Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Dexter Gordon - The Blue Note Years - Part 1

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

In his prime, his music had a kind of jovial gravitas at its heart, building on Lester Young's example without succumbing to Lester's waywardness, and he was a great influence on the likes of Coltrane and Rollins. 

- Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia

“When Bob Leonard, agent for The Three Sounds among others, contacted Blue Note in 1960 about recording Dexter Gordon, Alfred Lion was not only willing but also able to say yes. Although he'd recorded Monk, Bud Powell and Miles Davis in the early stages of their careers, this was the first opportunity for Blue Note to sign an already established major artist.

For Dexter Gordon, who'd hardly recorded in the fifties, this was a chance to jump-start his career on an international level with a company that was as classy as he was. This mutually-beneficial, well-suited five-year relationship between Dexter and Blue Note yielded a gorgeous body of work, all of which is gathered in this boxed set.”

- Michael Cuscuna, Producer

Chuck Berg closes the introduction to his 1977 Downbeat interview with Dexter by stating:

“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.”

While I’m no expert on the greatest anything in the history of Jazz, my reaction to Chuck’s statement was a sad “what took so long” as I felt that way after I heard Dexter’s early 1960s Blue Note recordings which have, thankfully, been loving collected and annotated in a  boxed set Dexter Gordon: The Complete Blue Note Sessions [6 CDs-7243 8 34200 2 5]

Even while these Blue Note sessions were in progress, a variety of factors came together in the early 1960s which influenced Dexter to leave the USA for Europe where he 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 in 1976 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 years of his life [He died in 1990].

This being said, for my money, Dex never played better than his work on these early 1960s Blue Note recordings; especially impressive on these recordings is his ballad work which becomes essentially a clinic in what has largely become a forgotten skill.

Dexter’s balladic interpretation of I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, Where Are You, You’ve Changed, Don’t Explain, Until The Real Thing Comes Along, Darn That Dream, Willow Weep For Me, Stairway To The Stars, Who Can I Turn To, Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool and I’m A Fool To Want You collectively could be formed into an instrumental Jazz textbook for how to play such songs and interpret their lyrics.

In addition to all the majestic music that Dexter and his colleagues created on these Blue Notes another distinguishing feature of these albums is that each of them was annotated by liner notes written by some of the best writers that Jazz had to offer in the 1960s among them Ira Gitler, Leonard Feather, Nat Hentoff, Robert Palmer, as well as, a relative newcomer at the time - Barbara Long. 

Their insights, observations and commentaries serve to enrich the listening experience and our understanding of Dexter and his music.

Given the many later-in-his-career accolades, accords and kudos, we thought it might be fun to run a multi-part series highlighting the individual recordings that Dex made for Blue Note from 1961 to 1965 and which were released during that time span, along with the 6 disc boxed set that was issued in 1996 which contains these tracks as well as alternate tracks from these sessions plus the tracks from this period that were released on three, later albums: 1967, Gettin’ Around [BST-84204]; 1979, Clubhouse [LT 989]; 1980 Landslide [LT-1051]. All three of the latter have been reissued on CD as Japanese imports and each of these will also be the focus of individual features on the blog.

Let’s start with the boxed set, copies of which can be found both used and new from various online resellers and which contain The Complete Blue Note Sessions, both those that were released on Blue Note albums from 1961-1965 and those that came later.

The boxed set annotations are by Michael Cuscuna, who has had a long association with Blue Note and produced many of its reissues, both on vinyl and CD. These include music that was issued subsequent to Blue Note's existence from 1939 until its acquisition by Liberty Records in 1965.

Michael has also continued to be involved with Blue Note reissues in his current role as one of the executives at Mosaic Records.

Bruce Lundvall who signed Dexter to a recording contract with Columbia when Gordon triumphant return to the USA in 1977 contributed some reminiscences to the boxed set’s notes, Dexter’s widow Maxine shared some of the ongoing correspondence that Dex has with Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the owners of Blue Note and the esteemed Jazz author and scholar Dan Morgenstern contributed a track-by-track analysis of each of the sessions to the boxed set booklet.

