Gordon, Dexter 1923–1990
Dexter Gordon 1923–1990
Jazz saxophonist actor
During the 1940s, Dexter Gordon emerged as one of the premiere instrumentalists to adapt the tenor saxophone to the bebop jazz idiom. After earning a reputation as a side-man in the bands of Lionel Hampton and Billy Eckstine during the 1940s, Gordon spent the next four decades as a solo artist. He lived in Europe from 1962 until 1976. Upon his return to the United States, he landed a major recording contract and critical acclaim for his recordings and live performances. Early in his career, Gordon absorbed the influence of tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Hershel Evans, and subsequently developed his own sound and approach. Throughout his life, Gordon continued to garner musical ideas from all over the jazz spectrum, including the saxophone style of one of his early followers, John Coltrane. Six and a half feet tall and handsome, Gordon possessed a gift for language - one that benefitted him when he starred in Jules Tavernier’s 1986 film Round Midnight, a role which won him an Oscar nomination.
Dexter Keith Gordon was born on February 27, 1923, in Los Angeles, California. Gordon’s father, who was an amateur clarinetist and the personal physician to Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington, took his son to hear live jazz shows. Gordon listened to big band radio broadcasts as a child and, during his teenage years, purchased second-hand records from jukebox companies. At the age of 13 he studied clarinet and music theory. Two years later, he switched to alto saxophone. At Jefferson High School, Gordon fell under the musical instruction of Sam Browne. Multi-instrumentalist, Buddy Collette, recalled in the book Central Avenue Sound that the youthful Gordon was “a fun guy” who “seemed all tongue and cheek… .1 heard that Sam Browne…used to keep him after school and tried to make him play scales. He was not an easy guy to teach. He was player who knew where he wanted to go, I guess. Later, he finally got to be serious.” By the age of 17, Gordon took up the tenor saxophone and began musical instruction with Lloyd Reese, a multi-talented musician and former member of several prominent big bands. As Gordon was quoted in Min-gus: A Criticai Biography, “He taught us like we were going to be professionals, not just some kid just learning how to play an instrument in the school band and marching band…. He taught me about Art Tatum, and about listening to film music when you go to the movies.” During this same time, Gordon attended school jam sessions and performed in nightclubs.
Born Dexter Keith Cordon, February 27, 1923, in Los Angeles. CA; died of kidney failure on April 25, 1990), in Philadelphia, PA; son of Frank Alexander Gordon (a physician); married Frenja Gordon; children: Benjamin.
Career: Quit high school to perform in a local band and joined Lionel Hampton’s band, 1940; left Hampton’s band and became member of Lee Young’s sextet, 1943;performed with Fletcher Henderson’s band, 1944; performed with Louis Armstrong’s band and then joined Billy Eckstine’s big band. 1944; recorded with Dizzy GiMespie, 1945: played clubs along 52nd Street; recorded sides under own name for the Savoy label, 1945–47; recorded for the Dial label in Los Angeles, 1947; performed in Tadd DarneroiVs band, 1948; performed with Oscar Pettiford, 1949; recorded three albums during the 1950s; appeared in and scored the music for Jack Gelber’s play The Connection, 1955; recorded seven albums. 1961–65; moved to Copenhagen, Denmark, 1962; returned to the United States, 1977; signed a recording contract with Columbia Records, 1977; starred in film Round Midnight, 1986.
Awards: Musician of the Year. Down Real magazine readers poll, 1980; inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame. 1980.
