© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“He did everything wrong and it all turned out right.”
— Dizzy Gillespie
“What was it about Dexter? Well, besides his music, he was sort of the bridge between Charlie Parker on the alto and what became possible on the tenor saxophone. Dexter's playing was always an amalgam, to me, of everything that came before, of course. But he was also that bridge—so a lot of the guys that were getting into bebop at that time, they all liked Dexter. He wasn't doing what Charlie Parker was doing, no. You know, he didn't play Charlie Parker on tenor; he played Dexter Gordon on tenor. But he was playing music that had the same qualities, really.”
“When Dexter played, everybody listened. He could really power you off the stage if you were up there with him. Long Tall Dexter. He will never be forgotten.”
By now, you’ve probably read one or more reviews of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon by Maxine Gordon - all favorable I’m sure.
Rather than add to this number, I thought I’d approach things a bit differently by offering a synopsis of the book: instead of sharing my opinion of the book, I thought I’d put forth information about what’s in the 20 chapters that comprise it.
Maxine’s book is truly a biography; not an appreciation, or an evaluation and analysis or a study or treatment, but the story of the evolution of a soul from beginning to end as it existed on earth.
As such, it helps the reader understand how Dexter Gordon evolved into one of the most formidable tenor saxophonist in modern Jazz during the second half of the 20th century.
At this point, let me clearly state that no review or synopsis can do justice to Maxine’s beautifully written and very informative book about Dexter. It deserves to be read from cover-to-cover to gain the full sense of the cogent and coherent manner in which she tells Dexter’s story.
But whether you come to this book via its many laudatory reviews or by way of this equally commendatory synopsis, if you are a Jazz fan, you owe it to yourself to read this book because it is one of the best Jazz biographies ever written and, trust me, I’ve read a lot of them over the course of the ten years I’ve been writing this blog.
Another distinguishing feature about Maxine’s Dexter bio is that it’s not just researched - she lived a portion of his story with him as his manager and as his wife. This allows for both objective and subjective perspectives on Gordon’s life.
Here are excerpts from each of the book’s twenty chapters which I hope will form a helpful overview of how Maxine goes about the business of bringing “to life” an iconic Jazz musician who’s only regret was: “I never got to play in the Count Basie Band - the Lester Young chair.”
Chapter 1 - The Saga of Society Red
“Dexter Gordon was known as "Society Red." He got this name when he was with the Lionel Hampton band as a seventeen-year-old in 1940—just about the same time Malcolm X (then Malcolm Little) was being called Detroit Red. Dexter wrote a tune with that title and decades later, when he began working on his autobiography, he decided to name it The Saga of Society Red. The irony of that nickname has many levels and it became an "inside" jazz nod to an earlier time when young Black men konked their hair and wore zoot suits.”...
“The result of my promise to finish his story is this book, which sets out to give a meaningful portrait of one of the world's most influential and beloved jazz icons, my husband and former partner in the so-called jazz business, tenor saxophonist, composer, and Academy Award-nominated actor Dexter Gordon. The Dexter Gordon story is the story of the phoenix rising. He was a towering figure at six feet five inches, the epitome of cool, the musician who translated the language of bebop to the tenor saxophone, the man who disappeared for a decade into drugs and jail terms and managed to emerge with a sound to be heard, the musician who left the States for a gig at Ronnie Scott's Club in London in 1962 and returned fourteen years later to standing ovations in New York City, the musician who made a movie with French director Bertrand Tavernier and got nominated for an Oscar for best leading actor. One could tell the story of his life in shortcut by perusing the titles of some of his most significant albums: Resurgence, Go, Our Man in Paris, Homecoming. Dexter Gordon believed in life and in music. He loved being a jazz musician, and although his life was complicated with some very dark, very low moments, he was not a man to burden himself with regrets. In fact, Dexter was not even sorry to run out of time before he could finish his book, probably because he knew I would. No, "Society Red" left this world a very contented man. When asked if he had any regrets, he replied, "Only one. I never got to play in the Count Basic band—in Lester Young's chair."
Chapter 2 - An Uncommon Family
“When Dexter walked into a room, he did not go unnoticed. It wasn't only his height, good looks, and wardrobe—people were drawn to his charm and flair. This flair began at an early age. It came from seeing Duke Ellington with his parents when he was seven years old and remembering how they looked and behaved and always wanting to be like those men up on the stage. But it also came from his family—his father, Dr. Frank Gordon, and his grandfathers, Edward Baker and Frank L. Gordon. These were fearless men who forged new lives in new places and were "fighting for survival."”...
“Dexter talked quite often about his father and his love of music, and believed that Frank would have been very pleased to know that his son had become a musician. He recalled going on house calls with his father in his Model A Ford and waiting for him as he attended patients in the fancy homes in the Hollywood Hills. Dexter said his father made house calls to some famous white patients, including movie stars (or so the story goes), while most of the patients who came to his office on Jefferson, off Central Avenue, were from the neighborhood, which was known as the Eastside. On many evenings Frank would go to the bar at the Dunbar Hotel to meet with friends, many of whom were musicians as well as patients, including Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton.
