Dexter Gordon’s Heroic Quest

Tom Reney blogs about the legacy of the powerful and colorful saxophonist

Jazz has known a fair number of charismatic personalities throughout its history, but few as mythical or colorful as Dexter Gordon. In a multi-volume career that spanned a half-century, Gordon rose to iconic prominence in the ‘40’s; fell to drugs and prison sentences in the ‘50’s; then made two celebrated returns to New York, one immediately preceding, the other following, a 14-year period of expatriation in Paris and Copenhagen between 1962 and ‘76. The jazzman’s heroic quest has rarely been tied so closely and triumphantly to experiences of exile and return as this son of a Los Angeles physician who left home at age 17 in 1940 to work in Lionel Hampton’s orchestra opposite Illinois Jacquet.

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Eric Wattree

The 6’5” tenor saxophonist was described by Art Pepper as “an idol around Central Avenue [Los Angeles]” in the late ‘40’s, and his tenor duels with Wardell Gray fired the imaginations of Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes. In On the Road, Kerouac’s protagonist Dean Moriarty stands “bowed before the big phonograph listening to a wild bop record, ‘The Hunt,’ with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.”

Holmes, who was born in Holyoke in 1926, devoted his 1958 novel The Horn to the story of a tenor player named Edgar Pool. In "The Hunt," he heard an “anthem in which we jettisoned the intellectual Dixieland of atheism, rationalism, liberalism — and found our group's rebel streak at last.” Holmes' Go is regarded as the first Beat novel, its characters based on the panoply of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Herbert Hunke. Shortly after its publication in 1952, Holmes wrote the essay “This Is the Beat Generation” for The New York Times. A decade later, Go! served as the title of one of Gordon’s Blue Note recordings, and it’s our golden anniversary feature in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode.

Go! is one of two sessions that Dexter made with the sterling rhythm section of Sonny Clark, Butch Warren, and Billy Higgins in August 1962. They’re among his most celebrated dates for Blue Note, and Go! was a personal favorite which he described as “a classic” to jazz writer Bob Blumenthal. That the Penguin Guide calls it a "not altogether riveting date" and describes the rhythm section as "unresponsive" should cause one to question the validity of every other assertion made in its 1800 pages.

Gordon’s early ‘60’s Blue Notes followed his 12-year absence from the Big Apple, but while California’s parole board allowed him to travel outside the state, New York’s draconian cabaret card system was still in force, and that prevented him from working in the city’s nightclubs. Despite this restriction, Gordon managed to play the Jazz Gallery, and his engaging manner proved to be a tonic for audiences who’d grown tired of the kind of cool detachment epitomized by Miles Davis. Barbara Long’s liner note to Dexter’s A Swingin’ Affair quotes a “major musician” at the Jazz Gallery saying, “Love, man, I never felt so much love in one room.”

By the time I first saw Dexter in person at Sandy’s Jazz Revival in 1977, love was still the dominant feeling in the room, and I've never quite gotten over it. A year earlier, his appearance in New York for engagements at Storyville and the Village Vanguard was hailed as the return of a living legend, and Robert Palmer's review in The Times praised him for "the most intense and stirring demonstration of saxophone playing imaginable." Gordon’s charismatic stage presence and energetic drive, his timely insertion of quotes from other tunes, and the dramatic way he held his tenor aloft to acknowledge applause underscored what his pianist George Cables described as “a real joie de vivre in his playing…It was as if something had just come to life right in front of your eyes. I could look into the audience on many nights and see this collective glow coming from happy faces…Dexter had a wonderful sense of humor. You never felt that he was taking himself too seriously, but this was serious business with Dexter.”

(This and more of Cables’ memories of Dexter and his music are available in the lavish booklet that’s included in a recent release by Uptown Records of Dexter’s performances at The Rising Sun in Montreal in 1977. We’ll hear “You’ve Changed” from Dexter Gordon Night Ballads in tonight’s Jazz a la Mode.”)

In an extensive interview with Dexter’s wife Maxine Gordon that All About Jazz posted in March, she says that her husband, who appeared so outgoing on stage, was an introvert who “liked to read, watch baseball. He did a lot of socializing, but it didn't come naturally, and he considered it acting. When they offered him the acting job for ‘Round Midnight, he said, ‘I've been acting all my life, so this is nothing new’." In the film, Dexter played Dale Turner, a character based on Bud Powell and his idol Lester Young. His true-to-life performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in 1986.

Here’s a clip from a documentary on Dexter that was filmed at the Café Montmartre in Copenhagen where his sidemen included pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath. Keep an eye out for his Copenhagen compatriot Ben Webster at 5:11. And tune in again next Tuesday for Dexter's A Swingin' Affair.

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