In 1939, Gordon skipped school to hear the Count Basie Orchestra featuring his saxophone hero, Lester Young. Years later, in the book West Coast Jazz, Gordon recalled how the Basie Orchestra, “opened with ‘Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie, and Lester came out soloing—and he was just fantastic. I really loved the man. He was melodic, rhythmic, had that bittersweet approach…. It felt so good to hear him play.” Gordon’s father died of a heart attack in 1940, and Dexter quit school to play in a local band known as the Harlem Collegians. That same year, he joined Lionel Hampton’s band which included saxophonists Illinois Jacquet and Marshall Royal, the latter of whom furthered Gordon’s musical education. In the liner notes to Dexter Gordon Settin’ the Pace, Gordon recalled his joining Hampton’s band at the age of 17, “We went right on the road without any rehearsal, cold. I was expecting to be sent home every night.” Gordon was often late for performances, a habit Hampton often tolerated because the saxophonist’s musicianship and showmanship was a vital asset to his ensemble. As Hampton recalled in his autobiography, Hamp, “One time at the Paradise [Theatre] in Detroit, [Gordon] still wasn’t there when we started, and were doing a number that he was supposed to solo on. Just as we got to his solo, he walked out of the wings blowing his horn. The crowd went wild.…I couldn’t even be angry with him, because you couldn’t believe the effect he had on that audience.”
Immersing himself in swing music, Gordon was soon exposed to modern jazz. While in New York City with Hampton’s band in 1941, Gordon heard Charlie Parker at the Savoy and visited Monroe’s Uptown House, a Harlem after-hours spot that became one of the primary birthplaces of bebop. When he left Hampton’s band Gordon returned to Los Angeles, where he recorded with pianist sideman Nat “King” Cole in 1943, and performed at the Club Alabam, one of Central Avenue’s most popular venues. Because the Alabam generally relegated musicians to backing stage acts, Gordon and his bassist friend Charles Mingus attended after-hours jam sessions. In 1943, Gordon joined the Lee Young sextet, which included Mingus. After Gordon worked with Fletcher Henderson’s band in April and May of 1944, he was invited to join the band of Louis Armstrong. Although he became friends with Armstrong and retained respect for his musicianship, Gordon found little inspiration in the band’s dated material.
In late 1944, Gordon left Armstrong’s employ for Billy Eckstine’s big band, which included Dizzy Gillespie. During his stint with the Eckstine band, Gordon performed in an all-star reed section - dubbed the “Unholy Four” - comprised of the four saxophones of Gordon, Sonny Stitt, John Jackson, and Leo Parker. Along with featured saxophonist Gene Ammons, Gordon took part in legendary performances. Famous for their onstage saxophone battles, Gordon and Ammons can be heard On Eckstine’s “Blow My Blues Away,” with the bandleader calling out twice in the number, “Blow Mr. Gene, and blow Mr. Dexter too.”
In early 1945, Gordon took part in a New York City recording session led by Dizzy Gillespie. This session produced the Guild label recording Blue n’ Boogie, and an unreleased version of “Groovin’ High.” Gordon also played 52nd Street with a band consisting of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, and Max Roach. At the same time Gordon, caught up in the New York jazz scene, also began using heroin. In Mike Hennessey’s book Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke, Gordon recounted, “I started using it [heroin] around 1945 when just about all the big names were. But it was the most terrible mistake I ever made in my life.” Along with his drug habit, Gordon also filled the jazz hipster image by dressing in the latest style. As Miles Davis recounted in his memoir Miles, “Dexter used to be super hip and dapper, with those big-shoulder suits everybody was wearing in those days…I always respected Dexter because I thought he was super hip -one of the hippest and cleanest young cats on the whole music scene back then.”
Beginning in October of 1945, Gordon recorded several sessions for the Savoy label. As Ted Gioia pointed out in the book West Coast Jazz, Gordon’s first recordings “are still very much in a Lester Young vein, and his lead sides for Savoy in October 1945, reveal an undeniable streak of modern traditionalism.” In January of 1946 Gordon recorded with young bebop innovators, pianist Bud Powell and drummer Max Roach. This Savoy session, asserted Gioia in West Coast Jazz, “was a major step forward” in Gordon’s stylistic development. On these sides, added Gioia, “all the disparate elements of Gordon’s work begin to come together in a distinctive way: the repeated figures reminiscent of Illinois Jacquet; the harmonic darings of the beboppers; the lyricism of Lester Young; the force-fulness gleaned from [Coleman] Hawkins; From now on these separate currents would flow together into a style reflecting the individuality of Dexter Gordon.”
