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“Dexter Gordon tastes like coarse rye bread, parsley and cellar-chilled vodka. The basic tastes, pure and strong. He is elementary but with power. When you have listened to him you tell nothing but the truth for a long while.”
- Swedish writer Svante Foerster, “Klasskämpen”
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles will present a synopsis of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon [Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2018, $29.95] on these pages at a later date, but in the meantime, we thought you’d enjoy this review of the book by Clifford Thompson that appeared in the Nov. 1, 2018 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
Gordon combined the power of a foghorn with the elegance of a flutist, his sound singular and inimitable.
“The tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who died in 1990 at 67, stood apart from other jazz musicians — even other famous ones — and not just because he stood 6 feet 5 inches. While he was roughly the contemporary of those 1940s revolutionaries who gave us the light-speed, chord-hopping jazz known as bebop (Gordon was three years younger than Charlie Parker), his playing instead brought to mind the big-sound tenor men, such as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, born at least half a generation earlier. Yet Gordon was “sort of the bridge between Charlie Parker on the alto [saxophone] and what became possible on the tenor,” as one who ought to know — the tenor-sax icon Sonny Rollins — told Maxine Gordon, the author of the brief, valuable “Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon.” Mostly, Gordon was Gordon, combining the power of a foghorn with the elegance of a flutist, his sound both instantly recognizable and inimitable.
Maxine Gordon, the saxophonist’s third wife, widow and — for seven years beginning in the mid-1970s — manager, has produced a story of Dexter’s life that is also about the challenge of portraying a reluctant subject. It was not that Gordon didn’t want his story told; toward the end of his life, in fact, he began constructing it himself, writing in pencil on legal pads and asking Maxine to finish the book if, as would be the case, he could not. The trouble had to do with the large chunks of his life that he stubbornly refused to talk about. When Maxine argued that they should be included, the saxophonist told her that if she wanted an all-inclusive book, “you will have to write it yourself” — and with “Sophisticated Giant,” she has picked up the gauntlet.
Dexter Gordon’s early years were straightforward enough. His widow writes that “the portrayal of jazz musicians as tragic figures was something that always bothered him,” and the circumstances of the saxophonist’s youth certainly belie the stereotype of the hard-luck idiot savant that often attaches itself like a groupie to African-American jazzmen. Gordon was born in 1923 and grew up in Los Angeles, the only child of a music-loving physician who counted Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton among his friends. Dexter took up the alto sax at 14, switching at 15 to the tenor that his mother bought him to fit his tall frame. At Jefferson High School he excelled in English—as an adult he would teach himself to read French and devour novels such as “Les Misérables”—and came under the tutelage of the influential band director Sam Browne. Then fate (and its pal, connections) stepped in.
The musician Marshal Royal, given the task of finding a last-minute replacement tenor for Hampton’s band, called the 17-year-old Dexter, who was both the son of Royal’s doctor and the classmate of his younger brother. Gordon played in Hampton’s band from 1940 to 1943, then joined the orchestra of an even bigger legend: Louis Armstrong. In 1944 he moved on again, to Billy Eckstine’s band, getting fired the following year, Maxine Gordon writes, for coming late to rehearsals and “show[ing] signs of being high.” By then Gordon had established a reputation of his own, soon signing recording contracts, first with Savoy and then with Dial Records. His playing on recordings from the mid- and late 1940s, such as “It’s the Talk of the Town,” “Mischievous Lady” and his storied duet with fellow tenor man Wardell Gray, “The Chase,” suggest a blend of the older figures Hawkins, Webster and the groundbreaking Lester Young.
Then came the period that presented Maxine Gordon with such a challenge. The 1950s, during which Dexter married his first wife and fathered two daughters, also saw drug use get the better of him. Because he refused to discuss that period, beyond his admission that he had “messed up [his] family life,” Maxine was “forced to reconstruct it by examining two sets of documents: his discography and his California prison records.” She is an able detective, tracing Gordon’s trips to and from jail and cataloguing the details of the recordings that he was nonetheless, and somewhat miraculously, able to make during those years.
While it is generally fallacious to attribute a jazz musician’s artistry to his self-inflicted suffering, one is tempted to wonder, in Dexter Gordon’s case, whether there is a grain of truth in that dangerous old cliché. To listen to the much-lauded albums he made with Blue Note Records beginning in the early 1960s, once he had (mostly) left drugs and prison behind, is to hear the work of a saxophonist who has found his voice. On “Dexter Calling . . .” (1961), “Go!” (1962), “Our Man in Paris” (1963) and others, he eschews the million-note approach of the beboppers while embracing other bebop elements, and though Gordon’s tone is every bit as full as those of Hawkins et al., it is also every bit his own—a voice speaking at once plainly and beautifully. In 1962 he went to Europe for a concert date that stretched to 14 years, most of them spent in Copenhagen, where he made great live recordings at the club Jazzhus Montmartre. Just when he was in danger of being forgotten in America, Maxine appeared and engineered his triumphant return to the U.S., culminating in the double album “Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard” (1977).
“Sophisticated Giant” (which shares its title with a Gordon album) is affectionate, enjoyable and informative, painting a portrait of a handsome, elegant, easygoing person and artist who refused to agonize about his past. Like the man himself, however, the book fails to discuss some things the reader may wonder about. We learn that, in addition to his daughters, Dexter fathered a son from his second marriage (a union that did not survive his return stateside) and had two others with women he met in Europe; but we hear next to nothing of his thoughts about these children he didn’t raise or (in one case) ever meet. Attentive readers will note that Maxine Gordon’s relationship with the trumpeter Woody Shaw, who plays on “Homecoming” and with whom she had a son, ended in 1983—the very year that, as she mentions much later, she got together with Dexter. What’s the story there? What kind of stepfather was Dexter? Don’t look to “Sophisticated Giant” for answers.
Perhaps more important, the word “legacy” in the subtitle is misleading. Maxine Gordon clearly regards as her husband’s crowning achievement his lead performance as the fictional musician Dale Turner, based on the pianist Bud Powell, in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film “Round Midnight,” for which Gordon was nominated for an Oscar. Jazz fans, though, might be more interested in Gordon’s stylistic influence on other musicians, one obvious example being Sonny Rollins. Maxine Gordon relies on quotes from others for that, and even those are sparse. But to quote Spencer Tracy, what’s there is choice. The best is from the Swedish writer Svante Foerster’s novel “Klasskämpen”: “Dexter Gordon tastes like coarse rye bread, parsley and cellar-chilled vodka. The basic tastes, pure and strong. He is elementary but with power. When you have listened to him you tell nothing but the truth for a long while.”
—Mr. Thompson writes regularly on jazz for the Threepenny Review.