While working on a feature about tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins' Prestige recordings, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles remembered this excellent interview by Chuck Berg with Dexter Gordon, another tenor sax player whom we have long-admired, and thought it deserved another turn on the blog's main page.
The fact that Cheese Cake, our favorite Gordon tune [and dessert] is the audio track on video at the end of this piece, is another reason for re-visitng with a Jazz artist whom author Gary Giddins once characterized as "The King of Quoters" [because of Dex's tendency to dot his solos with references to other, well-known melodies].
Has any Jazz tenor saxophonist ever gotten a more joyous sound on the instrument?
Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The King of Quoters, Dexter Gordon, was himself eminently quotable. In a day not unlike our own, when purists issue fiats about what is or isn't valid in jazz, Gordon declared flatly, ‘jazz is an octopus’—it will assimilate anything it can use. Drawing closer to home, he spoke of his musical lineage: Coleman Hawkins "was going out farther on the chords, but Lester [Young] leaned to the pretty notes. He had a way of telling a story with everything he played/' Young's story was sure, intrepid, daring, erotic, cryptic. A generation of saxophonists found itself in his music, as an earlier generation had found itself in Hawkins's rococo virtuosity. …
Gordon's appeal was to be found not only in his Promethean sound and nonstop invention, his impregnable authority combined with a steady and knowing wit, but also in a spirit born in the crucible of jam sessions. He was the most formidable of battlers, undefeated in numerous contests, and never more engaging than in his kindred flare-ups with the princely Wardell Gray, a perfect Lestorian foil, gently lyrical but no less swinging and sure. …
Gordon was an honest and genuinely original artist of deep and abiding humor and of tremendous personal charm. He imparted his personal characteristics to his music—size, radiance, kindness, a genius for discontinuous logic. Consider his trademark musical quotations—snippets from other songs woven into the songs he is playing. Some, surely, were calculated. But not all and probably not many, for they are too subtle and too supple. They fold into his solos like spectral glimpses of an alternative universe in which all of Tin Pan Alley is one infinite song. That so many of the quotations seem verbally relevant I attribute to Gordon's reflexive stream-of-consciousness and prodigious memory for lyrics. I cannot imagine him planning apposite quotations.”
- Gary Giddins
“Chuck Berg: There's one thing that especially impressed Sonny Rollins and which has always intrigued me. That is the way you lay back on the melody or phrase just a bit behind the beat. Instead of being right on top of the beat with a metrical approach like Sonny Stitt and a lot of the great white tenor players, you just pull back. In the process there are interesting tensions that develop in your music. How did that come about?
Dexter Gordon: Yeah. I've been told that I do that. I'm not really that conscious of it. I think I more or less got it from Lester because I didn't play right on top. He was always a little back, I think. That's the way I felt it, you know, and so it just happened that way. These things are not really thought out. It's what you hear and the way you hear it.”
I’ve been listening to and playing Jazz for over fifty years and if there is a universal constant about this ever-changing music that I’ve heard in all that time, it is the love and admiration that every tenor saxophonist feels for Dexter Gordon.
I remember sitting around the musicians union hall one day back when the world was young with three, aspiring Jazz tenor saxophone players.
The inevitable “Who is your favorite tenor saxophone player” question was asked and one of the tenor saxophonist replied: “You mean, I can only have just one.” Then he turned toward the other, two tenor sax players and all three of them said at the same time: “Dexter Gordon.”
Granted that this anecdote happened at a time when tenor saxophonist John Coltrane was still in his ascendancy, but as another of the young saxophonists commented about Dexter: “What’s not to like? He’s got it all: technique, ideas, he swings like mad and that sound – so big, open and full of juice.”
Like the tune name after one of his main idols – Lester Young – Dexter left town.
As he explains in the following interview with Chuck Berg which appeared in the
February 10, 1977 issue of Downbeat magazine, a variety of factors came together in the early 1960s which influenced him to leave the for USA Europe where Dexter ultimately took up residence in . Copenhagen
And like Jazz, Dexter quietly passed from the scene for the remainder of the 1960s and for much of the 1970s.
But Dexter Gordon’s return 15 years later was a triumphant one – and deservedly so!