So as to keep this initial feature from becoming unwieldy, excerpts from Bruce’s memories, Maxine’s correspondence file and Dan’s track descriptions will be used as lead-in quotations to other blog segments focused on Dexter’s Blue Note Years.

To kick-off things, here’s Michael Cuscuna’s overview of the history of Blue Note and how Dexter’s music became a part of its offerings.

“BLUE NOTE was recognized as a distinctive and uncompromising jazz label of quality from its inception in 1939. It teetered on the brink of insolvency for most of its first 17 years. Founder Alfred Lion and his partner Francis Wolff would rather record people they loved like Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols than chase hits that compromised their taste.

Success came anyway in 1956 with the music of Horace Silver and Art Blakey. They and a few others had formulated an audience-friendly offshoot of be-bop that came to be known as hard bop. The tempo was slowed, the melodies more memorable and earthier elements of blues and gospel were intermingled with the achievements of modern jazz. And when it swung and had a creative edge, it was called The Blue Note Sound. The public responded.

The combination of Lion's meticulous preparations and production, Rudy Van Gelder's sparkling sound, Reid Miles's cover designs and Wolff's photography made Blue Note THE hip label. It didn't hurt that discoveries like Jimmy Smith and The Three Sounds were beginning to sell in healthy numbers.

When Bob Leonard, agent for The Three Sounds among others, contacted Blue Note in 1960 about recording Dexter Gordon, Alfred Lion was not only willing but also able to say yes. Although he'd recorded Monk, Bud Powell and Miles Davis in the early stages of their careers, this was the first opportunity For Blue Note to sign an already established major artist.

For Dexter Gordon, who'd hardly recorded in the fifties, this was a chance to jump-start his career on an international level with a company that was as classy as he was. This mutually-beneficial, well-suited five-year relationship between Dexter and Blue Note yielded a gorgeous body of work, all of which is gathered in this boxed set.

From a gene pool that spanned Africa to Northern Europe with a healthy infusion of elements from 19th century migration to Canada and the United States came Dexter Keith Gordon on February 27, 1923. He was the only son of Frank, a native of Fargo, North Dakota who became a prominent doctor in Los Angeles and Gwendolyn, whose Father was born in Wyoming. And he was doted upon.

Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington were among Dr. Frank Gordon's patients. Dexter was treated to his father's records and to concerts that he attended with his father that often included backstage visits. He often used to say, "I don't care how old "Sweets" [Harry Edison] says he is, the first time I saw him, I was in short pants and he was on stage."

Doctor Frank bought his son a clarinet at age seven and encouraged his musical inclinations. Seven years later, Dexter experienced a profound and lifelong emptiness when his father succumbed to a heart attack without warning.

Dexter switched to alto saxophone and then tenor. His favorites were the giants of the day, most especially Lester Young, who deeply shaped his musical intellect, and Dick Wilson, featured soloist with Andy Kirk.

At the tender age of seventeen, Dexter was invited to audition for the Lionel Hampton band by Marshall Royal, a patient of his father and older brother of Dexter's friend Ernie. He got the job and, with his mother's blessing, stepped on the band bus before graduating high school. It's a day that lived vividly in Dexter's memory.

Dexter's tenor mate in that band was Illinois Jacquet, only a year older but a great deal more experienced. "I was always leaning on Dexter to get his stuff together. He was so young and wanted to copy everything Lester Young said, wore and played. In the band, we'd all tap our feet in time while we played the chart. But Dexter was so big and those size-fourteen feet would come up in their own time and then come down again with no relation to the tempo. I told him that that had to stop. It was messing me up….  Dexter and I used to do a Lester Young-Herschel Evans two-tenor number called "Pork Chops." It went over big with the audiences. I remember, one night at the Savoy Ballroom, Dexter and I were out front playing it. People at the foot of the stage were blowing pot smoke up at us. By the thirtieth chorus, we had no idea what the changes were, (laughs) I wanted Hamp to record it, but he never did. He regretted not doing it and used to bring that up to me for years."