Dexter told the story of Ellington visiting the Gordon home for dinner and his mother preparing her specialty, spaghetti and meatballs, specifically at Mr. Ellington's request. There would be a big fuss in the neighborhood whenever Ellington arrived, and Dexter's friends would come by to peek through the windows for a glimpse of the great man. Dexter was allowed to sit at the table for dinner but he had to promise to remain quiet and use his best manners.
Tragedy struck on Christmas Eve 1937 when Dexter was just fourteen years old. Ellington recalled the moment in his book Music Is My Mistress: "I had made a date to meet my Los Angeles doctor . . . Dexter Gordon's father, in the bar of the Dunbar Hotel on Forty-first and Central at four o'clock Christmas morning. A friend came in right on the nose and told me the doctor couldn't make it, because he had just died of a heart attack. That completely ruined my chances of a happy Christmas celebration.""
“Dexter often laughed about the way his biography was usually presented in jazz publications: "He was born in Los Angeles, his father was the first Black doctor there (not true, he was the second), he went on the road with Lionel Hampton, recorded on Dial and Savoy, had a drug problem, went to jail, went to Europe, came back, made a movie, got nominated for an Oscar." Life is far more complicated than a career sketch would have us believe. What does it take to be a jazz musician? How did they manage to survive the road, the indignities of racism, and the struggle to create beauty as what Sonny Rollins refers to as "artists in an artist-hostile society"?
Dexter's story weaves its way through Madagascar and France, through Canada, Tennessee, Kentucky, the Dakota and Wyoming Territories, and to the city of Los Angeles at the turn of the twentieth century. The family includes doctors, musicians, a famous military hero, and a locally legendary barber. It's no wonder Dexter loved to describe himself with the line once uttered by his friend the great tenor saxophonist Junior Cook: "I'm not just your ordinary B-flat. "”
Chapter 3 - Education of an Eastside Altar Boy
“When Dexter was born, on February 2,7, 1923, African Americans in the city of Los Angeles made up only 2. percent of the total population of about 940,000 people. Dexter's father, Dr. Frank A. Gordon, was just the second Black physician to practice medicine there. Frank, Gwendolyn, and their only child, Dexter, lived at 238 East Forty-Fifth Street in the neighborhood known as the Eastside. I learned a great deal about what coming of age there was like for Dexter and his friends from a group of those friends who gathered for a "roundtable social" in February 1998 at the venerable Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue. The group, assembled at my request by Dexter's good friend Clint Rosemond, called themselves the "Eastside Elders," and the first thing they stressed to me was the proper usage of the neighborhood's name. It had to be "Eastside," one word, and never "East Side" as it is in what must be hundreds of other American cities and towns.””...
“The day after the Eastside Elders social, I went to St. Philip's Episcopal Church to examine its records and see if Dexter really was an altar boy as he had said he was. In fact, it was true. Dexter, [the saxophonist Jackie] Kelso, and also James Truitte (the renowned dancer with the Alvin Ailey Company) had all been altar boys in the church.” …
“When it was time for high school in 1938, Dexter first attended Manual Arts for a year and then transferred to Jefferson High primarily because of the band director, Sam Browne. Dexter's classmates at Jefferson included Chico Hamilton, Jackie Kelso, Vernon Slater, L.amar Wright Jr., Vi Redd, and Ernie Royal. There were a few disciplinary incidents, such as lateness and unexcused absences, that led to transfers, first to Polytechnic High School and then back to Manual Arts, but Dexter continued to study music at Jefferson.
Of the many music teachers in Los Angeles, undoubtedly the most influential were Lloyd Reese and Sam Browne. While both men received classical training, they nevertheless left their mark on the Los Angeles jazz world. Browne, a former student at the Wilkins School of Music, earned degrees in music and education from the University of Southern California and headed the music department at Jefferson High School. He had graduated from Jefferson but had a long and hard fight to get the position as band director at the school. All the other teachers were white and some transferred out when he was hired in 1936. In addition to Dexter and his contemporaries, Browne helped develop such jazz notables as Horace Tapscott, Sonny Criss, Frank Morgan, Big Jay McNeely, Marshal Royal, Art Farmer, and Don Cherry.”...
Chapter 4 - Leaving Home
“Dexter loved to tell the story about the phone call that afternoon in 1940:
The voice on the phone said, "This is Marshal Royal."
I said, "Yeah, who is this really ?" and hung up. I thought it was one of my school friends playing a joke on me. I was seventeen years old. The phone rang again and the man said, "This is Marshal Royal. Would you like to come over to Lionel Hampton's house and audition for him? "
So we went down to Hamp 's house for a little session, we blew a while and that was it. Three days later we were on the bus, without any rehearsal, cold. I was expecting to he sent home every night.
Marshal Royal was a music legend in Los Angeles. He was born in 1912 in Oklahoma and came to Los Angeles when he was five years old. Dexter always said that he owed his entire career as a saxophone player to Marshal and thanked him many times for not sending him home when he first joined the band. Dexter's high school friend Ernie Royal was Marshal's younger brother, and it was he who recommended Dexter to Marshal for the Hampton gig.” …
“One of Dexter's favorite stories was about a night in 1943 during a stop in New York with the Hampton band to play an engagement at the Apollo. That night at Minton's Playhouse was his second encounter with his idol, Lester Young, and a first with Ben Webster.”...