Dexter Gordon was one of the greatest tenor saxophonists in the history of modern Jazz and I was delighted that he finally received the acclaim and the accolades he deserved during the last decade of his life.
© -Chuck Berg/Downbeat, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The October return of Dexter Gordon was one of the events of 1976.
SRO crowds greeted him with thunderous applause at George Wein's Storyville. Music biz insiders packed an RCA studio control room to savor each passage as Dex and a cast of all-stars set down tracks for Don Schlitten's Xanadu label. Long lines of fans snaked up the stairs of Max Gordon's Village Vanguard waiting their chance to share Dexter's musical magic. The reaction to the master saxophonist's stopover was nothing short of phenomenal. New York
There was also an avalanche of newsprint, spearheaded by Gary Giddins' perceptive piece for the Village Voice and Bob Palmer's appreciative overview in the New York Times. More significant, perhaps, was the genuine enthusiasm in the street. The standard conversational opener was, "Have you seen Dex?" The reviews corroborated these ebullient responses and certified Dex's return as one of the great musical triumphs of recent times.
At 53 Dexter Gordon is one of the legitimate giants on the scene. His credits include tours of duty with Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine, Charlie Parker and a wide range of small groups under his own leadership. Influenced by Lester Young, Gordon in turn became an important model for tenor greats Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Today, he stands as a beacon of musical integrity and excellence.
I met Dexter at his suite of rooms at the
near South Gate Towers . During our three-hour conversation, Dexter revealed the warmth, encyclopedic memory and playfulness that have emerged as major facets of his music. The recollections and stories, intoned by his smoky basso voice and punctuated with a broad spectrum of laughs, rolled out effortlessly over the coffee and cigarette smoke. Madison Square Garden
Berg: On your album The Apartment (Inner City 1025), you quote the opening phrase of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Last night at the Village Vanguard there were more borrowings from "Santa Claus." Do you celebrate Christmas all around the year?
Gordon: Just call me Kris Kringle. You know, things like that just happen. But I dig the tune. It sits nice. Actually, when those quotes pop out I'm usually not thinking about them. Of course if it's Christmas time, I'm more apt to be thinking about something like that. Usually it's just something that happens. It's kind of built in, built into the subconscious.
Berg: Dex, how does it feel to be back in the Apple with the kind of reception that you've been getting?
Gordon: It's great to be back. Of course I've been going out to the West Coast for years, which has been very nice. But I had forgotten how fantastic and exciting
is. There's no place like this in the world. This is it, you know. It's always been that way. This time, for me, it's been overwhelming because from the minute we got off the plane everything has been fantastic, unbelievable. I really wasn't prepared for this kind of a reaction, "the return of the conquering hero" and all that. New York
Berg: The crowds have been absolutely ecstatic. Last night, for example, there were a couple of phrases in "Wee Dot" where you started at the bottom of the horn. Then, as you went up and up, one could feel the audience going right up there with you to the high F and beyond. It was a collective sharing that was quite unusual.
Gordon: It's been like that from the first note. The opening night at the Vanguard on Tuesday was sold out. And when I walked into the room from the kitchen, working my way around to the bandstand, I got an ovation.
Berg: I noticed the same thing last night. It was beautiful.
Gordon: I hadn't played a note. I just walked into the room, you know, and they applauded.
Berg: Well, you are a commanding presence. And the people appreciate the opportunity to hear your music.
Gordon: It was really something.
Berg: Let me ask you about the recording for Don Schlitten's Xanadu label. I caught two hours of the session and it sounded great. Barry Harris, Sam Jones, Louis Hayes, Al Cohn, Blue Mitchell, Sam Noto and Dexter Gordon... that's quite a lineup.
Gordon: Yeah. That was an all-star date. It was all beautiful. All the cats, you know, are just beautiful.
Berg: When can we expect that on the street?
Gordon: I don't know. I haven't really talked to Don about it. But this week we'll probably have dinner or lunch and talk about it. He's an old friend of mine, you know. An old tenor freak.
Berg: He is?
Gordon: Yeah. For Don, bebop's the greatest. We've done a lot of things together. He was my man at Prestige when I signed.