In 1944, Dexter played with Fletcher Henderson and then got a job with the Louis Armstrong Orchestra. And although he was basically a section man, he adored that time, studying with the master innovator and showman. Around this time, Dexter cut four quartet sides for Norman Granz with Nat Cole on piano. His own sound was emerging.

By the end of '44, Dexter was a member of the Billy Eckstine Orchestra that became an incubator for the bebop revolution. It was Art Blakey that dragged him into the fold. Suddenly, Dexter was surrounded nightly by Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Sonny Stitt, Lucky Thompson, Gene Ammons, Leo Parker, John Malachi and other architects of the new music.

From Lester Young, Dexter learned the art of improvisation: develop ideas of substance, finish a thought, never waste a note and, above all, know the lyrics of any ballad you dare to play. Once he found a mouthpiece and instrument to his liking, Dexter developed a robust sound and brought to the tenor saxophone the first totally realized bebop style on the instrument. He would become a model for both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, who would in the fifties spearhead the two major streams of tenor saxophone playing for the next twenty years.

Through his 52nd Street appearances with Dizzy Gillespie and his LA recording of "The Chase" with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, Dexter became something of a bi-coastal celebrity in the late forties. Gray was a saxophonist with fluent articulation and a smoother sound. But he and Dexter developed a musical connection that transcended the arena of the tenor battle. Listening to a reissue of live tapes, Dexter once told me that, despite the differences in their styles, it was sometimes hard for him to tell where one left off and the other began. Their symbiosis ran that deep.

In late 1952, Dexter was busted for possession of heroin and sentenced to two years at the state prison in China. It gave him an opportunity to make his film debut in "Unchained," although Georgie Auld's tenor is dubbed in when Dexter is playing on screen. But more importantly, as Dexter with a steely stare was always quick to point out of this and a subsequent internment, "It saved my life." But it also derailed his career.

By 1955, the rage in LA was the west coast sound of Shorty Rogers, Shelly Manne, Chet Baker and the other disciples of the cool school. The successful hard-bop school of Silver, Blakey et al., which was then developing, was far more suited to Dexter's style. In fact, his big sound, his soulful behind-the-beat phrasing and his lyricism foreshadowed this movement. But he was in LA, and the hard boppers were in New York. He was all but forgotten and they were rising young stars. So too were Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane.

Upon his parole in 1960, Dexter was approached by Cannonball Adderley to record an album for Riverside. The result was 'The Resurgence Of Dexter Gordon," an album which was not entirely successful but served the purpose. The next year, Dexter was asked to compose the music and lead the band on stage for the LA production of "The Connection," which had originated in New York two years before with Freddie Redd's music.

Dex was back. He accepted the offer from Blue Note Records. And the jazz world finally remembered. For five years, Dexter made one masterful session

after another for Blue Note. The music coupled with the fascinating correspondence between Dexter and Blue Note's Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff during those years, found elsewhere in this booklet, complete the picture of a very important period in this artist's career.

Dexter liked working with Alfred Lion who leaned heavily on planning and rehearsals in hopes that such preparations would provide a spontaneous, but beautifully executed date. Beyond his own sessions, Dexter participated in two sideman appearances, Herbie Hancock's first album Takin' Off (not included here) and an aborted Sonny Stitt session, from which the one releasable tune, "Lady Be Good," appears here for the first time. Listening to the tapes of this session some 18 years ago, Dexter told me, 'This was Stitt and his working band. Alfred asked me to join in on a few numbers. Sonny didn't want to rehearse or talk about tunes. Alfred was already frustrated when the date began. Stitt was charging through things. Alfred was getting more and more nervous. And when Sonny started playing "Bye Bye Blackbird," Alfred just lost it. He started screaming, 'what are you doing to me?...You've recorded that a hundred times' and called off the date. It was a funny scene." (The music for the albums Landslide and Clubhouse and the bonus tracks which later appeared on CD were also auditioned at that time and approved by Dexter.)

