Maxine Gordon: The Legacy of Dexter Gordon
AAJ: Let's talk about your memories of Dexter and his world. We know that he had his drug addictions at times, and he was also a victim of segregation and racism at various junctures of his life. Yet, he wasn't embittered by these experiences. Rather, he seems to have been a magnificent individual, generous and kind. Of course, he performed with many of the jazz greats. And for a long time, you were very close to him, traveled with him.
MG: Yes, I did. But at a certain point I really started spending 24 hours a day with him, what he called "the test of a real marriage." What happened was that we closed the office after some great successes with Woody Shaw, brought Johnny Griffin back from Europe for the 1978 concert in Carnegie Hall [Dexter Gordon: Live at Carnegie Hall (Columbia Legacy, 1979)]. Actually, Dexter did a prior concert there on September 23, 1977. It was produced by Max Gordon. It was sold out and then Max produced the second one in 1978.
By that time, we had what we called our "bebop empire." But then in 1983, when Dexter was 60, he said, "OK, enough. I need a break from all this traveling and career. I want to read some books! I need a break." So we closed the office on 35th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues. He said, "I want to have a normal life, spend time with you and Woody III [Gordon's stepson .]" People in the jazz business have no idea what a normal life is: breakfast, lunch, and dinner; walking your kid to school, and so on. In reality, having a family life is a really hard job. But he wanted to try it. One day someone said to me, "Oh, you don't work!" And Dexter shot back, "Don't you ever say that to her!" When Woody III was little, I was working. This kid was raised in the kitchen of the Village Vanguard. He loved drummer Victor Lewis, and they're close to this day. Back then, as a little kid, Woody would walk over to Victor Lewis, lie down, and go to sleep right next to the drums. Woody eventually became a drummer himself, although today he's primarily an administrator and producer.
Anyhow, Dexter and I took this break from work, and in the winter we would go to Cuernavaca, Mexico. We had a house there, and we would go there right after New Years, and come back in time for the baseball season. Dexter was a big baseball fan.
AAJ: What was his favorite baseball team?
MG: He was a Mets fan. We'd go to Cuernavaca, pack up a duffle bag full of books and go. Once there, we had a lot of time to reflect on Dexter's life, what he had done, what he wanted to do. Dexter was an introvert, a quiet guy. He liked to read, watch baseball. He did a lot of socializing, but it didn't come naturally, and he considered it acting. When they offered him the acting job for Round Midnight, he said, "I've been acting all my life, so this is nothing new" [Gordon had actually done some acting work as a young man in Los Angeles].
AAJ: When and how did Dexter get the offer to do that film?
MG: It's almost a "Rashomon" type of story with different versions. Michael Cuscuna, Bruce Lundvall, and Bernard Tavernier [Director of Round Midnight] all remember it different ways. I'm going to L.A. in March and I want to get the producer Irwin Winkler's version of it. My own recollection is that we got the call from Bruce Lundvall, and Bruce told Dexter, "There's this guy who wants to make a movie about a jazz musician, and he wants to meet you." Dexter was skeptical, and said to Bruce, "Don't get too excited, because somebody always wants to make a movie about a jazz musician. It never works out." But Bruce insisted, and he sent a car to pick us up. We went to the Hotel Pierre to meet Irwin Winkler. Well, when he and Bernard Tavernier met Dexter, they said, "Oh my God, this guy is perfect!" But he had to do a screen test, and Warner Brothers had to OK it. Clint Eastwood was very helpful in getting Warner to budget for someone who'd never made a movie before to be in the lead role.
AAJ: As it turned out the movie was a big winner.
MG: Big success, big success.
AAJ: Clint Eastwood has done so much for jazz. He loves the music.
MG: He's great. I ran into him last fall at Sonny Rollins' concert in Monterey, and he was completely riveted by Sonny's playing, like everybody else there. The whole audience was completely transfixed.
AAJ: Since we're talking about Sonny Rollins, what contact, if any, did Dexter have with him, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, George Coleman, and other saxophone icons who broke new ground like he did, but maybe in a different context?
MG: He listened to many of them. He loved Sonny, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson. By the time Dexter came back to the U.S., Coltrane was gone, but he did hear him at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen with the John Coltrane Quartet. The story goes that Dexter gave Trane a mouthpiece that would help him project more. He was a big fan of Wayne Shorter, who was in Round Midnight. But I don't believe he performed with them. The only one he played with in that category was Johnny Griffin. Griffin came out of the Chicago scene, like Gene Ammons, who was Dexter's favorite tenor player. Gene and Dexter were in Billy Eckstine's band together.
Griffin was living in Europe when Dexter was there, so they would often do gigs together. He also did gigs with Ben Webster, whom he appreciated, and who lived in Copenhagen like Dexter. And he would go hear Ben often. In addition to being a player, Dexter was a big jazz fan. He used to say, "I'm a very lucky guy, because I'm a jazz fan, and grew up to be able to play jazz." He loved Lester Young, and often would go to hear him.
AAJ: Dexter is widely considered the successor to Lester Young.