Berg: Dex, let me ask you about a rumor that's been running around town involving you recording for
. The story has it that a group of Columbia executives were so impressed by performance at Storyville last week that they've set up a record date with you, Woody Shaw, Louis Hayes, Ronnie Matthews and Stafford James. Is that correct? Columbia
Gordon: Apparently so.
Berg: Will it be a live date?
Gordon: Yeah. It should be something else. It will be the second week in December at the Village Vanguard. That's a good time because I'll have the first week of December free. I'll be able to get to a piano to work some things out so we can do something new, something fresh. We have a whole week at the Vanguard: The first couple of days we'll put it together, iron it out, and then the rest of the week we'll record.
Berg: Dexter Gordon with the Woody Shaw-Louis Hayes Band... that should be a landmark!... In view of the tremendous welcome you've received, have you had second thoughts about moving back to the States? Are you tempted to set up a base of operation here and commute between
and, say, Copenhagen ? New York
Gordon: Well, all those things have occurred to me. But basically
is home. We have a nice house and a garden. It's ideal, really. Nothing special, but very comfortable. Of course, if I'm going to be commuting as much as it seems, maybe a place here is necessary. But, as I said, basically Copenhagen is home. So I don't visualize moving permanently to the States. Of course, you never know. Copenhagen
Berg: Let me ask a question for all the saxophone freaks out there. You play a Selmer Mark VI with an Otto Link metal mouthpiece. For all of us who have tried getting that big, full-bodied Dexter Gordon sound, what kind of setup do you use?
Gordon: A #8 facing and a #3 Rico reed.
Berg: I'll try it... There are a lot of younger musicians who don't know that much about your background. Therefore, I'd like to ask you about some of your early influences, who they were and what, specifically, you picked up from them.
Gordon: Well, I started listening at a very early age, before I even started playing, in my hometown,
. We're talking about the '30s now because I was born in 1923. When I was nine and 10 years old I was listening the bands on the radio on my own. Prior to that my father used to take me to the theaters in town to dig the bands and the artists. He was a doctor and knew a lot of them: Duke, Lionel Hampton, Marshall Royal, Ethel Waters. They'd come by for dinner. And I'd go see them backstage, things like that. It was just part of my cultural upbringing. On the radio I was picking up the late night shots, air shots from the East: Los Angeles 's Grand Terrace, Roseland Ballroom, you know, and people like "Fatha" Hines, Fletcher Henderson and Roy Eldridge. So when my father gave me a clarinet when I was 13,I had done a lot of listening. Chicago
Berg: Clarinet, then, was your first instrument.
Gordon: Oh, yeah. Benny Goodman, Buster Bailey, Barney Bigard... I used to dig them all. My first teacher was a clarinetist from
, John Sturdevant. He was one of the local guys in New Orleans and a very nice cat who had that big fat clarinet sound like Bigard's. I remember asking him about that, which knocked him out I said, "How ya get that sound, man?" Almost all of those L.A. clarinet players—Irving Fazola, Albert Nicholas, Bigard—have that. New Orleans
When I started playing I had some kind of idea about music, about jazz, because I was into everybody. I used to make money cutting lawns in the neighborhood, which I spent on secondhand records from jukebox companies because a lot of the jazz things they'd never used. I'd get them for 15 cents. I had quite a nice collection when I was 12, 13 years old.
So I was listening to people like Benny Carter, Roy Eldridge, who is one of my all-time favorites, and Scoops Carry, who played alto with Roy's little band. I also
like Pete Brown. Of course I heard
Chu , and Dick Wilson, who played tenor with Andy Kirk, and Ben Webster. I first heard Ben on a record he made with Duke called "Truckin'." He was shoutin' on that. But then I got my first Basic record and that was it. I fell in love with that band— Lester, Herschel Evans, the whole band. Duke was just fantastic, but the Basic band really hit me. Berry
After a couple of years I got an alto and started playing it with the school band and in a dance band with a lot of the neighborhood kids. Before that, though, we had what you'd call a jug band where the kids had homemade instruments.
Berg: What were you playing then?
Gordon: Well, I was the only one with an instrument.
Berg: You were the legitimate player.
Gordon: Yeah. The other kids were all trying to play something. The guy playing drums had a drum made out of a washtub, and pie pans for cymbals and something else for a snare.
