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A New Life of the Bebop Legend Dexter Gordon, Written by His Wife – The New York Times

A New Life of the Bebop Legend Dexter Gordon, Written by His Wife – The New York Times


A New Life of the Bebop Legend Dexter Gordon, Written by His Wife
Nov. 28, 2018
Dexter Gordon in 1962.Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC

Dexter Gordon in 1962.Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC
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The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon 
By Maxine Gordon 
Illustrated. 279 pp. University of California Press. $29.95.
Dexter Gordon, the lusty virtuoso of bebop saxophone probably best known now for his Oscar-nominated, starring performance in the movie “Round Midnight,” embodied no fewer than four jazz clichés. He made his reputation as the very image of the big, bold, tenor-sax man, blaring rattling solos from the depths of his 6-foot-5 frame. He seemed for years to be a stereotype of the jazz musician as self-destructive hedonist, arrested and imprisoned on narcotics charges and crimes related to drug use. He became a symbol of the black expat demimonde in mid-20th-century Europe, where musicians joined writers, painters and other African-American artists seeking refuge from maltreatment and underappreciation in their homeland. And he ended up an emblem of survival and redemption, weathered but still standing and still blowing, a veteran of a lifetime of battle with the world and himself.
That Gordon embodied those clichés because he invented or crystallized them in the public imagination is largely forgotten today, nearly 30 years after his death, at 67, in 1990, from kidney failure following treatment for cancer of the larynx. In his final years, Gordon set out to tell his own story, hoping to correct some misconceptions and complicate some simplifications about his life and music. He wrote notes and drafts of biographical vignettes in longhand on yellow legal pads, and for a time tried to collaborate with the novelist Wesley Brown, before deciding to work largely on his own with help from his wife and former manager, Maxine Gordon. When his health began to fail precipitately, he asked her to promise to complete the book if he died before finishing it. “Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon” is the fulfillment of that promise.
Although fairly short passages from Dexter Gordon’s notepads appear here and there, the book is mainly Maxine Gordon’s, and that’s to its benefit. She learned about jazz from the inside herself, working in various back-room roles for the composer Gil Evans, the organist Shirley Scott and others before she met her future husband in France in 1975. She worked with him, overseeing his much ballyhooed return to America in 1976, with chief responsibility for the ballyhoo, and she was with him, living quietly (half the time in Mexico), during his late period of reflection, retired from music. It helps, too, that she went back to school after Dexter Gordon’s death, studied oral history for a summer at Columbia and got a master’s degree in Africana studies at N.Y.U. “Sophisticated Giant” is a work of considerable sophistication, the first-person testimony of its subject employed with affectionate discipline, smartly contextualized and augmented by material from interviews Maxine Gordon conducted with the tenor saxophone masters Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Heath, the record producers Bruce Lundvall and Michael Cucsuna, and others.
Born into a line of high-achieving African-Americans, Dexter Gordon took pride in being part of what, in his notes, he called an “Uncommon Family.” His maternal grandfather, an officer in the United States Cavalry, was awarded the Medal of Honor during the Spanish-American War. His paternal grandfather, a barber who may have included dentistry among his services, was called “Professor” for his air of erudition. Dexter Gordon’s own father was a physician in Los Angeles, among the first black doctors to practice in the city. Dexter Gordon himself was precociously creative. Mentored as a teenager by the same African-American music teacher who taught Frank Morgan, Art Farmer, Marshal Royal and Don Cherry, among others, he proved to be so gifted on the tenor saxophone that he was offered a chair in the Lionel Hampton Orchestra while still in high school.

Gordon entered a world that, like many spheres of popular music in every era, was populated by scores of young artists entertaining other young people with work that spoke pointedly to their age and time. When he joined the Hampton group, at 17, Gordon began playing with Joe Newman and Ernie Royal, both nearly as young as he was. A few years later, he was honored to be hired by one of his lifelong idols, Louis Armstrong (whom he called “Pops”), but he grew restless playing the mainstream swing in the elder bandleader’s repertoire. He quit for an opportunity to join a radical group of young players in the Billy Eckstine Orchestra who were inventing a new music not yet called bebop. “Pops asked me if I wanted more money,” Gordon recalls in “Sophisticated Giant.” “I told him that wasn’t the problem. It was that we young guys wanted to play some new music.”
With Eckstine, surrounded by itchy, bursting, brilliant adventurers, all African-American and nearly all young — Gene Ammons, Leo Parker, Sonny Stitt, Sarah Vaughan, Fats Navarro — Gordon found his musical voice and broke out as a must-hear jazz phenomenon. He began to play in the style that would define him until his late years: saxophone jazz as a firestorm of melodic invention, harmonic surprise and charismatic energy.
Maxine Gordon astutely frames the fiery daring of Dexter Gordon’s generation of bebop innovators in the context of rising black consciousness and creative agency in midcentury America: “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 bands and allowing improvisations 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.”
In addition to his autobiographical jottings, Dexter Gordon was working late in his life on a treatment for a screenplay about the rise of bebop in the 1940s. For the section of “Sophisticated Giant” dealing with this period, Maxine Gordon quotes his treatment notes at some length, and they read like a summing up of his views on jazz as an art form and a way of life. The setting is the band bus for the Eckstine Orchestra. “These boys become men at 17 or 18,” Dexter Gordon wrote. “They have a mission.” He explained that mission — his purpose, as he saw it — in a series of questions and declarations. Among them: “A life that improvises music cannot run by another’s rules. This may bring problems if based on an ordinary observer’s rules for behavior in a society that does not always understand what art is, or what an artist is or why there is nothing without music.
“How has this music survived?
“The artist is not self-destructive. …
“Even after a death of one of the members, they continue to speak of him in the present tense.”
After 14 years of semi-exile, living in Copenhagen and Paris with occasional visits to the United States for recording sessions, Gordon came home for good and signed with Columbia Records, which released an acclaimed album documenting his hot-ticket return to the New York jazz scene, “Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard.” Ten years later, when Gordon was 63 and not performing much, the French director Bertrand Tavernier cast him as the lead in “Round Midnight,” a drama with music about a fictional, aging, African-American jazz saxophonist struggling with addiction who settles in Paris, returns to New York and (spoiler alert) dies. Gordon was duly praised for his subtle, knowing portrayal of an elder whose spirit survives the ravages of time and bodily abuse.
Without data, I have to assume that most people who still picture Dexter Gordon imagine the fading shadow of a once-great artist that he portrayed in “Round Midnight.” With “Sophisticated Giant,” Maxine Gordon has produced a homecoming even more dramatic, and perhaps more important, than the one she helped arrange for him in 1976: She has brought back the restive teenage fireball who wanted only to play some new music.
David Hajdu is the author, most recently, of “Love for Sale: Pop Music in America.”
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Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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