From an article in Clarinet/Saxophone Journal of Great Britain

by Laurence of Mar- September 1989

Gary Gray, one of the leading American clarinettists, was in England a few weeks ago, and although the pleasure felt on learning that he was to give a workshop at the Royal College of Music was tempered by my failure to dodge official duties on that day, I was delighted that we would be able to have a few hours together during the following week. Even this prospect was threatened, by floodwater on the Bath-London line, but eventually we surmounted all difficulties, having first discovered that where there's a will there may be a permanent way.

Gary is a tall, impressive, not forceful, man, with a deep, rich, Brymerian voice, and even when dressed casually he is discreetly immaculate. There is nothing stiff or pompous about him: like certain other great players he is genuinely modest and is inclined whilst expressing opinions to hesitate to ask if you agree; moreover, he really listens to what you have to say. In his conversation, as in his letters, there is that courtesy and elegance characteristic of earlier days. When he speaks about his teaching there is the unmistakable impression that here is a man who teaches not merely to supplement his income but to share his knowledge and love of music with others. He keeps in touch with his former students, and whilst he is clearly proud of their progress in the profession he gives no hint of feeling proud of his own contribution to their success. He wants the clarinet to the heard, whether or not he is the player. 'The important thing is to keep the clarinet in the forefront.' I was struck by his knowledge of clarinettists from all over the world: he listens to others whenever possible (this, I think, is rather unusual) and he is penetrating but tactful in his assessment of them.

Apart from other commitments, some of which are mentioned below, he is principal clarinet with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, a faculty member of the Aspen Music Festival and a member of staff at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), an institution of some 35,000 students, with about 45 staff in the music faculty.

Gary was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, on 16 December 1939, the 169th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven. His fathers's family were originally from Britain, as his surname indicates, and his mother's family (Kreis) from Germany. His father was interested in jazz and popular music; his paternal grandfather was a jazz guitar player. On his mother's side the tradition was classical and his maternal uncle, who played clarinet and saxophone, was a great help to the young Gary.

At the age of eleven he began on a Penzel-Mueller clarinet given him by a friend and fell in love with it, which is most refreshing to hear when you consider how many clarinettists took up the instrument because it was the only thing left in the school cupboard. Rosemary Lang taught him very successfully on clarinet whilst he picked up jazz on the saxophone by himself. He plays down his prowess as a schoolboy player but he must have been reasonably accomplished, as he was invited to play the Debussy Rhaposodie 'before I realized how difficult it was.' This invitation turned his thoughts to a career in music, which he studied at Indiana University School of Music. For three years he studied with Henry Gulik before studying with Robert McGinnis, 'a tough, not overly sympathetic teacher, but this made me more resolute, and I am grateful to him. Whenever I need control and technique I always think back to him, and I pass on what he gave me. He has been a big influence on me.'

After taking his bachelor's and master's degrees, in woodwinds, not only single-reeds, he spent a year as assistant clarinet and bass clarinet with the Kansas City Philharmonic, after which he became E-flat, bass and assistant principal (with some saxophone, too) in the St. Louis Symphony. In 1966 he moved to Los Angeles with the idea of working for a PhD but playing took over, and about a year after this move he won UCLA's first Frank Sinatra Musical Performance Award. Sinatra telephoned a Warner Bros. music contractor and told the man to hire him. Gary's first of many films was Bonnie and Clyde. At UCLA, were he took over the jazz ensemble, he became in 1972 that university's first full-time saxophone teacher - 'after all, the saxophone had only been invented about a hundred and thirty years earlier'. He was also to become some years later the first UCLA music faculty member to perform in Royce Hall's chamber music series.

Gary has also been a soloist with, among other orchestras, The San Francisco Symphony, The Indianapolis Symphony, The Kansas City Philharmonic and the Aspen Chamber Symphony; musicians he has worked with include Barbirolli, Bernstein, Levine, Marriner, Mehta, Previn, Schwarz; and he has recorded for such labels as Nonesuch, RCA, Vox and Laurel. In 1986 he recorded with the Royal Philharmonic for Unicorn-Kanchana (DKP CD 9066- compact disc or cassette), this superb recording winning acclaim in many countries. In this journal, Vol 12/4, Michael Bryant described him as a 'first-rate player' and spoke of his 'exemplary performance' of the Rossini Variations in C. The Los Angeles Times critic thought the recording 'terrific...Gray's tender and varied version of the Copland Concerto gives equal prominence to the work's lyric spans and its more obvious jazz elements.' Dennis Morrier in Kiapason wrote of his 'suave harmonies' and

'sensuality that is unequalled...A gifted colourist, he exhibits with rare intelligence his instrument's large palette of sonorities, using startling contrasts, particularly in Lutoslawski's Dance Preludes...Even in the Rossini work...he manages to create an elegiac atmosphere, at times letting certain dramatism brutally erupt in a score where one least expects it. Gary Gray is a musician who deserves our special attention.'

In Which Compact Disc he was said to play

'accurately and without exaggeration. This is what all these intimate works need, the jazzy wit of Copland and the urbane good humour of Arnold benefiting from Gray's subtle artistry. Balance and recording (enhance) the effect of...cultured entertainment.'

This recording was nominated for a 1988 Grammy Award in the category Best Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra - only the second time in Grammy history that a clarinet album has been nominated. His distinguished fellow nominees were Yo-Yo Ma, Itzak Perlman, Vladimir Horowitz and Wynton Marsalis.