Berg: Did you guys ever record? That would be a treasure.
Gordon: I don't know about that, man. Some of the cats had kazoos. Someone even stuck a trumpet mouthpiece into a kazoo. We played some amateur shows around the neighborhood, but then when I got the alto I started playing with different young browns around town. I started gigging, too. Playing weekends in sailor joints for a dollar and a half a night and the kitty. So I started like that and kept going to better, more organized bands. Then when I was 17 I got the tenor.
Berg: When you got the tenor was it love at first sight, or rather love at first breath?
Berg: Did you instinctively know that the tenor was it?
Gordon: It was really after hearing Lester that I knew. And Herschel Evans and, like I said, Dick Wilson.
's playing with Andy Kirk was beautiful. He was lead tenorist with the Kirk band when Mary Lou Williams was there. Mary Lou used to write lead parts for Wilson . She was about the first one I ever heard using the tenor to lead the section. They had a big hit called "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" and Wilson played lead on that. Just beautiful. Wilson
I listened to everybody. There were also some cats around town who had a lot of influence on me. Another teacher, a man named Lloyd Reese, was a multi-instrumentalist who was best known for his trumpet playing. He used to work with Les Hite. He was very popular in the neighborhood, a very good teacher. Many of the cats studied with him: Mingus, Buddy Collette, me. We also had a rehearsal band that met on Sunday mornings at the old colored local, Local 767.
Berg: Was that something that Reese organized?
Gordon: Yeah, for his students, plus other cats who were just beginning to write charts.
In the high school I went to we had a swing band plus the regular orchestra and marching band. There were a lot of people that came out of that band: Chico Hamilton, Melba Liston, Bill Douglass, Jackie Kelso, a very fine clarinetist, Vernon Slater, Lammar Wright Jr., Vi Redd, Ernie Royal. At another school in the neighborhood there was Mingus and Buddy Collette. So there was a lot of activity. Then when I was just getting ready to finish school, I joined
's band. Hampton
Berg: That must have been quite a transition.
Gordon: Yeah, it was. Hamp had just left Benny Goodman, which was one of the bands, you know. His association with the Goodman band, quartet and trio made him very popular. So he left Benny and formed his big band out on the coast.
Berg: That was the first big-time gig for you?
Gordon: Oh, yeah. That was really my first professional gig. The other things were just more or less on a school level. When I joined the band the musicians in town said: "Dexter who? Dexter Gordon? Who's that?" I used to go around all over the place and talk to all the cats, you know, but they didn't know who I was. I was just another young player.
I started making the rounds when I was 15 because I've been this tall since that time. I could usually get into places without anybody saying anything. I had a baby face, of course, but being so big, people didn't bother me. I also used to get into dances because I'd talk to the cats. There would always be somebody who would let me carry his instrument case in. So I'd walk in with the band. It was a funny thing because later on I'd let the young cats walk in with me, you know, people like Jackie McLean and Sonny Rollins.
So anytime there was music in
I was there. I even went by some of the places I couldn't go in. I'd just have to go stand outside and when the door would open I'd hear a little bit. There were some good musicians in Los Angeles , most of them from the Southwest. Los Angeles
I remember a good band led by Floyd Ray that was like a territory band. They had a lot of good young cats that I used to hang out with. One of the alto players, Shirley Green, used to show me some shit. They were good guys. But when I joined Hamp that was really a great leap forward.
Berg: How did the gig come about?
Gordon: Marshall Royal had called me one afternoon after school and said, "This is
." I didn't believe him. I thought it was one of the cats playing a trick. Finally he made me believe him and he asked me about joining the band. I still don't know why he called me. I'll have to ask him next time we get together. Why the hell did he call me? I don't understand. Anyway, we went down to Hamp's house for a little session. There was Sir Charles Thompson, Irving Ashby on guitar, Lee Young on drums, Marshall and Hamp. We just jammed two or three tunes and Hamp said, "Would you like to come into the band?" I said yeah. Marshall
Berg: That was your audition.