I tiptoed on the stand and found a chair behind "the Masters." Monk laughing and mouthing, "What you doing up here, boy?" I gave him my chicken-shit grin and pointed to my boys, grinning in the corner.
Fortunately, the hand was playing a known standard tune, "Sweet Georgia Brown." Monk gave me the OK and I began to play. My boys were hollering and in a little way I was sounding good. After eight bars, Ben says, " Who the hell is this?" In order for him to turn around he had to use his whole body because his neck was naturally and permanently stiff. There I was staring into these bulging Frog eyes. I almost swallowed my mouthpiece. On the other hand, after a half chorus, Lester stretches and casually, coolly, looks back and gives me the once over.” …
Chapter 5 - Pops
“Dexter joined the Louis Armstrong Orchestra in May 1944 and stayed for six months, until November 1944, when he got an offer to join the Billy Eckstine band. This experience shaped Dexter's life in many ways. He was forever grateful to Louis Armstrong for liking his sound and giving him the chance to play. But mainly he was grateful for the time he got ro spend with the great man, observing how he treated people and how he brought so much beauty to the music. Dexter always paid tribute to Pops, and if he had won the Oscar in 1987 for his role in Round Midnight, he was going to say, "I would like to dedicate this award to Louis Armstrong for devoting his life to the music we love." Then he was going to sing "What a Wonderful World." If anyone ever said anything disparaging about Louis, which was fashionable at a certain time. Dexter would get out of his seat and stand up and remind the person that there would be no possibility of making a living as a jazz musician without the sacrifices made by Louis Armstrong. He would also remind people that it was Louis who in 1957 was quoted in the newspapers saying, "The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell. It's getting so bad a colored man hasn't got any country." He also reminded people that Louis said President Eisenhower had "no guts" to let Arkansas governor Orval Faubus call in the National Guard to prevent black children from integrating Little Rock's Central High School.”
Chapter 6 - Blowin’ The Blues Away
“As soon as Dexter got that call to join the Billy Eckstine band while he was still working with Louis Armstrong in September 1944, he knew right away that he had to say yes. He explained to Louis that the young musicians with Billy were trying to do something new and that he would have to leave the Armstrong band. Louis said he understood and that Dexter could come back if things didn't work out.
That something new was the early days of bebop. At the same time that the war was coming to an end, Black culture exploded with unprecedented exuberance and innovation. For musicians like Dexter, that meant breaking out from the constraints of the traditional dance hands and allowing improvisation to extend into unknown places. Dexter said that the "young turks" wanted to express a social statement through their music. They were developing their own lifestyles around the new music at a time when things were moving very fast for them and for the world. Many of these young beboppers had stayed out of the army. Dexter said that they were committed to making a change. "It was a revolution," he said. Instead of endless repetitions of swing standards, the young beboppers—Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and others—evolved into masters of a dazzling new improvisational poetry, every night reinventing their music with new harmonies, tempos, rhythms, and complexities. Exuberant audiences started leaving the dance floors to fill a growing number of intimate jazz clubs and larger concert halls across the country.” …
He often said that the Billy Eckstine hand was the hippest band ever and that all the musicians took the message of bebop with them when they moved on from "the band." Of all the bands they would join or know, Eckstine's was the one that was always referred to as simply "the band." Dexter wanted to let the world know what it was like to be with those great young musicians and to show how dedicated they were to the music and to each other. The [sketched out] screenplay was the beginning of a project he was serious about but that he never got to complete, and it reminds me of all the ideas he had when he sat in that garden in Cuernavaca reflecting on his life.”
Chapter 7 - Business Lessons
“A search for Dexter's first recording contract with Savoy Records begins ' with a flight to Atlanta and a sixty-mile drive to the Madison, Georgia, headquarters of Denon Digital Industries, which was a subsidiary of the Japanese electronics giant that owned the record label Nippon Columbia. Nippon had bought the Savoy label and catalog from Joe Fields of Muse Records, who had bought it from Arista Records, which had acquired it after the death of Herman Lubinsky, who had founded Savoy in 1941.2 In a storage room, I pored through dusty and moldy cardboard boxes marked "Dexter Gordon" filled with old files, letters, and contracts. It was well worth the effort because I found some treasures that I didn't know still existed.
The other invaluable source of information on Savoy Records comes from Teddy Reig, the A&R (artists and repertoire) man for Savoy who tells his life story in Reminiscing in Tempo: The Life and Times of a Jazz Hustler, written with Ed Berger. Reig is the best source for details on Savoy's business practices. The preserved letters and contracts are invaluable in helping us trace the steps through these early years of jazz recording. Whenever I begin a discussion of what I call "the political economy of bebop"—that is, the role of public policy in influencing the economic and social welfare of the musicians—most people sigh and their eyelids grow heavy. But this information helps us understand the lives of the musicians we admire and the music from which we continue to find inspiration.” …
“Copyright ownership is an important part of the story of the political economy of bebop. Starting with the recordings for Savoy and Dial Records in the 19405 and continuing all the way to the present day, the record companies (with some notable exceptions) owned the compositions recorded on their labels. Simply put, copyright ownership gives a publisher the exclusive right to market a composition on records, radio, sheet music, and even in movies, television, and theatrical performances. The publisher collects money from all those uses and then distributes payments, in the form of royalties, to the record label and to the composer. Typically, the record label would receive most of the money, ostensibly because it shouldered the costs of production, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing. Very often the publisher and the record label were essentially one and the same, as with Savoy Publishing and Savoy Records. This is what made the record business so very lucrative—for them. What made it even more lucrative was a copyright law that so heavily advantaged a wealthy company staffed with highly paid lawyers against mostly young, inexperienced musicians usually without any significant legal or financial guidance. In almost every case, for a little bit of money and vague promises of future wealth, these young musicians would willingly sign away their work, often forever.” ...
