Friday, September 27, 2013

Bob Gordon – Baritone Blues

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Bob Gordon, another sideman on the [Clifford] Brown sessions for Pacific Jazz, also might have made a major impact on West Coast jazz under different circumstances. A driving and creative baritone saxophonist, Gordon had created a distinctive style that stood out from the then predominant influ­ence of Gerry Mulligan. Indeed, Gordon drew mostly on influences out­side the baritone tradition. When he was asked by Leonard Feather, as part of the latter's research for his Encyclopedia of Jazz, to cite his favorite musicians on his instrument, he mentioned session mates Zoot Sims and Jack Montrose.

Born in St. Louis on June 11, 1928, Gordon came to Los Angeles in 1948 to study at the Westlake College of Music. In the early 19505 he participated in a series of successful recordings as a sideman for various West Coast jazz luminaries, including Chet Baker, Shelly Manne, Shorty Rogers, Red Norvo, Pete Rugolo, Bill Holman, and Maynard Ferguson. In May 1954, only a few weeks before the sessions with Clifford Brown, Gordon recorded as a leader for Pacific Jazz.

The resulting album, Meet Mr. Gordon, showed that the young baritonist was on the brink of emerg­ing as a major voice in the Southern California jazz scene. A short while later Downbeat awarded him its New Star Award on baritone sax. On August 28, 1955, Gordon was killed in a car accident while driving to San Diego to appear in a concert with Pete Rugolo's band.”
- Ted Gioia, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California, 1945-1960

“The accidental death of Bob Gordon, August 29, 1955, … left a huge void [on the West Coast Jazz scene]. Gordon had from St. Louis to study at Westlake College in Hollywood. He started on alto sax because his first influence had been Charlie Parker.

But after listening to Miles Davis Capitol [aka Birth of the Cool] sessions with Gerry Mulligan these led to his discovery of the baritone, sax.

In adopting the baritone he had the wisdom not to disavow what he loved: ‘I can still find new things in the old records of Parker. Zoot Sims is also very important to me.’

Bob Gordon, whose sound was to remain very close to that of Mulligan, was certainly, by his ideas on the instrument, the best baritone of the time.”
- Alain Tercinet, West Coast Jazz [translation from the French is mine]

Bob Gordon was an inspiration to every jazz musician or aspirant who ever heard him play or was, perhaps, fortunate enough to share the bandstand with him; fortunate enough to partake of the fire that roared and the sparks that flew and the proclamations of the gods that sounded when he put his big horn to his lips and made the world abound with life and zest and unbounded love. For the world was a better place to live in when he played and perhaps this singular ability to make it so was in itself his greatest gift.

Bob Gordon was a natural musician and not the least bit revolutionary, at least intentionally. He gave not a hang for those whose prime objectives are to affect or deliberately perpetrate change. For his sole purpose in life was to express himself. To give forth with that power and perception which surged within him. These truly are the power and perception which surged within him. These truly are the seeds of progress and he knew it-I mean really knew it. It was not necessary for Bob Gordon to learn music for he was born with such equipment as one not so fortunately endowed could not hope to acquire in three lifetimes.

… The union of Bob Gordon and the baritone saxophone must have been decreed in Heaven for never have I viewed such rapport between the natural tendencies of a musical instrument and the mind of the man using it. I cannot imagine Bob Gordon using any other instrument-I mean any other instrument as a vehicle for expressing himself. He was a true baritone player not a converted alto or tenor or clarinet or what have you player: but a man who found that the low pitched, earthy, funky sound inherent in the horn suited him.

For Bob too, was earthy and funky and natural and honest.
For me Bob Gordon was more than just an inspiration—he was my other half and together we formed a musical whole. Our partnership has not ended, however, for his part is indelibly stamped upon my soul and the task is mine to carry on. For we understood one another and agreed completely. I am fortunate to have loved and been loved in return by one such as Bob Gordon. I also realize that the companionship and artistic rapport which we enjoyed were of such a nature as is not commonly experienced. I am fortunate and a better man for having known and loved Bob Gordon.”
—Jack Montrose, tenor saxophonist , composer, and arranger
(original liner notes Pacific Jazz 10” LP #12)

Lately, the editorial staff has had the pleasure of working with Gordon Jack who is the author of  – Fifties Jazz Talk: An Oral Retrospective [Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2004].

