Maxine Gordon: The Legacy of Dexter Gordon
AAJ: Coming back to the present time, I'm struck that there's a lot of action happening now around Dexter and his music and life. There's your preparation of his biography, for one thing. Then, your son Woody Shaw III, recently released the boxed sets of the Columbia recordings. In 2010, you donated Dexter's archives to the Library of Congress. Why is all this happening now, over 20 years since his death?
MG: We also have reproduced Dexter's actual mouthpiece for sale by RS Berkeley's Legend Series, both tenor and soprano versions, which is noted on Dexter's website. And this year in 2012, we're initiating The Dexter Gordon Foundation, on behalf of which we have already donated money to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Essential Ellington program, which fosters school big bands. The bands come to New York to compete with each other. We sponsored a band that came from an economically challenged area in East St. Louis. We gave our donation in the name of Samuel A. Browne, who was Dexter's band director at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. Dexter felt he owed a great deal to Mr. Browne, who taught him to read music and play in a band. Dexter left high school in order to join Lionel Hampton, but he always credited Sam Browne, who also taught Hampton Hawes, Chico Hamilton, Eric Dolphy, and Melba Listonquite a list of students. So we donated money in Mr. Browne's name to help the students come to the competition.
In addition to the Foundation, we also have Dex Music LLC which handles the licensing, publishing, and so on, and which I've turned over to my son Woody Shaw III. I've had to direct my attention to Dexter's biography, and I've had to develop skills necessary for that project. I had to start documenting all the many facts, you know, that Dexter was born in L.A. in 1923; his father was one of the first African American physicians; his grandfather was a medal of honor recipient in the Spanish American War, and so on. But I didn't want to just collect facts randomly, so I went back to school to develop my research and archiving skills. Dexter specifically left me money to go back to college, because he felt I regretted not getting my degree, which wasn't true! I think he regretted not going to college himself! You know, he was very intelligent, an avid reader. But I promised him I'd return to my studies, so after he passed on, I went back to CUNY, and it was there that I met a professor who became my mentor, Dr. Cooper, who encouraged me to go to graduate school, where I became a McNair scholar. Ronald McNair was one of the astronauts killed in the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and the scholarship program named after him was set up for minority studies.
So I went to grad school, where I realized I needed to study historical methodology and research. I went to NYU in history and got a master's degree in Africana Studies, and then, in the PhD program, which I haven't completed yet. My area of study is the history of the African diaspora. The dissertation topic I'm working on is jazz-related: "Minton's Playhouse in the Early Period, 1938-1943" covering the early development of bebop. But all of this is really to prepare for the work I'm doing on Dexter's biography.
AAJ: That shows a great dedicationto put in such efforts. It reminds me of Robin Kelley's extensive preparation for his biography of Thelonious Monk.
MG: Actually, Robin was my adviser. I did the research for him on the San Juan Hill neighborhood in Manhattan where Monk came of age. But my biography of Dexter is somewhat different. I'm writing more of a cultural history, and a large part of the book is in Dexter's own words. He did a lot of writingvignettes, letters. While he was in Europe, he wrote letters to Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff at Blue Note. I have placed all those letters, his and theirs, in the Library of Congress. I became an archivist, and put together three Dexter Gordon collections in the Library of Congress: first of all, his papers. Then, in Culpeper, Virginia is the recorded soundall his CDs, tapes, and 78s. Finally, there are the letters, music manuscripts, photos, and documents. My research for Dexter's biography will utilize these collections extensively.
AAJ: What's in Culpeper?
MG: That's where they house the recorded sound of the United States. It's eight floors under the groundit's called "Cheney's Bunker" because that's where he sought safety on 9/11. It used to be the Federal Reserve, but it now houses all the recorded sound of the U.S., from the very beginning, including films, records, everything.
AAJ: A highly protected environment for those fragile documents.
MG: Yes, it's all preserved and protected. I've retained the rights to Dexter's documents. They copy everything onto digital format, and they help me to get easy access to things as I need them. For example, if I need a copy of the concert Dexter did with the New York Philharmonic in 1987-88, then the next day I get a digital copy Fedexed to me. I learned a lot working on those collections with a wonderful former student from Columbia University named Jess Pinkham.
AAJ: Do you know when your biography of Dexter will be released?
MG: I hope to complete it this year and published next year, 2013, which will be the occasion of Dexter's 90th birthday. My agent is currently talking with various publishers.