Chapter 8 - Mischievous Lady
“[Trombonist] Melba [Liston] was just sixteen in 1942, when she joined Local 767, the Colored Musicians Union in Los Angeles, so that she could take her first professional job as a member of the Lincoln Theater pit band. We tend to think of the postwar generation of innovative musicians as fully grown artists who made the world anew and blew the culture open with
their revolutionary sound, but it is important to remember how young they were at these key moments in their own creative lives and in the changing cultural times. The environment around Los Angeles, and Central Avenue in particular, allowed for a community of young musicians to grow musically and socially. These relationships were formative and in the case of Dexter and Melba led to a friendship that lasted throughout their lives. The musicians lived near each other, many in the Central Avenue area or, simply, the Eastside, and they spent hours practicing together in living rooms and garages before and after school.” …
“In 2012 I did ask Melba's longtime collaborator and friend, pianist and composer Randy Weston, if he thought Melba was mischievous and why Dexter would choose "Mischievous Lady" as the name of his song for her. "Well, she definitely was," said Weston. "Because she was like Monk: very few words spoken. The only time she was speaking was when she got angry. And when somebody messed up her notes in the band"—he laughed—"you might hear a few expletives. But she was a very quiet person . . . And she has that aura about her ... She had that kind of—Dexter was right—kind of a mystic quality. Some people have some kind of a magic that you can't explain. And you know we were together for many years, but there are some things I couldn't explain."
What we can explain, though, is how crucial she was to the community of musicians who rightly called her "Mama," first among equals and a mischievous lady in all the right ways. In Melba Liston's life, there were many times when the relationship with fellow musicians was not as harmonious as hers was with both Dexter Gordon and Randy Weston. We know that she suffered insult and abuse, but we also know that she did not let anything or anyone stop her from her music. In Jamaica, she was "Mama" again. Her students revered her, and one of them, the renowned reggae saxophonist Dean Fraser, wrote and recorded the song "This One's for Melba Liston" after her death in 1999.
There are diverse layers and aspects to the "Mischievous Lady" recording session and Dexter's tune written for Melba. This close focus on that day in 1947 illustrates the importance of musical apprenticeship, jazz culture, and the friendship at the heart of it all. The trajectory of Melba's career was forecast on that day: musicianship will trump gender stereotypes.”
Chapter 9 - Central Avenue Bop
“Jazz history is often recounted as a sequence of turning points, a journey from one seminal moment to another, lingering at the milestones where everything—cultural, aesthetic, and even political—supposedly coalesces into "the new." One of these moments occurred at the Elks Hall on Central Avenue in Los Angeles on July 6, 1947. On that evening, Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon locked musical horns, battling each other and driving the audience into a furious frenzy with their tenor saxophones. Portions of the night's playing were released on a series of four 78-rpm discs on the Bop! Records label. Appropriately titled "The Hunt," this two-tenor duel, with Wardell and Dexter alternately chasing and outdoing each other, was spread over eight sides of three minutes each.
Apart from the sheer excitement of the battle, why was this concert so mythological and historically significant? After all, the two musicians had dueled before; one month earlier they had recorded "The Chase," a much more commercially successful recording, which was released on Dial Records on two sides of a 78. "The Chase" was so successful—it outsold all of Dial's other titles at the time, even Charlie Parker's—that "The Hunt" was marketed primarily as a Gray-Gordon duel, although their session was only part of a full night's gig that included musicians such as Howard McGhee, Sonny Criss, and Hampton Hawes, playing brilliantly on trumpet, alto saxophone, and piano, respectively. The 1947 musical battle-cum-duet that followed two nights of Independence Day celebrations has become a deliverance moment for that ubiquitous postwar jazz style, bebop. That the concert has become sanctified should be no surprise, though, given the quality of the playing, the mythic quality of the venue, and the stature of the other players who were on hand that night.
The two-tenor battle has been a key element in jazz performance ever since, but Dexter and Wardell were the quintessential hebop tenor-battle musicians. (Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and Johnny Griffin, and John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins carried on the tradition.)
“It wasn't like somebody would say, "I can play better than you, man," but actually . . . that's what it was. You'd think, damn, what the f**k was he playing? You'd try to figure out what was going on. To a degree, that was one of the things—to be fastest, the hippest. The tenor player with the biggest tone—that takes balls, that takes strength.”
