Dexter Gordon - Biography

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous pronouncement that “There are no second acts in American lives” is proven wrong every day. Case in point: the masterful and broadly influential tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who had several comebacks in his career, culminating with a 1986 Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Round Midnight. Although the Bertrand Tavernier film was based on the life stories of Lester Young and Bud Powell, Gordon’s portrayal of “Dale Turner” could easily have been a portrait of Gordon’s own travails and triumphs during his decades in the jazz world in America and Europe.

Gordon was the first tenor saxophonist to convincingly apply the lessons of bebop to his instrument, and a legion of tenor men over the years have described Gordon’s music in positive terms. Comments by such men as Johnny Griffin (“He had his own sound, which all great musicians have. Dexter had a way of articulating that was his own.''), John Coltrane (“At that time [late Forties], I was trying to play like Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. I liked what they were doing.”), Sonny Rollins (“I have nothing but praise for him.”), Benny Golson (“It was the way he played the notes that he played!”)and Joshua Redman (“Dexter makes you realize that the sound is everything.”) attest to the esteem in which Gordon is held by his peers. His larger-than-life stage presence, which included the recitation of the lyrics of ballads before he would caress the melody with his horn, impressed audiences around the globe who would never forget his sound, his graciousness and his warmth.

Dexter Gordon came into the world in Los Angeles, California, on February 27, 1923. His father was an amateur clarinetist, but more importantly, he was the personal physician to Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington. With his special status, he often took his young son to hear live jazz shows. This early exposure to performances by the greats of the era was supplemented by listening to big bands on the radio, and later by purchasing second-hand records from jukebox companies. Dexter’s dad encouraged his musical inclinations, buying him a clarinet when the boy was just seven. He switched to alto saxophone at the age of fifteen, a year after his father passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack. In addition to his high school music studies, he took private lessons with noted teacher Lloyd Reese. By the time he was seventeen, Gordon was playing tenor. His proficiency got him a recommendation by reedman Marshal Royal, who had been one of his father’s patients, for an audition for the Lionel Hampton orchestra. He got the gig, and with his mother’s blessings, hit the road with Hampton in December 1940.

Gordon’s main early influence was Lester Young. As he later told bop historian Ira Gitler “It felt so good to hear him play.” On tour with the Hampton band, Gordon was seated right next to fellow saxophonist Illinois Jacquet. Just a year older, but with more experience in a big band, Jacquet got the lion’s share of the tenor solos. But Gordon was starting to get noticed, and not just because he’d grown into a man who stood 6'6". As early as May 1942, jazz critic George Simon noted Long Tall Dexter’s “fine melodic ideas as well as a mighty pretty tone.” By the spring of 1943, Gordon had been exposed to the latest modern jazz sounds and was increasingly frustrated musically with Hampton’s swing-based group. Weary of the road, he decided to leave the Hampton band. Back in California, he started playing in small groups with drummer Lee Young (Lester’s brother), pianists Nat “King” Cole and Hampton Hawes, bassist Charles Mingus, and others on the Central Avenue scene. It was probably in the summer of 1943 that Gordon led his first recording session, waxing four sides for Clef with a quintet that included Cole and trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison. (Fittingly, these tunes were reissued as bonus tracks on a reissue of the Lester Young Trio [1994 Verve].)

Gordon joined the reformed Fletcher Henderson orchestra for a couple of months in the spring of 1944.

Then one night at an after-hours jam session in Los Angeles, Louis Armstrong came up to him to say “Man, I dig your sound! I want you in my band!” Armstrong was still leading a big band, and Gordon joined for a national tour, mostly of Army posts, from May until December 1944. Gordon later recalled his time with Armstrong by saying that “Pops sounded very beautiful at that time - I loved the way he sounded,” although the band as a whole “was just blah.” His next affiliation, with a new orchestra organized by Billy Eckstine, was just the opposite. With Dizzy Gillespie as musical director, and talents like fellow saxmen Charlie Parker and Gene Ammons, Art Blakey on drums, and vocalist Sarah Vaughan, plus Eckstine’s voice and trombone playing, the band was an incubator for the new sounds in jazz. Gordon stood toe-to-toe with fellow tenorman Ammons in legendary on-stage saxophone battles. The band’s initial recording, for the small National label in December 1944, was "Blowing the Blues Away," with Eckstine’s famous shout-out, "Blow Mr. Gene, and blow Mr. Dexter too."

In February 1945, Gordon was part of the Dizzy Gillespie sextet that recorded the classic “Blue ‘N’ Boogie.” Steady gigging in the New York area included work with Parker, trumpeter Miles Davis, saxophonist Ben Webster, violinist Stuff Smith, and pianists Sir Charles Thompson and Bud Powell. Gordon’s first sides as a leader, the beginning of a celebrated series of Savoy recordings, were waxed that October.