During this time, Dexter was spreading his wings. A gig at Ronnie Scott's began a love affair with London, then Paris, then Copenhagen. And Dexter became, like Kenny Clarke, Don Byas, Johnny Griffin and so many others, an expatriate.

These Blue Note sessions afforded him the opportunity to record for the first time with musicians like Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Barry Harris, Kenny Drew, Horace Parian and Billy Higgins with whom he would have a professional connection for years to come. Ironically, Hutcherson and Higgins reach back to Dexter's childhood. One of Dexter's best friends in high school was Bobby's older brother Teddy (Dexter even refers to Bobby as Teddy in a letter to Alfred.) And Billy Higgins remembers, as a youngster, seeing Dexter come up the walk to sit on the front porch with his older sister. Years later Billy Higgins and Bobby Hutcherson joined Dexter in the film "'Round Midnight."

Dexter's fondest memory of his years with Blue Note was the album Go. It's rare that an artist, the critics and the fans are all in accord. But everyone agrees that this was Dexter's greatest album. The empathy among Dexter, Sonny Clark, Butch Warren and Billy Higgins is extraordinary. Within a beautifully balanced selection of material, Dexter fashions gorgeous solos with complete abandon and trust. The rhythm section rises to the occasion with everything they've got. The result is perfection. The session that produced A Swingin' Affair two days later runs a close second. Both of these rarefied musical experiences are on Disc Three of this set.

Dexter's musical accomplishments and achievements went on for more than twenty years beyond his association with Blue Note, culminating with a nomination for Best Actor at the 1987 Academy Awards for his starring role in Bertrand Tavernier's film "'Round Midnight."

Dexter Gordon, his musical genius aside, is one of the most unique people I've ever met. A voracious reader, Dexter's taste ranged from 19th century French writer Emile Zola to J. P. Donleavy's "The Ginger Man." (He remembered an especially dour high school teacher who hated musicians and was confounded and annoyed by the fact that her only A students were Dexter and Chico Hamilton).

When Maxine met Dexter in Europe in 1975, they began to plan for his spectacular return to the US. (He holds the world's record for homecomings and resurgences.) In 1976, Bruce Lundvall signed him to Columbia Records. Woody Shaw asked me to produce the recordings and put together a band and material for Dexter. At six o'clock on a Friday night, we were all sitting in the office of a Columbia business affairs executive, negotiating Dexter's buy-out from a Danish jazz label. He was to hit that night at nine-thirty at the Village Vanguard. I had an engineer (Malcolm Addey) and equipment standing by. Finally, at seven-thirty, we got the green light. Dexter and I grabbed a cab to the club. We were alone for the first time. I asked him a question at about Fiftieth Street. There was total silence for fourteen blocks. I thought, 'oh my God, this guy hates me!' Finally, just below Madison Square Garden, the answer slowly emerged.

It took some time to get used to Dexter's internal clock, but we became very close over the years. And his friendship is one that I will always cherish. Dexter loved language and linguistics. He learned a healthy chunk of every language to which he was exposed. He devoured local customs and cuisine with vigor and panache and had friends in every corner of the globe. Yet there was that part of him that was purely American. He would not take a gig during the World Series, loved meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas and actually thought that 'too much garlic' was a physical impossibility.

Outwardly, Dexter was exceedingly charming and friendly to all. Inwardly, he was a very private man who showed himself to few. It took a great deal to shake his veneer. I remember once flippantly referring to a musician as sounding too white. Uncharacteristically, Dexter shot me a hard glance and said, "We went through a lot for the right to play with whomever we want to, white or black."

Then there was the time Dexter called me at eleven o'clock one night and strongly suggested that I come down to the Village Vanguard. After I resisted on the grounds that I had work to do, he politely insisted. Finally, I said, "do you want me to come down to fire the piano player?" There was a long pause on the phone and then he said, "ahhh...that would be nice."

To paraphrase two remarks by Dizzy Gillespie, "He did everything wrong and it all turned out right. He should have left his karma to science."


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