Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon by Maxine Gordon (University of California Press)

Review of the tenor legend's latest biography, written by his widow

DexterGordonSophisticatedGiantCover

Cover of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon

Do you remember your first Dexter Gordon moment? Did his bold, brash, relentlessly swinging playing grab you by the ears and refuse to let go? That jubilant tenor saxophone sound is Gordon’s most obvious legacy. However, in this new biography by his widow Maxine, we find that there’s much more to know and appreciate about “Long Tall Dexter.”

Gordon’s life has previously been chronicled, but not with so much of his own achingly personal, brutally honest voice. Sophisticated Giant is not a critical analysis of his music; instead, Maxine has interwoven Dexter’s own letters and poetry with a broad spectrum of anecdotal accounts, plus her own meticulous scholarship and adoring reflections, to craft a vivid life story.

In accordance with Dexter’s wishes, she begins his narrative with a thoroughly researched recounting of his colorful family history. Filled with laudable achievements political, military, athletic, and professional, it is central to understanding who Dexter was and how he lived. To cite just two examples, his maternal great-grandfather was a Buffalo Soldier, and his father, Dr. Frank Gordon, one of the first African-American physicians in Los Angeles, partly paid his way through medical school playing the clarinet.

Sophisticated Giant paints vibrant portraits of the critical turning points in Gordon’s early musical development. The giddiness of getting his first big break with Lionel Hampton while still in high school, the excitement of L.A.’s Central Avenue scene, and the rush of proving himself in the fabled Billy Eckstine Band are all vividly described.

In direct opposition to her late husband’s wishes, Maxine also includes an accounting of his personal struggles during the 1950s, the darkest period of his life; he spent most of that decade incarcerated for drug offenses. Gordon’s addiction to heroin began in the mid-1940s and would become a recurring and nearly lifelong struggle that almost ended his career just as it was taking off. Denied any direct information from Dexter about that time, Maxine relied solely upon public records and archives for her investigation. Ten years away from recording and touring would condemn most jazz musicians to anonymity, but thanks to the sheer magnitude of his talent, Dexter eventually returned to make some of the best albums of his career.

One of the highlights of the book is the account of Gordon’s involvement in the making of Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 movie Round Midnight, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. His contributions to the film, which included amending the script, and to its soundtrack (also Oscar-nominated) proved essential to its success.

This is a must-read for jazz fans.

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