Gordon returned to Los Angeles in 1946. With his wide brimmed hat and zoot suits, Gordon became an idol to younger players, including Art Pepper and Stan Getz. Gordon attended jam sessions at venues like Jack’s Basket, where he engaged in furious tenor saxophone battles with Wardell Gray and Teddy Edwards. The Basket’s crowded saxophone contests usually ended with Gordon and Gray as the victors. In June of 1947 Gordon and Gray recorded a tenor-battle, “The Chase,” a commercially successful recording for Ross Russell’s newly established Dial label. The success of “The Chase” prompted the recording of another legendary Gordon-Gray saxophone battle, “The Hunt.” Vital to the 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene, Gordon, as Gioia stressed in West Coast Jazz, “developed one of the first great modern sax styles, and—perhaps even more remarkably—did so by borrowing modestly from Parker and Gillespie. Instead, Dexter created a new approach to the tenor, a persuasive and immediately recognizable sound all his own.”
Around 1948, Gordon became a member of pianist Tadd Dameron’s band, which played a nine-month engagement at the Royal Roost. In 1949, he joined bassist Oscar Pettiford’s band which included Miles Davis, Bud Powell, and drummer Kenny Clarke. Gordon returned to California in 1949 and, during the following year, was reunited with Wardell Gary. The two saxophonists recorded for the Prestige and Decca labels, which released their 1952 concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium as the album The Chase and Steeplechase. That same year, Gordon’s career took a downturn with his arrest for heroin possession. He subsequently spent two years at California’s Chino Prison. During the 1950s, Gordon also served time in prisons in Fort Worth, Texas, and Lexington, Kentucky, and finally in Folsom Prison. Although he made only three recordings between 1952 and 1960, Thomas Owens noted in Bebop: The Music and Its Players, that Gordon’s albums “announced clearly that he severed his ties with the swing era,” and marked “the beginning of his mature style.”
Following Gordon’s release from prison, he recorded the 1960 album, The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon, produced by alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Between 1961 and 1965, he recorded seven albums for Blue Note - Go!, A Swingin’ Affair, Doin’ Alright, Dexter Calling, Our Man in Paris, One Flight Up, and Gettirì Around -releases that, as Gary Giddins described in the book Visions of Jazz, “represented the apogee of his art…. Splendidly conceived and recorded, they are insuperable examples of the streamlined elegance of which jazz quartets and quintets are capable.” Gordon spent these years experimenting with a hard bop sound and incorporating elements of John Coltrane’s saxophone style into his music. “But Gordon never confined his borrowings to any one role model,” observed Thomas Owens in Bebop; “he took what he liked from various places, adding new elements to whatever was already in place, and ingeniously preserving his musical identity with great clarity.”
Gordon traveled to London in 1962 and, during that same year, arrived in Copenhagen where he lived until his return to United States in the 1970s. “I didn’t intend on staying, it just happened,” recounted Gordon in Riding on a Blue Note. “I was working and having a ball in this new environment. Before I realized it, a couple of years went by and I was considered an expatriate.” Describing Gordon’s life abroad, Dan Mor-ganstern wrote in the liner notes to Dexter Gordon: Settin’ the Pace, “Copenhagen became his home base, and unlike many expatriates he thrived and grew as a player abroad…. He became one of Copenhagen’s most popular adopted sons, raising a family, learning some Danish (he had a gift for languages), teaching jazz in schools, appearing on TV, picking up flute and also adding soprano saxophone to roster of instruments, and cutting a familiar figure riding a bicycle through the streets of the friendly Danish capital.”
While in Paris in May of 1963, Gordon recorded the Blue Note album Our Man in Paris with pianist Bud Powell, bassist Pierre Michelot, and drummer Kenny Clarke. In his book Bebop, Thomas Owens commented that Gordon’s “best solos” on the recording “are in ‘Scrapple From the Apple,’ ‘A Night in Tunisia,’ and in the ballads ‘Stairway to the Stars’ and’Willow, Weep For Me.’ Gordon’s rhythmic brinkmanship stands out in the latter piece; how can he lag behind so much and still play with the rhythm section?” In the liner notes to Our Man in Paris, Gordon commented on his continuing musical development, “I’m much more lucid and have a stronger sense of equilibrium. My musical conception is surer. I know where I’m going now.”