The classic form of the duel, following call-and-response tradition, calls for the tenor players to first trade choruses of thirty-two bars, then sixteen bars, then eight, then finally four-bar phrases flashing back and forth at breakneck speed. At just under seven minutes in length, "The Chase" was one of the longest jazz recordings of its day, but this did not seem to deter fans.”
Chapter 10 - Trapped
“When Dexter began to write his life story in earnest while we were living in Cuernavaca, he would take out his yellow legal pads and his sharpened pencils and make notes. … We looked at photos together, and when we got to Herman Leonard's famous "smoke" photo of Dexter at the Royal Roost in 1948, he started to get a bit glum. I asked him why.
He said, "Things didn't go too well after that. There was a rocky road ahead for a while."
He then moved straight to 1960, when he got a job in Los Angeles with the play The Connection, writing the music for the production and recording it for Riverside Records at Cannonball Adderley's insistence. He then started to write about getting his passport, being invited to London by Ronnie Scott, and his fourteen-year sojourn in Europe.
I said, "Dexter, you left out a decade from the outline."
"I know," he said.
I pointed out that one could not write an autobiography and exclude an entire decade. What about the 19505? He just looked far away with a kind of wistful expression, and then turned to me and said, "If you want the fifties in the book, you will have to write it yourself. I don't want to think about it or talk about it or write about it." That was the end of the conversation.
When Dexter was adamant about something, when he had a certain expression on his face and a certain tone in his voice, there was absolutely no possibility of changing his mind. There was no space for nagging, cajoling, convincing, arguing. The discussion was over. He was not going to talk about the 19505 and that was that. (Of course, over the years Dexter did speak occasionally about some of his experiences in the 1950s, including his times in prison, but he still never wanted any of it to be in his book.)
Okay, so ... "If you want it in the book, you will have to write it yourself."
I could not have written this part of the book without the help of Hadley Caliman. Born in Oklahoma in 1932., Hadley moved to Dexter's Los Angeles neighborhood in 1940 when he was eight years old and Dexter, at seventeen, was just starting out in the Lionel Hampton band. Hadley was so enamored with Dexter's playing that he also took up the tenor, studied with Dexter, and lent Dexter his horn when he needed it. Hadley even became known in the neighborhood as "Little Dex." Later, he became a regular on the Central Avenue scene, playing with Dexter, Wardell Gray, and many others.”...
Hadley told me that … "Seventy-five percent of the musicians in L.A. were trapped there because of drugs," he said. "They were on parole and because of the law that allowed them to be busted for tracks and internal possession, they could never get out. It was a crime. Their careers were ruined. Their lives were stopped. For nothing."”
Chapter 11 - Resurgence
“In Dexter's life story, every so often there would come a year that was pivotal. He called these "phoenix rising" years. The year 1960 was certainly one of those. Dexter:
“I guess the start of it all was the play, The Connection. I was asked to write the music and to act in the production. I played the part of what the script called the Number One Musician—the bandleader, in fact. This was quite a challenge for me. The themes had to be specific to the plot or the scene. It really built up my self-confidence and at that time I really needed it. It did a lot for me.”
In another ironic moment in Dexter's life, he wasn't using drugs when he acted the part of a drug addict in a play. But as he said, "I could definitely understand the character and play the part." The Connection, written by Jack Gelber, was originally produced by the Living Theatre in New York City in 1959, directed by Living Theatre cofounder Judith Malina, and designed by co-founder Julian Beck. It is the story of a producer and a writer who are attempting to stage a play about drug addicts, some of whom happen to be musicians.” …
“During the run of The Connection, Dexter took a group to play at the Zebra Lounge in Los Angeles. Cannonball Adderley heard them there and wanted to record the group for the Jazzland label. At first Dexter was reluctant to say yes, because he hadn't recorded anything since 1955 and was still recovering from his years of incarceration. He was on parole and working in The Connection, but Cannonball persisted. On October 13, 1960, Dexter went into the studio with Martin Banks (trumpet), Richard Boone (trombone), Dolo Coker (piano), Charles Green (bass), and Lawrence Marable (drums). The album that came out of the session was The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon. It was prophetic way beyond its title. Dexter remained ever grateful to the brilliant and very loyal Cannonball Adderley for giving him this chance.
During the time that Dexter was performing in The Connection and recording Resurgence for Cannonball, correspondence began between the agent Bob Leonard and Alfred Lion, the cofounder of Blue Note Records, about signing Dexter to a contract with Blue Note. A letter from Leonard to Lion dated October 2.7, 1960, suggested that there was renewed interest in Dexter, because it included a set of terms being offered by Prestige Records, a Blue Note competitor. On October 30, Blue Note made its offer for Dexter.” …
“For Dexter this was an opportunity that he could not pass up, especially after the very lean years following his recordings on Savoy and Dial. He remained grateful to Alfred Lion and his partner Francis Wolff, and as the years went by, the musical value of the Blue Note recordings became apparent, their longevity proving that jazz fans are loyal and know how to discern a great recording from a mediocre one.
