce.
Gryce was born in 1925 in Pensacola, Florida. He had a relatively short career which lasted about a decade in the fifties and early sixties as a saxophonist, clarinetist, composer and arranger.
As a saxophonist, he was greatly influenced by Charlie Parker, who reportedly occasionally asked him to borrow his horn. He worked with some of the best-known names in jazz history, from Dizzy Gillespie to Thelonious Monk by way of Max Roach. Many of his compositions, such as Nica’s Tempo and Social Call, remain popular to this vary day and have been covered by various names numerous times.
He was acclaimed for his distinctive style. Despite Gryce being mostly associated with hard-bop, he is also praised to this day for very often pushing its boundaries to the limits of common practice. He was prone to unconventional harmonization, form and instrumentation as his style developed.
Despite his success, mysterious circumstances led to his abrupt retirement from the jazz scene in 1963. His very private nature also led him to his apparent disappearance. For decades, rumours were circulating about his wereabouts. He had, in fact, adopted his Islam name, Basher Qusim, and had alienated himself from his family. He had re-invented himself as a public school educator and was apparently an excellent music instructor. He left a partifularly long lasting legacy at Elementary School No. 53 in the Bronx, which was renamed in his honor after his death in his hometown of Pasadena in 1983 of a heart attack. He had just made his first attempt at re-connecting with his family for over twenty years.
The fascinating story of the life of this fascinating figure in jazz history is explored in the biographical book by Noal Cohen and Muchael Fitzgerald entitled Rat Race Blues: The Musical Life of Gigi Bryce.
The book, which finally told the true story of this often overlooked figure, was composed after years of research and dozens of interviews. In 2003, it won the Award for Excellence from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. This was the first edition – the new edition has been updated with new information from another decade’s worth of research and is now available.
Loren Schoenberg, saxophonist and artistic director, National Jazz Museum in Harlem, said “There are any number of reasons for someone interested in the story of America and its music to delve deeply into the legacy of Gigi Gryce. To begin with, he was a superbly melodic composer who wrote pieces that linger in the memory. He was a master of writing music for larger ensembles and knew the intricacies of all of the instruments. This enabled him to combine them in ways that sounded fresh, and that were both challenging for the players and intriguing to the listener. Gigi Gryce is far too important a figure to remain in relative obscurity. This book will correct that situation.”