While living in Copenhagen, Gordon often played American concert dates and music festivals. For the most part, however, his musical activities were concentrated in Europe. In an interview in Down Beat, Gordon related how life in Copenhagen “has been very good because my whole lifestyle is much calmer, much more relaxed. I can devote more time to music, and I think it is beginning to show. It’s not an everyday scuffle, and I’m able to concentrate more on studying.” His appearance at Copenhagen’s Montmartre Jazzhus was captured on the 1967 Blue Note release, Sonny-moon for Two. Gordon earned his first number one ranking on Down Beat’s Critics Poll in 1971, and began a four-year recording stint with the Prestige label. In 1972, Gordon recorded the Prestige album Ca’Purange with brothers Thad and Hank Jones, Stanley Clarke and Louis Hayes.
Gordon’s return to the United States in 1976 began with a well-received performance at New York City’s Storeyville Club. Several weeks later, he signed a contract with Columbia Records and was booked to play several weeks at the famous Village Vanguard. After attending one of Gordon’s performances at the Vanguard in October of 1976, Whitney Baillett wrote in the book Night Creature, “Every handclap was a genuflection…. He [Gordon] locks together giant cubes of sound in his solos, piling one on another…. He builds these edifices in a determined, almost harsh fashion, rarely missing a note, and finishes each phrase so that it has a clear, sharp edge.” Prompted by a major recording contract and critical acclaim for his performances, Gordon remained in America in 1977. That same year his first Columbia recording, the double album Homecoming, showcased a masterfully modern sound. Gordon’s Columbia producer, Michael Cas-cuna, asserted in the liner notes to Homecoming, “Of all the people of his generation, Dexter has stayed the youngest. He is the most modern player to have come out of that period…. He is still learning and still growing.”
In 1980, Gordon was named Musician of the Year by Down Beat magazine’s readers poll, and named to the Jazz Hall of Fame. Despite his declining health, Gordon spent the mid 1980s recording and venturing into film acting. During the 1950s, Gordon appeared in several films and stage productions including the 1955 motion picture Unchained and Jack Gelber’s successful play, The Connection. He appeared in Bernard Taverniere 1985 film Round Midnight, which was released in 1986. Dedicated to Gordon’s saxophone hero Lester Young and his friend Bud Powell, the film resulted from discussions between Tavernier and Francis Puadras, a Parisian commercial artist and author of Dance of the Infidels: A Portrait of Bud Powell. Largely based upon Powell’s expatriate life with Puadras during the 1960s, the film portrays Dale Turner, an ailing saxophonist played by Gordon, who befriends a Parisian jazz aficionado who becomes his honorary guardian. In the scenes shot at the Blue Note club, where Gordon had often played in the 1960s, Gordon is joined by such musicians as Herbie Hancock (who scored the film’s music), Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams, and John McLaughlin. Gordon’s moving portrayal of a dying jazzman earned him an Academy Award nomination.
Four years after his performance in Round Midnight, Gordon died of kidney failure on April 25, 1990, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Several years before his death, Gordon stated in Down Beat that “jazz is such a living thing. It will never die, because it can use things from everywhere, from all kinds of music… .“A leading saxophonist during the 1940s and 1950s, Gordon spent the last decades of his life expanding his sound, taking up the soprano saxophone, and adding modern compositions to his repertoire. With the 1999 release of Gordon’s early Savoy sides and the 1997 complete Blue Note box set, his music began embracing a new generation of listeners.
“Blowin’ My Blues Away,” Billy Eckstine, Deluxe, 1944.
“Blue ‘n Boogie,” Dizzy Gillespie, Guild, 1945.
The Wardell Gray Memorial Album, Prestige.
Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon: The Chase and the Steeplechase, MCA Jazz.
Dexter with Wardell Gray, Giants of Jazz, 1999.