Dexter signed the contract on November 7, 1960. He would go on to make several of his classic and most beloved recordings for Blue Note. …”
Chapter 12 - New Life
“While Dexter was in New York City recording for Blue Note in 1962, he ran into the British tenor saxophonist Ronnie Scott in the midtown musician's bar Charlie's. Scott owned and operated Ronnie Scott's Club, an extremely popular jazz club in London's West End. In what has become one of the most famous of all Dexter Gordon moments, Scott walked up to Dexter and said, "Would you fahncy coming to London to work ?"
Other than over-the-border visits to Mexico, he had never been out of the country and did not yet have a passport. His answer to Scott was, "Oh yes. That would be grand." …
“Enthralled after his arrival in London, Dexter wrote an exuberant letter to Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff from Ronnie Scott's Club on September 12, 1962. This was the beginning of a fascinating correspondence between the three of them during Dexter's first years in Europe, detailing his work and social activities, thoughts about his life, his career and future.” …
“While Dexter was at Ronnie Scott's Club in London, Harold Goldberg, one of the owners of the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen, Denmark, called Ronnie or perhaps Pete King, the club manager, to arrange for Dexter to come to Copenhagen following his engagement in London. Dexter agreed to make the trip but, as it turned out, not before he ran into his old friend, the trumpeter Chet Baker, in London. Chet knew all the doctors in town who would readily write out prescriptions for morphine, and then all you had to do was go to a pharmacy and get your supply. It wasn't a crime to be a drug user in London at that time. Apparently that kind of freedom appealed to Dexter, and he fell off the wagon.” …
For the rest of 1963, Dexter toured in Switzerland, Germany, and Norway. A glance at a map of Europe shows how convenient it was for Dexter to live in Copenhagen and travel easily by train all over the Continent. And there were so many places that welcomed jazz and the musicians who were playing it. “
Chapter 13 - Very Saxily Yours
The title of this chapter is taken from the manner in which Dexter signed off his correspondence. As Maxine explains: “Dexter chose the words as a tribute to Louis Armstrong, who would often sign his letters ‘Red Beans and Ricely Yours.’”
As the title implies, this chapter has as its focus Dexter’s many encounters with other Jazz saxophonists during his early years in Europe including Johnny Griffin, , Booker Ervin, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Ben Webster.
Maxine tells this part of Dex’s life through the use of a number of stories and anecdotes and I would only spoil their surprise by revealing them here.
Chapter 14 - Trouble in Paris
I also have to be careful with this chapter not to “give away the store” by providing too much detail about its contents. Suffice to say that its title and this opening paragraph should give the reader enough insight as to what it contains:
“When something really bad happened, or when someone asked Dexter about an event that he preferred to forget, or that roused a painful memory about a person who had died tragically (there were many in his life), he would get very quiet. So quiet that it could be frightening, in a way. The silence would surround his huge frame and move out to fill the room. Those who knew him well would move back because it felt like being near a volcano before it erupts. I once asked him about a lovely photo I had seen that was taken in back of the jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen. He gave me that certain look and said, "That was a long time ago." That was the end of the conversation. I never brought it up again until after he had died, and then I asked his closest friend, Skip Malone, about the girl in the photo and the return address on his letters to Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff that had her home address in Copenhagen. He said, "Max, leave it alone. You don't want to dig this up. It's not a pretty story." Of course, his response made me even more curious about this short, happy girl in the photo, the same girl whose name is on the Christmas card to Blue Note Records in 1966: "Dexter and Lotte." Dexter's most trusted supporter in Denmark, the political cartoonist Klaus Albrechtsen, told me that Lotte [Nielsen] had met a sad end and that her father blamed Dexter for her demise. But he did not want to share with me any of the correspondence he had with the girl's father.”
Chapter 15 - The Khalif of Valby
“There were a number of stories about Dexter in the Danish newspapers when he moved to Valby. One journalist friend dubbed him the "Khalif of Valby," which he loved. The title derived from a slight misinterpretation of language. Dexter has a tune called "Soy Califa," which means "I am from California" in a kind of Los Angeles Spanish. He would always announce the tune in a dramatic manner. So, "Soy Califa" came to be understood in Denmark as "I am the Khalif" (Khalif being a Muslim spiritual leader), and when he moved to Valby, he became the "Khalif of Valby."” ...
As mentioned earlier, living in Copenhagen made it easy for Dexter to accept work in nearby France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and very often Holland. Wim Wigt, his Dutch booking agent, found gigs for Dexter in venues and towns big and small throughout Holland and neighboring countries as well. Normally when Dexter toured in Europe it was as a solo musician picking up local rhythm sections in each city along the way. But in Holland he had a "working band." In 1972 he went on tour with the Dutch rhythm section of Rein de Graaff (piano), Henk Haverhoek (bass), and Eric Ineke (drums).” …
“When Dexter would recite the names or the towns he had played in during his time in Holland, people were incredulous. Wigt found him gigs in Hilversum, Leiden, Veendam, Venlo, Zwolle, Den Haag, Heemskerk, Amsterdam, De Woude, Rotterdam, and Eschede. Dexter would tell friends that there were jazz lovers in all these places in a country the size of the state of Maryland. When a band travels together and has meals together and works this often, they get to know each other in a very special way. They learn each other's habits and moods, and how to play together. The music improves every night, and with Dexter we can be sure that he found a way to communicate what he expected from the rhythm section. Dexter always had a particular idea of what he wanted to hear, and if he wasn't comfortable with the band, he would definitely let them know. He had very kind words about how serious his "Dutch band" was and how much they cared about the musicians from the States who came to play in Europe.” …
“During this long period of stability, with Dexter enjoying his European travels, and even more so the long stands playing before adoring fans and visitors to Copenhagen at the Montmartre, he had settled into a comfortable home life in Valby with Fenja [his wife] and Benjie [his son]. Toward the end of 1975, when Dexter would begin to think about making his permanent return to the States, Fenja and Benjie would be a major consideration. And there would be many others.” ...