MG: He said when he was a kid he would stand in front of a mirror and try to pretend he was Lester.
AAJ: Did he ever perform with Lester?
MG: No, but he met him, and they talked. Lester told Dexter how he liked the way he sounded, which thrilled Dexter. He was very close to Dizzy Gillespie. In 1988, they had a gig together on a cruise ship, the SS Norway, which is actually Dexter's last recorded performance. Clark Terry was there as well, and he was playing "Stardust," which Dexter never played, and he said, "C'mon Dexter, join in." Dexter declined, and Clark provoked him, saying, "Oh! Everyone says you can't play anymore." That made Dexter get his horn and play "Stardust!"
On that ship, there were Dizzy, Milt Hinton, and others. Every night Dizzy and Dexter would have dinner together. Dexter died in 1990, and we talked about that trip until his last day. He and Dizzy would get into talking about the Billy Eckstine band as if it was just yesterday. The Eckstine band was 1945, and this was 1988, over forty years later, and they were talking in the present tense. Dexter asked Diz, "Why did Lucky [saxophonist Lucky Thompson] leave the band? And they'd talk about Art Blakey, Fats Navarro, Leo Parker. It was great. These musicians were so smart, so fabulous, so interesting. I'm a lucky girl to have been there with them.
AAJ: And you have also contributed so much to their efforts as well. As we're talking, it's fascinating to hear how much you are into the music and the musicians. It isn't just a business for you.
MG: No, it's never been just a business. I'm a jazz fan who got lucky to make a career around the musicians. But I don't want to overstate my contributions. I really just tried to do what the musicians wanted. Dexter knew exactly what he wanted to do, and it wasn't difficult for me to organize around it. And I had the best people working for me. For example, Hattie Gossett, the famous African American poet and writer, ran my office. I also learned a lot from Jack Whittemore, who was the best booking agent in the business. He had Ahmad Jamal, Stan Getz, Art Blakey, and Horace Silver on his list. He had been with Shaw Artists, and then he formed his own agency. When Dexter came back, I asked Jack to book for him, and, like Max Gordon, he initially refused, but said he would teach me to do it. He had me over to his office to show me the ropes. He was an old-fashioned Broadway guy who for some reason loved orchids. It was great fun to hang out with him, and when people like Blakey were around, it was terrific to be there.
AAJ: Didn't you say you were a big Art Blakey fan?
MG: I'm an honorary Jazz Messenger. I heard Art Blakey when I was fifteen years old, in 1957. I knew him from then on. One time, much later on, he called and said he was coming over to see me and Dexter. I got excited, went shopping, cooked a big meal, and Dexter interrupted me and pointed out, "He didn't say he was coming today!" I said, "Well, what if he does?" And of course, he didn't. He and Art had a big laugh over it when about a year later, the concierge in our building rang us up and said, "Art Blakey's here!" So he came up, and said, "I told you I was coming over!" And then he said to Dexter, "You might have married Maxine, but we raised her." I didn't know until then that he even noticed me way back when! It was thrilling to hear him say that.
AAJ: One of the most exciting musical experiences in the 1950s was to hear Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at one of their frequent Birdland gigs.
MG: With Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter?
MG: That was an incredible band. You never forgot that, right? Even today, when I see Donald Harrison or Benny Green or any of those guys that played with Blakey, they still identify themselves with the Jazz Messengers. They've always kept that connection.
AAJ: Many players felt Blakey was the master mentor. He was a remarkable influence and developer of the musicians. Speaking of bands like the Jazz Messengers, I wonder whether Dexter himself ever tried to form a consistent working group. We know that he played consistently with many great musicians, but some musicians feel that leading their own group over an extended period of time is crucial to their development. Did Dexter consider that concept important?
MG: When he came back to the U.S. and he formed a band with George Cables, Rufus Reid, and Eddie Gladden, he felt he had his dream band and really felt he could develop with them. Cables said, "We have such good communication, so that by Dexter just looking at Rufus, he would know what was wanted." Dexter gave a lot of space to George and got a lot of ideas from what George was playing. Dexter finally felt he had his band.
AAJ: Cables is an amazing pianist and still very active.
MG: If anyone wants to know about Dexter, I tell them, "Call George." A guy from Montreal, a doctor, Bob Sunenblick always dreamt of having a Dexter Gordon recording on his own personal label. So he found this recording of the quartet [Dexter Gordon: Night Ballads: Montreal, 1977 (Uptown Records, 2012)], and I told George Cables, "I wanna give this guy permission to release this." When George heard it, he said, "Yeah, let's let him put it out." For the liner notes, I interviewed George and transcribed it. He talked about each tune, the band, and Dexter. Nobody is a bigger authority on Dexter than George. George spent a lot of time reflecting on how Dexter influenced him, even in the twenty years since Dexter died, and George has gone through a lothe had both a liver and kidney transplantand he's very reflective about his life and the meaning of life.
That recording is one of very few unreleased Dexter Gordon recordings we've permitted. We have a number of recordings in the Library of Congress, where you can stream them, but we're waiting for the right occasion and opportunity to release them as purchase-able recordings.