Dexter Gordon: Settin’ the Pace, Savoy, (reissued material from 1945–1947), 1998.
Dexter Rides Again, Savoy, 1947.
The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon, Jazzland 1960, (reissued) Original Jazz Classics.
Dexter Calling, Blue Note, 1961.
Doin’ Alright, Blue Note, 1961.
Go! Blue Note, 1962.
A Swingin’ Affair, Blue Note, 1962.
Our Man in Paris, Blue Note, 1963.
One Flight Up, Blue Note, 1964.
Gettin’ Around, Blue Note, 1965.
Ca’Purange, Prestige, recorded 1972.
Homecoming, Columbia, 1977.
Sophisticated Giant, Columbia, 1977.
Gotham City, Columbia, 1980.
The Best of Dexter Gordon, Columbia, 1980.
The Other Side of Round Midnight, Blue Note, 1986.
Live at the Monmartre Jazzhus, Black Lion [box set], 1996.
The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions, Blue Note [six CD box set], 1997.
Live at Carnegie Hall, Legacy Records, 1998.
60 Years 1939–1999, Blue Note [box set], 1998.
Central Avenue Sounds, Jazz in Los Angeles 1927–1956, Rhino, 1999.
Baillett, Whitney, Night Creature: A Journal of Jazz, 1975–1980, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Central Avenue Sound: Jazz in Los Angeles, ed. by Clora Bryant et al., University of California Press, 1998.
Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Giddins, Gary. Riding on a Blue Note, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Giddins, Gary, Visions of Jazz: The First Century, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Gioia, Ted, West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz In California 1945–1960, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Hampton, Lionel, with James Haskins, Hamp: An Autobiography of Lionet Hampton, Warner Books, 1989.
Hennessey, Mike, Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990.
Owens, Thomas, Bebop, The Music and Its Players, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Priestly, Brian, Mingus: A Critical Biography, Da Capo, 1982.
Down Beat, June 22, 1972.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from the liner notes by Dan Morganstern to Dexter Gordon: Settin’ the Pace, Savoy, 1998; the liner notes by Nat Hentoff to Our Man in Paris, Blue Note, 1963; and the liner notes by Robert Palmer to Homecoming, Columbia, 1977.
Dexter Gordon—or “Long Tall Dex,” as the six-foot, five-inch jazz saxophonist was often called—was one of the primary innovators of bebop jazz and a perennial favorite of audiences and music critics. His father an avid fan of the idiom, he was exposed to jazz from the time he was an infant. When Gordon was about seven years old, his family attended a concert by pianist Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Years later he described it vividly to Rolling Stone writer Neil Tesser: ’The house lights came down, and everything was dark, and all of a sudden there was this pale-blue light shining on some kind of blue-turquoise translucent screen, and behind the screen was the Duke Ellington band ... beautiful. They were playing the theme song, ‘East St. Louis Toodle-oo.’ And boy, it was magic. I never got over that.”
Gordon’s family encouraged his enthusiasm. He began studying clarinet at the age of 13 and moved on to alto sax two years later. He spent his allowance on recordings by tenor sax master Lester Young. “Lester .. .played very melodic,” Gordon commented to Down Beat interviewer Chuck Berg. “Everything he played you could sing. He was always telling a story and Bird [saxophonist Charlie Parker] did the same thing. That kind of musical philosophy is what I try to do.”
After studying Young’s style and sound, Gordon fell in love with the robust voice of the tenor sax and adopted the instrument as his own when he was 17—the same year he hit the road as a member of vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s band. He stayed with Hampton for roughly two years before jumping to pianist Fletcher Henderson’s outfit very briefly and then moving on to trumpeter Louis Armstrong’s ensemble. While he admired Armstrong’s sound, he chafed at the band’s conservative approach to music. “Everything was just blah,” he told Ira Gitler, author of Jazz Masters of the Forties. “You played a job, and that was the whole thing.” Within six months he had become a member of singer Billy Eckstine’s group. There he was more comfortable, playing alongside other legends-to-be like Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The difference was “like night and day,” Gordon told Gitler, “because there was nothing but happenings, excitement, and enthusiasm in Eckstine’s band.”