It is a book which grows in importance as a primary reference for West Coast Jazz with each passing decade along with Bob Gordon’s Jazz West Coast and the books on the subject by Ted Gioia and Alain Tercinet cited in the opening quotations.

Gordon writes regularly for Jazz Journal and he granted the editorial staff at JazzProfiles copyright permission to use the following essay on baritone saxophonist Bob Gordon which first appeared in that publication.

Gordon Jack’s writings about Bob along with the opening statements about Bob Gordon’s significance by authors Ted Gioia, Alain Tercinet and his close musical associate, Jack Montrose, will help you place Bob Gordon in the context of this style of music should you be unfamiliar with him.

These comments will also shed some light on why I subtitled this piece about Bob – “Baritone Blues.”

Order information regarding Jazz Journal is available at

© -  Gordon Jack/Jazz Journal, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


Many baritone players gravitate to the instrument via the alto saxophone possibly because the transposition - one and half tones below concert pitch - is the same.

Bob Gordon’s instrumental journey was a similar one and his decision to concentrate on the larger horn was celebrated by his long-time colleague and friend Jack Montrose - “The union of Bob and the baritone saxophone must have been decreed in heaven. I cannot imagine him using any other instrument as a vehicle for expressing himself. I have never seen such rapport between the natural tendencies of a musical instrument and the mind of the man using it”. When they met in the late forties Gordon’s association with the baritone had become a permanent feature of the Californian jazz scene, although his high-school instrument had been the alto.

He was born in St .Louis, Missouri on June 11th. 1928 and moved to Los Angeles 20 years later where he graduated from the Westlake College of Music. After hearing Gerry Mulligan with the Miles Davis nonet he bought a Conn baritone and started sitting-in at clubs around town like the Showtime on Ventura Boulevard where trombonist Herbie Harper held court. For the next three years he worked in Los Angeles and San Francisco with Alvino Rey’s band which for a time included Harper, Jerry Dodgion, Paul Desmond, Dick Collins and Herb Barman. (Dodgion who played lead alto remembered Gordon as an “Excellent jazz baritone player who also sang.”)

For a few months early in1952 he and Jack Montrose were members of John Kirby’s final group, a sextet playing for dancers at the Five-Four Ballroom on 54th. and Broadway. Mulligan’s girl-friend Gail Madden worked as a photographer there and he used to sit-in with them every night when he came to pick her up. Montrose once told me, “Gerry had a great sound but Bob’s was even better.”

In the early part of 1953 Montrose was leading an experimental seven piece group which included Gordon, Herb Geller, Bill Perkins, Stu Williamson and a somewhat forgotten tenor player Dave Madden who had worked with Woody Herman and Harry James. (He and Gail Madden had previously been an ‘item’ although they never married. Gail also had a long-term relationship with arranger Bob Graettinger). They occasionally worked opposite Mulligan’s quartet at the Haig and in December 1953 Dick Bock recorded Chet Baker with Jack’s group for Pacific Jazz. The album has subsequently been reissued with five alternate takes including additional Gordon solos on Bockhanal and A Dandy Line (Pacific Jazz 7243 5 79972). 1953 was also the year he made a very brief appearance in the film ‘The Glass Wall’ which had music by Leith Stevens and Shorty Rogers.

George Redman was the drummer with the Harry Zimmerman orchestra on the Dinah Shore TV show. He also had a very popular small group that played six nights a week in dance halls like The Summit and The Madelon on Sunset Strip. It was usually one horn plus rhythm and Bob Gordon alternated with Bill Perkins or Bud Shank as the soloist. A fine example of Redman’s work can be found on a 1954 album where he fronts a group featuring Harper, Gordon, Maurey Dell and Don Prell (LHJ 10126).  Pianist Maurey Dell will be unfamiliar to many in a jazz context because he worked almost exclusively with singers and comedians like George Burns. Bassist Don Prell eventually joined the San Francisco symphony but Redman who was also a well known pool shark mysteriously disappeared from the Hollywood scene in the mid fifties.