Chapter 16 - Homecoming
"I want to come home but haven't been able to figure out how to do it," Dexter said. "Everyone is discouraging me from even thinking about it."
Since I [Maxine] knew nothing about management or booking and was completely oblivious to how complicated it might be, I said, "I'll call Max Gordon at the Vanguard and tell him to book you. I've known him since I was fifteen. He will give you a gig." I waited until it was about 10 p.m. in New York, which was 4 a.m. in Nancy [France], and called Max. "Max, I'm in France and I heard Dexter Gordon tonight. You must book him. He sounds so great.
"Forget it. No one will come. He has been gone too long."
"No, no, no. You must give him a gig. He's great. If you don't give him a date, I will never speak to you again."
This threat did not do much good, as Max replied, "I don't care if you never speak to me again." And then he hung up the phone on me.
So much for my first attempt at getting Dexter a gig. Dexter and I started discussing what it would take for him to come back to the States. He had saved money for his return and we figured out how much it would cost to pay his airfare, pay a band, rehearse, rent a hotel room, do publicity, and pay my phone bill. We thought if we worked on it for six months and then announced his return that it would be worth a shot. The next night I called Max again and made him an offer. "Okay, Max. Dexter wants to come home. What if you give him a gig at the club for no guarantee and he covers the band? If it works and people come, we can talk about his working there more regularly and you can pay him. If it doesn't work, you don't lose anything."
"That's not a very good deal for Dexter," Max said. "Are you sure you want to try to be a manager? Okay. I'll give him a week."
I know I’m being a terrible tease here, but if you want to know how this all worked out, you are gonna have to read Maxine’s book!
Chapter 17 - Bebop at Work
“Work” is the operative term for the events described in this chapter as, following his successful homecoming, Dexter and Maxine [by now his wife and his manager] assembled a staff that was dedicated to “... getting gigs in all fifty states for Dexter and his band.”
“After the release of Homecoming—Live at the Village Vanguard [Columbia Legacy C2K 46824], we were off and running. Michael Cuscuna stepped in as Dexter's producer and they would discuss personnel and repertoire, spending many hours organizing ideas that would become future recording sessions. I worked very long hours in the office Michael and I rented together on West Fifty-Third Street across from the Museum of Modern Art and down the block from Columbia Records.
Woody Shaw recommended Hattie Gossett as the person to run the office. Hattie is an acclaimed poet, performance artist, scholar, and fierce warrior for the rights of so many whose voices are not heard.” …
“The person we called the "brains behind the operation" was Jim Harrison — promoter, publicist, publisher, and the man with his finger on the pulse of the jazz scene then and for many years thereafter. Jim is a legendary jazz figure who spent many hours putting up posters and fliers all over town, including at the Port Authority bus terminal where he could catch the eyes of jazz fans traveling to and from the city. In those pre-internet days, much of Dexter's audience knew where he was appearing by word of mouth, or what we referred to as the Jim Harrison technique. When Dexter played on a touring Jazzmobile in Harlem, crowds filled the streets thanks to Jim and his team. When he played Grant's Tomb, the police were amazed at the throngs of fans. One police officer asked me: "How did they know about this? Who is this guy playing saxophone?" Jim knew how to reach the hardcore jazz fans and . they knew how to spread the word.” …
In this chapter, Maxine goes on to describe the musicians in Dexter’s working bands from 1976- 1983 and the more significant gigs and “memorable concerts” during this period including:
“ One of his favorite spots was the iconic San Francisco jazz club the Keystone Korner. Todd Barkan, the musical mind behind that club's fame and success, first brought Dexter there as a single in 1973, teaming up with some great local musicians, including Eddie Moore on drums. It became a kind of ritual for Dexter to play at the Keystone Korner over the Christmas holidays. Todd programmed holiday festivals with Bobby Hutcherson, Max Roach, and countless other great artists, and Dexter worked at the club until it closed in 1983. Dexter and Todd had a special friendship that continued until the end of Dexter's life.”
And then, all of a sudden it was over.
“Then we planned his sixtieth birthday party at the Village Vanguard for the afternoon of February 2.3, 1983. His band played and lots of musicians and friends were invited. His daughters came from Los Angeles. On that day he said to me, "It's over. Let's close the office and take a break. I'm tired." There was nothing for me to say back to him except, "Okay, let's do it." Of course, it wasn't easy and people were not happy with the decision, but Dexter was right. We had a good run but we had worn ourselves out and it was time for a break. He wanted to live a "normal life," if there really is such a thing.” …
“We began to go to Cuernavaca, where Dexter started natural health and acupuncture treatments, ate regular meals at the same time every day, and rested, read, and reflected on his life. Our trips to Cuernavaca would last for months at a time. We had a beautiful house, ….”