Gordon: Right. So three days later we were on the bus. Before that, though, I went home and told Mom and she said, "Well, what about school?" I said, "Mom, I can do it later." She knew there was no point in saying no or trying to put up a barricade. So on December 23 during Christmas vacation we set out for our first date at
, in a rickety old bus that was all right for Fort Worth, Texas . When we got to California , though, the weather changed. It started getting winter and this was strictly a New Mexico bus. California
Southern California bus.
Gordon: Yeah, a
Southern California bus. So by the time we got to there was a revolution on the bus: "We're not going no further!" We had one of those band managers who was cutting all the corners. But he straightened things out so that we got a real bus in El Paso . We finally got to the Fort Worth Hotel the day after Christmas. I'd had no rehearsal or anything. In fact I didn't even have a uniform. They gave me a jacket with sleeves that stopped at the elbows. El Paso
The first couple of gigs, I didn't play a right note all night because I wasn't ready or used to his arrangements. I expected him to send me home every night. Fortunately, about three days later in
we had a rehearsal, my first. So I kinda got it together. It started happening then, you know. But I still felt the cats were going to send me home or something. But they stayed with me, so in a month or so it was all right. I was very lucky because the band was on its way to Dallas . New York
We then opened at the Grand Terrace in
around the end of January. The band hit instantly. We went in there for two weeks and stayed six months. Hamp was with Joe Glaser and Joe was connected with the Chicago scene. I think this was the gangster scene, you know, Capone and all that shit. They had all the joints. The Grand Terrace was the home of Fletcher Henderson and Earl Hines. The club was in trouble, but when we came, bang, it happened. And we sat there for six months. I think we worked every night playing shows for acts, chorus lines, everything. Chicago
Berg: So you got a heavy dose of showbiz right from the start.
Gordon: Right, man. The whole thing. I don't know why, but my timing has been just fantastic at each stage of my career. I've been in the right place at the right time. I've been lucky. Anyway, the Grand Terrace was fantastic. In six months the band put it all together. We made a couple of replacements, Shadow Wilson on drums and Joe Newman on trumpet. Joe was going to school at
and we heard him on the way to Alabama State . I kept bugging Hamp, "Get that cat." So first chance we got, we sent for him. It was a fantastic band. All the first men were unbelievable — Marshall Royal playing lead alto, a cat named Fred Beckett playing lead trombone, who we called Black Dorsey, and a first trumpet player named Carl George, who later played with Kenton and who had a crystal-clear sound like Charlie Spivak. So the first chairs were all perfect. For saxophones we had Marshall Royal, Illinois Jacquet and Ray Perry on alto and electric violin. He played violin like Stuff Smith but never really got the recognition because he died too early. Ernie Royal, Joe Newman and Carl George were the trumpets. All the cats were great. New York
It was really my school. I learned so much.
stayed on my ass all the time. He'd say, "Hold that note down, hold that note down." It was something else, you know, because we were holding phrases of four, five, six bars and breathing in specific places together. Marshall forced me to learn about crescendo, decrescendo, piano, forte and all those things I didn't know anything about when I was in high school. Marshall
was the section leader. Marshall
Gordon: Yeah. He thought he was the concert master for the band, too, but he was my immediate supervisor. I used to get so mad because it seemed like it would never be right, but later I told him thanks a mil. He taught me so much.
Unbelievable. And, yeah, I learned a lot of shit from Jacquet, too. He was also young, a few years older than me, but he was already playing, already a soloist, with his shit together. A lot of people don't seem to understand that Jacquet's a hell of a tenor player. We used to sit next to each other, which was great, and we used to do a two-tenor number called "Porkchops." It wasn't extensive, you know, but we played a few choruses together. I forget what the format was but it was nice.
Berg: Did you and
ever sit down together and play or talk about improvisation? Illinois
Gordon: Constantly. Every day, man. On the bus, off the bus, in the hotel, on the stand. We talked about what we wanted to do, who we liked. And he showed me a lot of shit like altissimo fingerings, playing over the high F.
Berg: How long were you with Hamp?
Gordon: I was with him until 1943, about three years.
Berg: Where did you go from there?