In February 1954 Bob was part of an all-star group including Bud Shank, Bob Cooper and Maynard Ferguson that recorded two titles for the Emarcy label. It is an extrovert blowing session with Bob’s longest solos on record – Night Letter and Somebody Loves Me (FSR CD 383). In an interview for Jazz Journal Shank told me that Bob Gordon was his closest personal friend and whenever Bud recorded on baritone which was quite often in the fifties, his sound and approach seemed to reflect Gordon’s. I find Shank’s baritone playing more expressive and satisfying than his alto work at that time probably because of Gordon’s influence.

Three months later he recorded the only album under his own name for Pacific Jazz – Meet Mr. Gordon (Pacific Jazz 7243 4 93161 2 6). Montrose arranged all the material and the rhythm section featured Joe Mondragon, Paul Moer and Bob’s friend from St. Louis, Billy Schneider on drums. The latter is an obscure figure now but he had studied and worked with Lennie Tristano in New York. One of many highlights here is Bob’s tender statement on For Sue, a moving ballad dedicated to his wife.

In July 1954 he was selected with Zoot Sims, Stu Williamson, Russ Freeman and Mondragon to record with the brilliant young trumpeter Clifford Brown (Pacific Jazz 5 32142 2 CD). Once again all the charts were written by Montrose who by this time was almost Dick Bock’s house arranger. Max Roach had been booked but he got into a money dispute with Bock, so master percussionist Shelly Manne took his place although this would not have gone down too well with Gordon. Apparently he did not care for Manne’s playing which sometimes led to arguments on record dates. Bob was a powerful and aggressive player and he preferred powerful and aggressive drummers like Philly Joe Jones and Art Mardigan. Someone else he did not get along with was Art Pepper who was unpopular with others too. Pepper and Joe Maini nearly came to blows once at an after-hours club on Hollywood Boulevard where Bill Holman had the resident group.

By 1955 he was established as the first-call baritone player in L.A., benefiting from all the recording activity created by the popularity of the new school of West Coast Jazz. Gerard J. Hoogeveen’s excellent 1987 discography lists 23 record dates for the year in what was a busy and productive time as he performed with Pete Rugolo, Zoot Sims, Lennie Niehaus, Duane Tatro, Dave Pell, Maynard Ferguson, Jack Millman, Don Fagerquist, June Christy, Tal Farlow and Jack Montrose. It was also the year DownBeat recognised his immense talent when the magazine voted him the ‘New Star’ on baritone.

He thrived whatever the context - extrovert blowing sessions with George Redman, Herbie Harper and Maynard Ferguson, dance albums with Dave Pell’s octet and
especially in the interpretation of Jack Montrose’s complex charts with their academic but swinging explorations of fugues and canons. Given the opportunity his huge, ebullient and at all times soulful sound would have been particularly effective in the give-and-take of a Mingus ensemble.

On Sunday August 28th. 1955 Bob Gordon was killed in a traffic accident while on his way from Hollywood to San Diego for a Gene Norman concert featuring Pete Rugolo’s orchestra, Nat King Cole and June Christy. At the funeral Jack Montrose was told by Bob’s parents that his surname was actually Resnick although jazz reference books make no mention of this and it is unclear why he changed it. His widow wanted a band for the occasion so Jack Sheldon, Joe Maini, Bob Enevoldsen and Montrose performed Jack’s arrangement of Gordon Jenkins’s Good-Bye. Enevoldsen told me that under the circumstances this was almost impossible to perform. Montrose confirmed that he never missed anyone as much as he missed Bob Gordon.

The following year Leonard Feather commissioned a poll of leading musicians who were asked to nominate their favourite instrumentalists. The following voted for Bob in the ‘Baritone’ category - Georgie Auld, Al Cohn, Tal Farlow, Maynard Ferguson, Woody Herman, Bill Holman, Howard Roberts, Frank Rosolino, Pete Rugolo, Bill Russo, Bud Shank and Cal Tjader.

Another example of how highly Bob Gordon was thought of by his fellow professionals can be found on the late Danny Bank’s website. Bank was probably the most recorded baritone player in history with over 400 sessions on Lord’s discography during a 53 year career. Danny included him along with Harry Carney and Jack Washington in a long list of personal favourites on the instrument.

Bob Gordon should never be forgotten and had he lived I feel he would have become the music’s primary voice on the baritone saxophone.”

1 comment:

  1. Excellent memorial to a first rate a baritone player myself, I had grown up completely unaware of Bob's work coming onto it only a few years ago...but blown away by the strength of his sound and depth of his mprovisation.


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