“Jazz From The Deep” is a series that explores the under-represented, unheralded and sometimes unknown artists that contributed to the Jazz story. Each story explores a different artist or theme.
If you were compiling a list of jazz guitar greats, the typical list would start with Charlie Christian before perhaps including Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, Grant Green, George Benson, Pat Martino, John Scofield and so on. One name that you probably would not know to include would be Ray Crawford. Time to bring him out of the deep.
He began his life and burgeoning music career in Pittsburgh. He started out as a reed player, performing on both clarinet and tenor sax. In his teenaged years he started a group with Art Blakey before both young men joined Fletcher Henderson’s organization, and after spending a couple of years gigging with Henderson, this is what happened next, in his own words as related to Mark Weber for Coda Magazine in 1980,
“While I was with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra I had tuberculosis, and I had to go to a sanatorium for two years. That ended my scene with the saxophone, and Fletcher Henderson and began my scene with the guitar because that’s where I learned to play guitar. When I came out of the hospital I was able to play enough to where I could play jobs. No chords just solos.”
Crawford kept playing the guitar, improving his technique. In 1950, a young up and coming pianist named Ahmad Jamal asked him to form a trio along with bassist Eddie Calhoun. Thus, Ray Crawford became a founding member of Ahmad Jamal’s first trio, a group that played together for six years. Among their significant recordings was the original version of “Ahmad’s Blues” as well as a version of the tune “Pavanne,” which has been oft cited as the direct inspiration for Miles Davis’ “So What” and Coltrane’s “Impressions.”
Ahmad Jamal remembered Crawford fondly during an interview with All About Jazz in 2003.
“That was the format for a long time…guitar, bass and piano with the wonderful guitarist Ray Crawford, who was formerly a tenor saxophonist with Fletcher Henderson. He learned guitar when he was ill. He had lung problems and he learned guitar. He was quite an emulated guy he was. He used to play the conga effect on the front of his guitar. Everybody picked it up, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis. Everybody started doing that.”
After leaving Jamal’s group, Crawford spent the next four years gigging in New York City. He left for the West Coast in 1960 but soon returned to New York at the behest of the great Gil Evans, who wanted him to join his big band as he prepared to record what would become Out of the Cool, the first album Evans recorded after his near mythical collaborations with Miles Davis. Crawford’s guitar is featured throughout Out of the Cool, but his solos on the epic opener La Nevada and George Russell’s Statusphunk reveal the depth of his talent. Speaking again to Mark Weber in a 1980 interview, he reflected on working with Gil Evans.
“We did sixteen straight weeks at the Jazz Gallery in New York before we did the album. We played all of the tunes every night, and we played a lot of the original arrangements that he wrote for Miles. Then he wrote those things for “Out of the Cool.” Before we made the album he had me sit down at his house and just play. He’d give me eight bars and I’d say, “Where’s the music?” and he’d say, “You don’t need any music, just play.” The one that I like is the La Nevada theme. It was my best effort with a big band. I like playing with big bands; it is more or less my orientation because I always played saxophone in sections and always felt at home. This particular album almost won me the Downbeat poll, man.”
Immediately following his work with Evans, Ray Crawford suddenly had his first chance to record a session as leader. The Candid label offered a recording date to Crawford and he went into a New York studio shortly thereafter, cutting the session after only a single rehearsal with the group that he assembled. The results were dynamite, which is no surprise when you look at the lineup of his band: Johnny Coles on trumpet, Frankie Dunlop on drums, Junior Mance at the piano, Ben Tucker on bass, Cecil Payne on baritone sax and Ray taking care of business on the guitar.
Having been remunerated by the label man and satisfied with the results of the session, Ray hightailed it back to California. He waited for the album to come out, but, little did he know that some twenty seven years would pass before Smooth Groove saw the light of day. Shortly after the recording session, the label went belly up and the album languished in a box somewhere. Over the years, Crawford encountered bootleg copies of the album, but the real deal did not happen until he was sixty-four years old.
During the sixties, after the recording of Smooth Groove, Ray continued to be a reliable and sought after sideman, recording with numerous artists while spending the brunt of the seventies working for legendary organist Jimmy Smith. In his later years, he continued to play out and passed away in 1997. His contribution to the legacies of both Ahmad Jamal and Gil Evans have generally flown below the radar of the general jazz going public. As for Smooth Groove, it’s a fantastic album and worth owning. Check it out.
- Derek Smith, host of The Morning Session, Mon-Fri, 7-10 AM