Cutting contests were a form of musical battles between various stride piano players between the 1920s and 1940s, and to a lesser extent in improvisatory competition on other jazz instruments during the swing era.
It was in the Central Avenue clubs that Wardell held his tenor battles with Dexter Gordon. These two were ideally matched: Wardell’s light sound and swift delivery were more than a match for Dexter’s big, blustering sound, and their tenor jousts became a kind of symbol for the Central Avenue scene. Gordon later recalled: “There’d be a lot of cats on the stand but by the end of the session it would wind up with Wardell and myself… His playing was very fluid, very clean… He had a lot of drive and a profusion of ideas”. Their fame began to spread, and Ross Russell managed to get them to simulate one of their battles on The Chase, which became Wardell’s first nationally-known recording and has been assessed as “one of the most exciting musical contests in the history of jazz”.
The success of The Chase was the break that Wardell needed, and he became increasingly prominent in public sessions in and around LA, including the “Just Jazz” series of jam sessions organised by the disc jockey Gene Norman. There were concerts at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium and the Shrine Auditorium and other venues. The session which included “Just You, Just Me” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” has some of Wardell’s best playing, but the only CD version of this is crudely abbreviated and cannot be recommended. (There have since been issued several unedited versions of these performances).