Gordon: Back to
to gig around town. I worked in a band that Lee Young had at a place called Club A La Grand. There was a place around the corner called the Ritz that was an after-hours joint where we used to jam. This was when I ran into Art Pepper. He used to come around and we used to jam together. I then got him a gig in Lee's band working at A La Grand. I also worked with Jessie Price, the drummer from L.A. who had been with Basic. Oh yeah, Fletcher Henderson came out with a nucleus of a big band and picked up four or five cats in Kansas City to fill it out. I worked with him for about a month. L.A.
Berg: How was that?
Gordon: Great, man. His brother Horace was with the band and we worked in a nightclub called The Plantation. There's even a record on it that we did for the Armed Forces Jubilee show that was originally recorded on one of those big V-discs. I'm featured in the band with Fletcher. Can you believe that? I grew up listening to those cats. Fletcher used to write in the sharp keys, you know, to give the band a more brilliant sound. But I don't really like playing in the sharp keys. I like flat keys. For instance, I've always dug D-flat because that's a beautiful key for tenor. It puts you in the key of E-flat and your 5th is on the bottom.
Berg: Speaking of the bottom of the horn, I noticed a couple of low A's last night
Gordon: Yeah. I grew up with this guy named James Nelson, and he lived right around the corner from me. He was a couple of years older, so naturally when he moved into the neighborhood I was right on him. His brother played the piano, so I was there all the time. Anyway, James is the one that showed me that low A with the knee covering the bell. He used to take me around a lot, too. When you speak of influences, there are so many people that I've been fortunate enough to learn from.
Berg: What came after Fletcher?
Gordon: All during this time Nat Cole had his trio out at a place called the 331 Club. It was very popular for quite some time. On Mondays, our off-nights, they'd have sessions, and the guy promoting the sessions was Norman Granz, who was a student at one of the city colleges. So I used to go out there and play with Nat. During this time we also made some records. We played "I Found a New Baby" and "Rosetta." I was very Lester-ish at the time.
Berg: In Jazz Masters of The Forties,
Ira Gitler talks about your role as one of the first players to adapt Charlie Parker's innovations to the tenor saxophone. When did you start listening to Bird?
Gordon: Well, the first time I heard Bird was in 1941. When I was with Hamp's band, Parker was with Jay McShann. It was here in
at the New York when they would have two or three bands. We played at the Savoy opposite Jay McShann. They had that Savoy sound, and the alto player was playing his ass off. Beautiful. That's when I first met Bird. I had heard the recordings he made with McShann with Walter Brown singing "Moody Blues" and "Jumping the Blues." It was a rough band but the ingredients were there. Bird was just singing through all that shit. The other alto player was beautiful, too, a cat named John Jackson who I later worked with in Eckstine's band. Anyway, the next year Bird went with Earl Hines. Then when Eckstine left Earl's band he took half the guys with him, including Bird. So during that time I often ran into Bird in Kansas City or Boston . New York
Bird and Lester both come from
, and Bird was very influenced by Lester. So the Lester influence is part of the natural evolution for him and for me. Because I heard him right away, there were similar feelings, you know. Also, Bird had other influences. There was a cat called Prof. Smith, an alto player around Kansas City who was important. Then Jimmy Dorsey. A lot of cats don't know that, but Bird loved Jimmy Dorsey. I loved him, too. He was a helluva saxophonist, a lot of feeling Bird dug Pete Brown, too. When Lester came out he played very melodic. Everything he played you could sing. He was always telling a story, and Bird did the same thing. That kind of musical philosophy is what I try to do because telling a story is, I think, where it's at. Kansas City
In the '30s, cats were playing harmonically, basically straight tonic chords and 7th chords. Lester was the first one I heard that played 6th chords. He was playing the 6th and the 9th. He stretched it a little by using the some color tones used by Debussy and Ravel, those real soft tones. Lester was doing all that. Then Bird extended that to 11ths and l3ths, like Diz, and to altered notes like the fiat 5th and flat 9th. So this was harmonically some of what had happened.
Like I said, I was just lucky. I was already in that direction, so when I heard Bird it was just a natural evolution. Fortunately. I worked with him and we used to hang out together and jam together around
. It just happened for me that it was the correct path. New York
Berg: What was your gig with Louis Armstrong like?
