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Touched by the Music: Al Grey

A few years back, I had the chance to go see J.J. Johnson in a performance in a quintessential jazz club. After the show, I stood in the ubiquitous autograph-line to praise J.J. and steal a signature before it was time to leave. The line streamed its way across the room and ended against the far wall. I joined it, and waited priming my pen, preparing my ticket-stub, and mulling over what I wanted to say.

As the line slowly dragged across the room, my eyes were drawn to a gentleman a few feet away. He stood unassuming, leaning against the wall. His smile was huge, thoroughly intoxicating and beaming kindness. He was sharply dressed, topped off with a hat, which begged the question: "Man, where can I get a hat like that?" Instantly a smile came to my face. I knew this man, but who was he?

Eventually, I got my autograph, gave blessings and praises, and made my way to the door. Again I passed this grinning man, and again I was plagued by the question: who was he? I was in my car on my drive home when suddenly I knew. That was trombone master Al Grey.

On March 24, 2000, Al Grey passed-away, leaving us with memories and a legacy captured on LP and CD. In the time since then, I have been listening to these recordings, reading up on his life, and, most of all, cursing myself for not going back that night to shake his hand.

Al Grey was born on June 6, 1925, in Aldie, Virginia. Music was a part of his life from the start. Some of his first life memories were listening to his father practice the trombone. Later he would comment how that experience helped shape his musical mind, saying, "I just loved the sound so much that I wanted to touch it!" []

Growing up in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Grey studied the trombone under his father and played in the neighborhood youth band that his father regularly conducted. After years of tutelage in PA., Grey moved on to the U.S. Naval Band. And after his service during World War II, he returned and began compiling a resume that reads like a ‘Who’s Who Jazz Encyclopedia.’ From Benny Carter to Dizzy Gillespie and everybody (I mean everybody) in-between, he became one of the best and most widely known trombonists in the business.

It was his Count Basie connection that we all identify him with. He worked with Basie starting in 1957 and continued, on and off, until 1977. It was where he became known as ‘Fab’ (fabulous). Where he fine-tuned his skills. Where he surpassed even ‘Tricky’ Sam Nanton as the master of the plunger-mute. And where he enlightened and amazed us all.

Leaving a repertoire of upwards of thirty recordings of his own, and another 70 with different bandleaders, Al Grey left marks and received accolades from the musical world of which most trombonists (most musicians) could only dream.

No biography or discography could ever begin to touch upon the true Al Grey. It is required that you listen to really understand just let the sound surround and envelope. You will want to touch it.

Sitting here now, I am listening to Al work his plunger through ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’ (Centerpiece, 1995), and I am deeply saddened, and regretting not going back to that club that night. But just the same, I am wearing the smile he taught me, and am content in knowing that all I have to do is listen and he is always here.

Consulted and Suggested sites:

Suggested Listening:
Centerpiece, 1995
Basie Big Band, 1975
J.J. Johnson, Al Grey: Things Are Getting Better All the Time, 1984

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Al Grey
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