His ability to contrast and his remarkable control lead me frequently to turn to this recording. He stresses that 'control is much more important than having the fastest fingers of all time.' There is vague talk of another recording on the Unicorn-Kanchana label and I hope that developments are swift, because there is still much fine music for clarinet, some of it far from widely known, that needs to be freshly recorded on compact disc. At present we are not too badly off for Mozart, Weber and Brahms, and though we should hate to be without them perhaps the time has come for a respite; no matter how keen we are to hear yet more versions of, say, the Brahms sonatas, some of us would prefer to spend our money on something that isn't already on our shelves in a dozen versions. What about Reicha's opp 89 and 107 for clarinet and string quartet?

Apart from his major commitment to the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Gary performs with the California Chamber Virtuosi and the Bravura Trio, the other members of the Trio being Milton Thomas on viola and Brooks Smith on piano. 'I was playing the Saint-Saëns with Brooks and he said “You know, Kell didn't play it with me like this.” I thought “God, he played with Kell!” I was taken aback.' It is remarkable how often Kell's name crops up in conversation with clarinettists and we can only wonder how enormous his influence, extensive as it is, might have become had he withdrawn from the scene much later than he did.

'Yes, he has been a great influence on me. I admired him as a man and as a player. Some thought him a bit odd, and I suppose he was unusual in some ways, but I found him to be a man of integrity - and he was very supportive, too. I played the Mozart Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony and he undertook a two-hour drive to come and listen to me. I feel I had something in common with him. We got on well and I shared his interest in art. He produced many fine pictures, one of which I have at home.'

Gary naturally strives constantly for the highest standards, but there is nothing contemptuous about his attitude towards amateurs.

'I did the Mozart Quintet recently with an amateur string quartet and although not note perfect it was a very good performance. They brought something special to the music, they responded to me and, you know, we had the audience eating out of the palms of our hands. I really enjoy playing with strings - perhaps I enjoy that the most; good string playing inspires me. I also did The Shepherd on the Rock with an amateur, a singer, but she projected too much; she wouldn't come down. There was no encouragement to the audience to listen keenly for the phrases, because there was just too much volume.'

He wants the audience to be involved: it is not enough that they listen passively.

'Listening can be truly creative. Making music before an audience is for me a three-way affair; I like to relate to the music, the people I'm playing with and the audience. I went to see Ayckbourn's Henceforward in London the other day. The audience were good receivers. I thought, This audience is what we need! It was highly receptive and responsive.'

Did he ever slip into neutral?

'No! That's too dangerous. I like to be comfortable with the music so that I don't have to think about such things as technical difficulties when I'm performing, because I want the music to absorb me; but I look at the other players and at the audience at moments when it seems appropriate - I'm conscious of them as part of the process. But so far as the actual playing goes - no, the auto pilot never takes over!'

Frequently members of an audience will come up to him after a performance and say that he looked as if he had really enjoyed playing. 'I do enjoy playing, and not just the happy music; there's a sense in which it is quite proper to enjoy the darker moments, don't you think?'

His musical tastes are wide. He is an experienced jazz player (a great admirer of Phil Woods and Paul Desmond), enjoys playing music for television and films - 'I wish some of the better film composers wrote for us.' - and enjoys a wide range of classical music. However, he finds it easy to curb his enthusiasm for the serialists and minimalists. Not surprisingly, his students are encouraged to develop their talents along various lines.

'Music can be a tough business and I like to think that if one door is closed to a student then another may be opened. Sometimes, of course, you have to bang hard on the doors - generally they don't open by themselves! If a student is leaning heavily towards classical music I'll encourage him to tackle jazz as well; if jazz is the main interest then I'll encourage him to tackle classical. I think it's good to be as versatile as possible. I encourage my students to improve their sight-reading; some of them are none too keen on it, but I refuse to let them opt out. I want my students to have a career in music even if they can't, for instance, secure an orchestral position, and so I really believe in getting my students to diversify.'

In a hand-out used on his RCM visit he wrote: 'Simply put, I try to help my clarinet students become the best musicians they can be - whatever their career objectives. If the learning process is correctly defined as Guided Growth I try to guide well and stay out of the way when possible.' His positive and enthusiastic approach to teaching clearly brings rewards: Juliette, his wife, who comes from England, says that he can go into a teaching seminar looking tired and emerge looking refreshed.

I was interested to discover that he often used double-lip.

'Well, I sort of go back and forth but I probably play more double-lip than single-lip these days. Using double-lip encourages you to hold rather than bite. Biters find that double-lip helps them to loosen up. I suppose it's fair to say than when you first adopt it the higher notes can be more elusive.'

Gary plays on Buffet R13s (not Prestige), although he said that he had a high regard for the Selmer 10G, which he though 'one of the best clarinets Selmer made. I don't think it's available nowadays. The people in charge ought to consult the players before going too far.' He uses a Robert Borbeck mouthpiece, with modifications by Everett Matson, who does the facings for Harold Wright; he has used this mouthpiece for fourteen years and compares it to a 5RV Lyre. His reeds are Vandoren 5s, 'but I have to touch them up a bit'.

Gary Gray is aware of life beyond music and tries to arrange his work so that he and Juliette can have as much time as possible together, whether or not he is indulging his interest in art and architecture - 'she is usually very patient when I'm taking a lot of time over churches and other buildings.' Juliette works in the film industry and so has some insight into the fast and ruthless sides of modern life but, like Gary, she brings a thoughtful and sensitive approach to a wide range of topics. It was wonderfully refreshing to spend an entire afternoon with such civilized people, whom I hope to see back here before long.