On their journey toward what would become known as bebop, Eckstine’s sidemen broke musical ground daily in their casual jam sessions. By 1945, many of them felt they had outgrown the confines of the big-band sound
For the Record…
Born Dexter Keith Gordon, February 27, 1923, in Los Angeles, CA; died of cancer and kidney failure, April 25, 1990, in Philadelphia, PA; son of a physician; second wife named Fenja; married third wife, Maxine (a jazz promoter), 1982; children: (first marriage) Dee Dee, Robin; (second marriage) Benjamin; (third marriage) Woody (stepson).
Played clarinet, alto saxophone, and tenor saxophone as a teenager; saxophonist with Lionel Hampton, beginning in 1940, with Fletcher Henderson, Lester Young, and Louis Armstrong, early 1940s, and with Billy Eckstine, 1944-45; leader of the Three Deuces, New York City, 1946; soloist and session player in New York City and Los Angeles, late 1940s to early 1960s; contributed to studio sessions and performed at Montmartre Jazzhaus, Copenhagen, Denmark, and at clubs and jazz festivals in Europe and U.S., 1962-83, 1987. Appeared in films Unchained, 1955, ’Round Midnight, 1986, and Awakenings, 1990; appeared in and wrote score for play, The Connection, 1960 (score also used in 1962 film).
Awards: Four Grammy Award nominations; inducted into Jazz Hall of Fame; nominated for Academy Award for best actor, 1987, for ’Round Midnight.
and had gravitated to New York City’s Harlem, where a new style of jazz was taking shape. Gordon was among them. The fast pace, adventurous chords, complex harmonies, and extended improvisations the young players were producing constituted a true musical revolution—one that met with considerable resistance, even hostility, from their elders. Gordon and his peers had no idea how drastically they were changing the course of jazz, “but,” he told Rolling Stone’s Tesser, “we knew we were doing something different—something hip, something fly, something wild.”
Throughout the late 1940s and early ’50s, Gordon toured and recorded with most of the notable musicians of the day and cut classic records such as Dexter’s Deck, Dexter Rides Again, and Long Tall Dexter. His sound was distinguished by “tonal authority at any tempo—from romantic ballad to soulful swagger to ferocious romp—and melodic lines all sinew and muscle,” according to Down Beat’s Art Lange. “His gruff tone and aristocratic demeanor came from Cole-man Hawkins, his rhythmic insouciance from Lester Young, his harmonic license from Charlie Parker. But the blend came out original Dexter, with a wry, dry wit manifested in a penchant for incorporating the most incongruous of quotes into the fabric of his solos.”
But musical revolution wasn’t the only thing happening in Harlem; heroin was a major element of the bop subculture and Gordon, like many of his friends, became addicted. In the mid-1950s he landed in Chino, an experimental minimum-security prison in Los Angeles. It was there that he had his first brush with acting, which would become a second career, when he appeared in the film Unchained, an examination of the minimum-security system. Gordon’s incarceration lasted only a few months, and soon after his release he was back on heroin. Ultimately, a decade of addiction began to interfere with his music. “I had to shoot up before I played, and it got in the way of my jobs,” he told People magazine contributor David Hutchings. “I didn’t get fired but I didn’t get hired either. People didn’t know when or if I’d show up.”
In 1960, with his musical career at a low point, Gordon became involved with Jack Gelber’s play The Connection, which explored heroin addiction. He had a substantial speaking part, and he also wrote and performed the score. That experience restored much of his eroded confidence and led to his first record in many years, The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon, which in turn resulted in a contract with Blue Note Records. Blue Note was in New York, so Gordon returned to the East Coast in 1960.
Finally free of his heroin addiction, the shadows of his past nonetheless haunted him; the New York City police department refused to issue him a cabaret card, necessary to perform in nightclubs. Without it, little work was available. Gordon also found the mood in New York greatly changed and little to his liking. “Cats here are bored,” he told Jazz Masters author Gitler at the time. “Everyone is on an introverted, oddball type thing. .. . There’s no enthusiasm, no fire.”