Gordon returned to Los Angeles in the summer of 1946, eventually teaming up with tenorman Wardell Gray, another alumnus of the Eckstine band. They jammed a lot together, in the style of Gordon’s tenor battles with Ammons, and their two-sided “The Chase” became a hit on Dial in late 1947. A successful dance-concert that July at the Elks Hall in Los Angeles, which featured Gordon and Gray along with other stars of modern jazz like trumpeter Howard McGhee and alto saxophonist Sonny Criss, is one of the legendary events of the era, thanks partly to a Savoy recording. (The reconstructed show, including liner notes by Dexter Gordon’s widow Maxine Gordon, was issued as Bopland [2004 Savoy].) Gordon moved between the coasts for the next few years, settling into a Tadd Dameron group for a lengthy run in New York in 1948, joining bassist Oscar Pettiford’s band in 1949, then back to Los Angeles in 1950, reuniting with Wardell Gray.

In 1952, Gordon, who had been a heroin user since his time in New York in the mid-Forties, was arrested on drug charges. He spent two years in a California prison. During the decade, Gordon ended up serving time in prison in Texas, Kentucky, and again in California. Consequently he recorded only sparsely in the Fifties, with a trio of albums in late 1955 (Daddy Plays the Horn and This Time The Drum’s On Me for Bethlehem and Dexter Plays Hot and Cool for the tiny Dootone label). In 1960, Gordon, then on parole, was selected to write the music for and act in the Los Angeles production of Jack Gelber’s The Connection, a successful play about heroin addiction. During the run of the play, Cannonball Adderley approached Gordon with the idea of doing an album for New York’s Riverside label. The result was The Resurgence Of Dexter Gordon (1960 Jazzland), Gordon’s first recording in five years.

Things were definitely looking up for Gordon. He moved back East and signed a contract with Blue Note Records. The first in a string of superb studio albums, Doin’ Alright, was recorded in May 1961, with Gordon joined in the front line by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. It was followed by Dexter Calling, recorded the same month, and 1962's Go and A Swingin’ Affair, both with a quartet featuring pianist Sonny Clark, bassist Butch Warren, and drummer Billy Higgins. But New York City’s cabaret card law of that time made it almost impossible for anyone with a conviction for heroin possession to work in clubs. Gordon found it difficult to translate the critical acclaim for his new releases into consistent work, so he was forced to look elsewhere. An extended engagement at Ronnie Scott’s famed jazz club in London in September 1962 was the beginning of a fifteen year sojourn in Europe. Later that year he established himself in Copenhagen, eventually learning some Danish, raising a family, and becoming a familiar figure on his bicycle in his suburban town. When he wasn’t on the road, he was a regular at Copenhagen’s Jazzhus Montmarte, where he spent many nights on the bandstand, sometimes broadcasted on Danish radio. As Maxine Gordon told jazz writer Ted Panken, “He was very active. He played with a lot of American musicians as well as Europeans ... He was very happy about this period of creativity ...”

Gordon recorded a pair of Blue Note albums in Europe, including 1963's Our Man In Paris, which reunited him with Bud Powell. In the spring of 1965, he flew to the States to record his final Blue Note release, Gettin’ Around, a quintet featuring vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. (All of Gordon’s efforts for the label are collected on The Complete Blue Note Sessions, a 6-CD set issued in 1996.) Back in Denmark, he spent the summer playing at the Montmartre. A fall tour of Europe teamed him with the younger tenor saxist Booker Ervin and introduced Gordon to American jazz producer Don Schlitten. Settin’ The Pace (1965 Prestige) was recorded that October under Ervin’s leadership, leading directly to Gordon’s next record contract with the independent Prestige label. His first two Prestige releases, The Tower Of Power and More Power, teamed him with another veteran of the early bebop years, saxophonist James Moody. Throughout the rest of the Sixties and for the first half of the Seventies, Gordon would work regularly in Europe, and come back to the States every year or two for a round of recordings and gigs. His Prestige recordings, along with his one Riverside album and 1969 performances at Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society, have been collected in The Complete Prestige Recordings, an 11-CD set (2004 Prestige). There are also extensive recordings, mostly from live performances between 1967 and 1976, on the SteepleChase and Storyville labels.

In 1976, Gordon signed a new contract with Columbia Records that gave him some real financial security. He was booked to play several weeks at New York’s famed Village Vanguard that December with a quintet including young trumpeter Woody Shaw. No one expected it, but the club was packed every night with old fans, new fans, and seemingly every jazz musician and critic in New York. An elated and inspired Gordon decided to move back to New York in early 1978. For the only time in his career, he put together a working quartet, with pianist George Cables, bassist Rufus Reid, and Eddie Gladden. The group toured intensively for several years in the late Seventies, recording the memorable Manhattan Symphonie (1978 Columbia) and three volumes of live club performances from 1978 and 1979 in San Francisco, Nights At The Keystone (1990 Blue Note, reissued by Mosaic). Cables described his experience in the group as “having the best seat in the house while still being able to participate.”

Gordon was named Musician of the Year in the DownBeat magazine's readers poll for 1980, and he was named to the Jazz Hall of Fame. Although his health was declining, Gordon continued to be active in the early Eighties. He became more and more interested in film acting, culminating in his role as Tavernier’s Round Midnight. His final recordings, in the summer of 1985, were made for the soundtrack of the film, issued as Round Midnight (1985 Columbia) and The Other Side Of Round Midnight (1985 Blue Note). Dexter Gordon succumbed to liver failure on April 25, 1990.


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