Gordon: I joined Louis in
. I was working at the time with Jessie Price, and one night after the set somebody says to me. "Hey cat, sure like that tone you're getting" I looked up and it was Pops. The next night Teddy McRae, the tenor player who was the straw boss in Pop's band, came in. I had met Teddy before when he was with Chick Webb. Also, I think he took my chair in Hamp's band. Anyway, he asked me if I'd like to join the band. I'd been in Los Angeles long enough and I wanted to check Louis out. so I joined the band. Los Angeles
The band was part of several major feature films:
(1944) and Pillow to Post (1945) with Ida Lupino. It was also nice because I was the major soloist in Atlantic City
the band then, other than Pops, I mean.
Berg. How was it working with Louis?
Gordon: Oh, great. Love, love, love. Just beautiful. Always beautiful. It was just a gas being with him. He let me play all the time. He dug me.
Berg: How long were you with Louis?
Gordon: About seven or eight months. Actually, it was a mediocre band. They were just playing Luis Russell arrangements from the '30s, "Ain't Misbehaving" all those things. So nothing was happening. When we got to
I knew that Eckstine had formed a band. In fact, I had heard some of their records and it was happening, it was the new sound. So, anyway, when we got to Chicago at the Regal Theatre, Eckstine's good friend and buddy, a guy named Bob Redcross who Bird later named a tune for ("Redcross"), came backstage and said that Eckstine needed a tenor player. He had heard me on the air with Pops and wanted to know if I'd join the band. I said yeah. So two weeks later I joined the band. It was fantastic. It was a hell of a jump, the difference between night and day. Chicago
Berg: Who was in Eckstine's band at that time?
Gordon: They were all young and unknown at the time, but later it proved to be a million-dollar band. The arrangers were Jerry Valentine, a trombone player from Hines' band, and Tadd Dameron. Diz also had a couple of things in the book. For reeds we had John Jackson on lead, Sonny Stitt on third alto, Gene Amnions and myself on tenor and Leo Parker on baritone. The trombones were Jerry Valentine, Taswell Baird and Chips Outcalt. The trumpets were Dizzy, Shorty McConnel, Gail Brockman and Boonie Hazel. John Malachi played piano, Connie Wainwright, guitar, Tommy Potter, bass, and Art Blakey, drums. And our vocalist was Sarah Vaughan. Unbelievable, huh?
I joined the band in
, at the Washington, D.C. in 1944, and was with the band for the next couple of years except for a couple of months off at one point. But it was a fantastic band in a fantastic period, you know. This is when I met Tadd, my favorite arranger and composer. I did some things with him later. Howard Theatre
Berg: After Eckstine came
and New York 52nd Street. What was that period like?
Gordon: Ahhhhh... every day there was something happening. This new music thing, bebop, was taking shape and becoming recognized, so it was a very exciting period. Every day there was something exciting, something ecstatic, something. And all the cats loved each other and practiced together at Tadd's house, Monk's house, at sessions. Then the street started opening up for the cats. So, it was happening. I worked on the street a lot with Bird and Miles. Miles was just coming up then. He was still eating jelly beans at that time. Do you believe that? Malted milks and jelly beans. I worked with Bird at a place called the Spotlight with my sextet, with Miles and Bird, Stan Levey, Bud Powell, Curly Russell and Baby Lawrence, the dancer.
was the show, but really he was part of the band. Lawrence
Berg: How did playing with a dancer work out?
Gordon: Good. He danced bebop. The way those cats danced, man, was just like a drummer. He was doing everything that the other cats were doing and maybe more. Blowing eights, fours and trading off. He just answered to the music. There were several cats on that level, but he was the boss. Baby
. Fantastic. He used to do some unbelievable things. Lawrence
Dancing in those days was a big part of the musical environment, you know. Everybody was dancing to the music, to whatever they wanted, different dances and everything. Just as music was growing, dancing was growing. Like I said, we used to play with all those shows, chorus lines and all that. To me it was great. I loved it.
Berg: That's quite interesting because I've gotten the feeling that musicians have generally resented backing up dancers, singers, whatever.
Gordon: No. I never have. Especially if it's good.
Berg: Many people have mentioned your influence on 'Trane. Did you know ‘TVane?