When Gordon was offered a few weeks’ work in Europe in 1962, he gladly left the country. The weeks stretched into 14 years. In Europe, “there was no racial discrimination or anything like that,” Gordon told Downbeat’s Berg. “And the fact that you’re an artist in Europe means something. They treat you with a lot of respect. In America, you know, they say, ‘Do you make any money?’ If you’re in the dollars, you’re okay, you’re alright. But over there, it’s an entirely different mentality.”
Gordon may well have remained abroad indefinitely if not for the efforts of a jazz promoter who would eventually become his third wife. In 1976 she persuaded him to tour the United States. It was “one of the events of 1976,” wrote Berg. “[Standing-room-only] crowds greeted him with thunderous applause. . . . Music biz insiders packed an RCA studio control room to savor each passage as Dex and a cast of all-stars set down tracks. ... Long lines of fans snaked up the stairs of Max Gordon’s Village Vanguard waiting their chance to share Dexter’s musical magic. Their reaction to the master saxophonist’s New York stop-over was nothing short of phenomenal.” The response convinced Gordon that the time had come to return to his native country.
The saxophonist’s triumphant reign of the jazz circuit continued throughout the late 1970s and early ’80s, but in 1983, he made what he expected to be his final appearance. Though he was just 60 years old, fast living had exacted a heavy toll on his health. For three years Gordon lived quietly with his wife and stepson, but his career was not yet over. In 1986, French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier asked the musician to star in ’Round Midnight, a film he was making about a down-and-out jazz musician living in Paris.
The fictional story was based on the lives of jazz luminaries Lester Young, Bud Powell, and Gordon himself. Tavernier told Berg that when he first met Gordon, he “had the impression he was going to fall down and die on the spot,” but despite his fragile health, Gordon turned in a masterful portrayal of his character, Dale Turner; he was even nominated for an Academy Award. In 1987 he and the other musicians from the cast of ’Round Midnight did a short tour, performing the music they’d created for the film. It was a fitting finale to a long, arduous road of far-flung concert and club dates. Gordon performed occasionally after 1987 and played a small part in the film Awakenings, but he did not live to see the release of that film; a combination of cancer and kidney failure took his life in April of 1990.
Go, Blue Note, 1961.
Doin’Alright, Blue Note, 1961.
Our Man in Paris, Blue Note, 1962.
Blues à la Suisse, Prestige, 1973.
Stablemable, Inner City, 1976.
Homecoming, Columbia, 1977.
Manhattan Symphonie, Columbia, 1978.
Lullaby for a Monster, Steeplechase, 1981.
The Shadow of Your Smile, Steeplechase, 1986.
At Montreaux, Prestige, 1986.
Night at the Keystone, Blue Note, 1986.
’Round Midnight (soundtrack), Columbia, 1986.
The Other Side of ’Round Midnight (soundtrack), Blue Note, 1987.
American Classic, Discovery, 1993.
Long Tall Dexter, Savoy.
Dexter Rides Again.
The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon.
Claghorn, Charles Eugene, Biographical Dictionary of Jazz, Prentice-Hall, 1982.
Giddins, Gary, Riding on a Blue Note, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Gitler, Ira, Jazz Masters of the Forties, Macmillan, 1966.
Ullman, Michael, Jazz Lives, New Republic Books, 1980.
Box Office, December 1986; January 1987.
Down Beat, September 1983; November 1983; March 1984;October 1985; January 1986; July 1986; December 1986;January 1987; April 1987; May 1987; September 1989; July 1990; August 1991.
Newsday, October 3, 1986.
Newsweek, October 3, 1986.
New York Times, February 2, 1986; September 30, 1986.
People, October 13, 1986; November 24, 1986.
Rolling Stone, November 6, 1986; December 4, 1986; June 14, 1990; January 10, 1991.
Stereo Review, April 1986; January 1987.
Time, October 6, 1986.
Washington Post, November 30, 1986.
Washington Post Magazine, November 16, 1986.