Maxine Gordon: The Legacy of Dexter Gordon
AAJ: Let's talk about you. Your credentials are very impressive: managing some top musicians, and a considerable amount of scholarly and research work in jazz and African American cultural history. You're serving as a senior interviewer and jazz researcher at Fordham University. You're a doctoral candidate at NYU, specializing in the African Diaspora.
MG: Right now, my primary focus is on completing Dexter's biography. Soon I have to go to Washington, DC to access the documents I donated to the Library of Congressthey think it's humorous that I have to do that; but the good part is that they have a finding aid so that if I have to look up, say, all of Dexter's contracts from the 1970s that document his itinerary when he came back to the States, they can pull that box out and bring me the papers. I have so many documents to go through, but I'm not Robin Kelley for God's sake!
AAJ: His research on Thelonious Monk was exhaustive and took fourteen years.
MG: Because of my research involvement, I've started going to conferences and giving talks, which is actually very helpful to my work. For example, I go to Istanbul, and they say, "Could you give a talk on jazz musicians in Europe in the 1960s, the so-called 'expatriate' period?" By the way, Dexter didn't like that term. One time James Baldwin got a hold of him and said, "Hey, Dex, a newspaper article referred to us as expatriates. I thought we were just living in Europe." Dex said to me, "I'm not ex-anything. Red Mitchell left the U.S. on account of the Vietnam War. He spoke up against U.S. policy, and went to Sweden. But for me, I had a gig in Europe, and before I looked up, it was fourteen years later. It wasn't political."
AAJ: Wasn't Dexter disillusioned with U.S. policy and attitudes towards black musicians?
MG: Of course he was. He was a member of the Black Panther Party in Copenhagen. He was active in his own way. He read the European Herald Tribune. When musicians would come over, he would ask them what's happening in the U.S. But for him it was about living the life of a jazz musician. He didn't feel he could do that in the U.S. at that time. He totally identified as a jazz musician. He liked the word jazz and thought it an honor. He was grateful that he could grow up and live that life and be around those people.
Researching the Jazz Scene in Harlem and the Bronx
AAJ: The cultural and geographical setting in which music takes place is interesting. For example, there were early developments in bebop taking place at Minton's in Harlem in the late 1930s and early 1940s. There were Dizzy and Monk. And in Harlem, guys would congregate at their apartments around the music. You've researched these developments in Harlem, as well as jazz specifically in the Bronx, NY.
MG: The research I did on Minton's tells us a lot. How Mary Lou Williams was so helpful to these guys in the development of bebop. Minton's happened to be the dining room of the Cecil Hotel. Mr. Minton was the first black delegate at Musician's Local 802. He installed a bar in the dining room. But downstairs, there was an afterhours club with a piano in it.
AAJ: That's where Monk and Dizzy often hung out.
MG: In Mary Lou Williams' archives, we found sheet music where, for instance, Charlie Christian would write out a tune.
AAJ: This would be in the late 1930s?
MG: Right, and Charlie Christian played an important role in bebop. What we have is a lead sheet where he wrote out the melody, and then in green ink, Mary Lou wrote out the chord changes in the bebop manner. She kept a diary in which she describes the people at Minton's. All this tells us how bebop developed much earlier than when it came to 52nd Street after World War II. Those iconic photos of Dizzy and Charlie Parker and the others playing on 52nd Street came quite a bit later.
So I did that research on Harlem, but then I was approached by Fordham University when they began their Bronx African American History Project with Mark Naison as the director. When they started interviewing the locals, people kept talking about jazz in the Bronx, and they needed someone to document that aspect of the history, and they offered me the job. We've accumulated hundreds of interviews with people in the Bronx, in the Morrisania section, where some people from Harlem had moved, only two subway stops away. And there was a lot of jazz there. There was Club 845. Dexter played in the Bronx. Sonny Rollins told me that he first heard Dexter in the Bronx. Musicians lived up there, trumpeter Oliver Beener, tenor saxophonist Harold Floyd Tina Brooks, they were local heroes in the Bronx. Some of them didn't have the biggest names, but they were great. Lots of music at clubs like Kenny's, Freddie's. The great saxophonist Lou Donaldson knows a lot about the Bronx, because he played at all those clubs.
AAJ: He still lives in the Bronx.
MG: Vocalist Maxine Sullivan performed in the Bronx, and we've studied her experiences there. She married the stride pianist Cliff Jackson. She ran an after school program called "The House that Jazz Built." She played a significant role in the social history of the Bronx. She was born in the Pittsburgh area, in Homestead, where the steel mills were, where Andrew Carnegie looked down on the workers in the steel mills from his mansion on the hill. They had a tribute to her in the Homestead library where they have a mini-Carnegie Hall. I was invited to talk about her and how important she is to the history of the Bronx. I met all her relatives, these women in the front row all dressed up, including her daughter Paula. I asked a lady next to me, "Where are all the men?" She said, "Oh, they're all dead because they worked in the steel mills [many died of asbestos-related pulmonary conditions]."
Getting back to my interviews in the Bronx, I started out with the older people, for the obvious reason that they might not be here long, and they always say, "What took you so long to get here?" When you study black history, as they do for example at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem is there, but the Bronx is not. Now, however, a lot of the research is being done by the Bronx County Historical Society.
AAJ: The history of the black neighborhoods in the big cities throughout the country is an important story that hasn't been fully documented. Clifford Brown's family lived in a neighborhood of black professionals and teachers in Wilmington. Dexter grew up in L.A., the son of a doctor. Anthony Branker came from a town in Northern New Jersey, the son of a devoted family. John Coltrane, Bennie Golson, and many others came of age in North Philadelphia. What black people accomplished in these neighborhoods and their spirituality and dignity despite segregation and other aspects of racism is extraordinary. And the sense of community was amazing.
MG: Think about Detroit, as well. It's a remarkable story.