Gordon: Not really. I knew him, but not well. He was from Philly. He was younger, of course, but I had met him here and there. Philly Joe reminded me recently, a few months ago when we were on tour together in
Europe, of the time that Miles' band came out to . 'Trane was playing his shit, but it wasn't projecting, he didn't have the sound. So one day we were talking and I said, "Man, you play fantastic, but you have to develop that sound, get that projection." I gave him a mouthpiece I had that I wasn't using. I laid that on him and that was it. That made the difference. Hollywood
Berg: That's incredible because there are many things in 'Trane's sound that are reminiscent of your sound.
Gordon: He was playing my mouthpiece, man! Again, it's the same line— Lester to Bird to Dexter to 'Trane. There was evolution, of course, but really the same line.
Berg: Let me ask you about Sonny Rollins. I talked to Sonny about a month ago and your name came up as an important influence. He speaks of you with great warmth. What was your relationship like?
Gordon: Well, Sonny and Jackie McLean were the young cats coming up in the late '40s, early '50s, you know. I wasn't really around them too much because as they were beginning to mature I was out on the coast. But again, it's the same story.
They came up in the same line. Of course, they have their own things, which is natural because we all learn and are influenced by different people and situations.
Berg: There's one thing that especially impressed Sonny and which has always intrigued me. That is the way you lay back on the melody or phrase just a bit behind the beat. Instead of being right on top of the beat with a metrical approach like Sonny Stitt and a lot of the great white tenor players, you just pull back. In the process there are interesting tensions that develop in your music. How did that come about?
Gordon: Yeah. I've been told that I do that. I'm not really that conscious of it. I think I more or less got it from Lester because I didn't play right on top. He was always a little back, I think. That's the way I felt it, you know, and so it just happened that way. These things are not really thought out. It's what you hear and the way you hear it.
Berg: What happened after
52nd Street? I know you moved to in 1962, but my knowledge of your activities during the '50s is sketchy. Denmark
Gordon: Well, during the '50s things got a little tough because like everybody else I had a habit. I was paying the dues. So my career was very spasmodic. Thankfully, I was one of the lucky ones who got pulled out and started putting it back together again. I did do a few things during that time but not a great amount of work. There were some nice recordings with
. And in the early '50s Wardell Gray and I were doing our thing, you know, the chase with a quintet. Bethlehem
Berg: When you moved to
, what was in your mind? Why did you make that decision? Denmark
Gordon: There wasn't any decision. In 1960 I started commuting to
because I had signed with Blue Note. So I was coming here to record. Then, in 1962 I moved to New York and was here for six or seven months. I met Ronnie Scott at a musician's bar called Charlie's, and he introduced himself and asked if I'd come to New York . I said, "Yeah, sure." So I gave him my address and he said he'd be in touch. London
A couple of months later he offered me a month's work in his club and a couple weeks touring around
. He said maybe he could get me a few things on the Continent. So after I left England I went to London to the Copenhagen Montmartre. It developed into a love affair and before I knew it I'd been over there a couple of years.
I was reading DownBeat one day back then, and
Ira Gitler referred to me as an expatriate. That's true, you know, but at the time I hadn't really made up my mind to live there, so I came back here in 1965 for about six months, mostly out on the coast. But with all the political and social strife during that time and the Beatles thing, I didn't really dig it. So I went back and lived in for a couple of years. But the last nine or 10 years I've lived steadily in Paris . Copenhagen
Berg: What does the future hold for Dexter Gordon at this point?
Gordon: Well, it looks like I'm about to take a great leap forward.
Berg: Here, here!
Gordon: So, you know, it's moving. I'm very optimistic. About the future, and about music. These last five years, I think, have been good. All over
Europe and here there has been a renaissance in music, and jazz in particular. And that's what we're talking about, jazz. I like the word "jazz." That word has been my whole life. I understand the cats when they take exception to the name, you know. But to me that's my life.
Fortunately, we will be able to hear more of Dex in 1977. On wax, there will be the all-star date on Xanadu. There will also be the live session at the Village Vanguard with Woody Shaw, Louis Hayes, Ronnie Matthews and Stafford James on
. Dex with be returning for an extended tour of the States under the auspices of Ms. Management in Columbia . All this represents a new plateau in Dex’s career and, for us, the opportunity to share in the workings of one of the great hearts and minds in contemporary music.” New York