“Our ‘normal’ life was about to change once again, with a phone call ...from Bruce Lundvall, and in many ways it would seem that Dexter had begun preparing for it when he made the decision to exit the road on his sixtieth birthday.”
Chapter 18 - Round Midnight
By far the longest chapter in the book, it is impossible to do justice to it by synopsizing it. Rather, let’s pull a quotation or two that sets the stage [no pun intended] for how Dexter’s involvement in Bertrand Tavernier’s ground-breaking film came about and how he perceived his role in it, beginning with Maxine asking Bruce Lundvall to “... describe the events that led to his call to Dexter about making the movie.”
“Tavernier based the story of Round Midnight on many conversations he had with Francis Paudras, a French commercial artist and draftsman, about his relationship with Bud Powell in Paris in the late 1950s. Powell thrived as a genius and was one of the originators of bebop in the 1940s despite his many years of terrible suffering with mental illness. … When Bud went to Paris in 1959, he met Paudras, a great admirer who became what he referred to as Bud's protector.”
“Dexter certainly came to know this character, Dale Turner. But Dale is not Dexter. To this day, however, some people believe that the character of Dale and the story of Round Midnight are based on Dexter's life. There is even a Danish documentary about Dexter and Ben Webster, Cool Cats, that shows a Danish musician weeping at the end because he believes that Dexter's life was tragic. It is important to remember that the film is fiction, that Dexter always considered his life to be anything but tragic, and that he was acting. And that is why he was nominated for an Oscar.”
And thank goodness that Michael Cuscuna was available during the making of the film.
“When I discussed the making of Round Midnight with Cuscuna in 2012, I realized that I only remembered the good parts and he remembered the very bad parts. Michael and I worked together for many years in that office we shared on Fifty-Third Street when he was the producer for Dexter and Woody Shaw on Columbia Records. He and Dexter had a very special and close friendship. Michael Cuscuna:
‘I remember being pretty appalled by the script, and so were you and Dexter. But then I guess you addressed that grievance with Bertrand before anything was signed. And he said, "No problem, I want to make it real, I want it to be what it is." And he lived up to that word, from that day forward to the end of the film. I really admired the fact that he wanted to get it right. We had a lot of meetings at your apartment. I remember we had meetings with Herbie [Hancock] and his manager at your apartment, we had meetings with Bertrand, and we did a lot of early stuff before shooting began.'
When there were problems in Paris with the music or the musicians, Dexter and I would say, "You need to get Michael." So Bertrand would call him.”
Chapter 19 - A Night At The Oscars
All you need to know about this chapter is contained in its title and in the following stage-setting paragraph:
“Dexter laughed when Martin Scorsese told him that he would get an Oscar nomination for his performance as the saxophonist Dale Turner in Round Midnight. Scorsese, who played the role of Goodley, the Birdland club owner, insisted that Dexter would be nominated because his performance was like that of Robert De Niro's in Raging Bull, which Scorsese directed. By the time Round Midnight was nearing completion, Dexter let it be known that he thought Scorsese was right. I had my doubts. After all, this was Dexter's first acting role in a film (he had acted in the play The Connection in Los Angeles in 1960); he was a jazz musician and only three Black men before him had ever been nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Leading Actor in a film. Sidney Poitier was the first to be nominated, the first to win, and the first to receive two Best Actor nominations. He was a runner-up in 1958 for The Defiant Ones and won in 1963 for Lilies of the Field. James Earl Jones was nominated in 1970 for The Great White Hope, and Paul Winfield was nominated in 1971 for his role in Sounder. With a gap of fifteen years between Best Actor nominees for a Black actor, the thought that Dexter, in 1987, would be the fourth Black actor to be nominated seemed impossible to me. He would be the fifth nominee because Poitier was nominated twice.
Of course Dexter thought differently. He would laugh and say, "Start thinking about what you want to wear to the Oscars." …”
Chapter 20 - Cadenza
All of our biographical lives end.
Here’s how Maxine describes Dexter’s passing.
“In March 1990 Dexter entered Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia. His chosen sister, Shakmah, arranged for private nurses and a private suite. His doctors were considered the best in the field. Because his father had been a doctor and because he had faith in the medical profession, he opted for chemotherapy over surgery because it was an option that would have allowed him to continue to play the saxophone. He was registered under a fictitious name and did not want visitors to see him in bad shape. Bruce Lundvall was an exception and Dexter wanted a chance to thank him for all he had done for him. He listened to Lester Young playing "Lester Leaps In" with the Count Basie band, and on April 2.5, 1990, Dexter died of kidney failure.
He had written out all his instructions and we followed them exactly.”
In his essay on Dexter from Visions of Jazz: The First Century, Gary Giddins, the esteemed author and critic comments:
“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.”
As you read Maxine’s biography, you’ll come to appreciate just how much dedication, planning and preparation went into Dexter’s creation of an “alternate universe in which all of Tin Pan Alley is one infinite song.”
Copies of the book are available through EsoWon Books a bookseller that specializes in African and African American Books. You can locate them by going here.