Maxine Gordon: The Legacy of Dexter Gordon
AAJ: Let's turn now to the fact that you've helped many of the musicians in a number of capacities. You're one of those figures, significant among them, women, who have supported them in their work and lives. For example, there is Sue Mingus, wife of the great Charles Mingus, who, like yourself, has supported her husband's legacy long after his passing. Art Pepper's wife, Laurie, helped him in manifold ways. Monk's wife, Nellie, for whom he named the tune "Crepuscule with Nellie," was utterly devoted to him and helped him navigate his tours in Europe. Then there was the Baroness Nica von Konigswarter, who befriended many of the musicians like Monk and Charlie Parker, took them into her home, and gave them sustenance and support in numerous situations. It's a very totalistic devotion, more than the typical spouse, friend, or relative provide. There's an amazing connection, even among jazz fans in general. What is that chemistry which leads people into such intense relationships to the musicians?
MG: What you say is very true. I was with Dizzy Gillespie when he received the Kennedy Center Award. We were walking down the hall to the dinner, and a jazz fan came up and said, "Dizzy, you've meant so much to us, we're so happy you got this Award." Dizzy turned to me and said, "We know each other when we see each other. We have more in common with that guy that we don't know than we might have with some people in our families. We can meet a jazz fan anywhere in the world, and we can just say, 'Did you hear that tune, or that record, or what about that chord, or what about Elvin [drummer Elvin Jones]?'" Jazz even has its own language. I have a friend who is a professional basketball player and a jazz fan, and we went to Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, and a lady who was with us who knew nothing about jazz, said, "What language are you speaking?" She was confused because we were talking in code! He'd say, "Oh man, yeah Elvin!" You mention one word and it tells the whole story.
Once, my friend Irene and I went to Ghana, West Africa. It was 1973. And when we got to Accra and going through customs, I had these John Coltrane records with me. I brought them for my friend Jumma Santos, who was a drummer and percussionist working at the University there (Jumma recorded on Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) with Miles and worked with Jimi Hendrix, among many others). The customs guy said, "Oh, you like jazz? You've got to go to my brother's house, he's got a lot of recordings. I'm gonna call him to come get you." Irene said to me, "We don't know these people!" So the guy came, and he took us to his house, and he had all these records, but not the Coltrane recordings I brought, and he invited all these people and played them for them. So then we immediately had all these friends who were jazz fans.
I remember that one guy said to me, "Hey, there are six drummers on this record!" He pointed out the cymbal, the bass drum, the high hat, and the tom tom, thinking they were each played by a different drummer. It was, of course, all Elvin Jones. And when I told the guy, he said, "What part of Africa is he from?" And I said, "He's from Pontiac." Elvin loved it when I told him that story.
What jazz fans have in common with the musicians is listening. Eddie Locke told me that he was doing a gig with Roy Eldridge in New Hampshire, and hardly anyone came. So Eddie got lazy with the drumming, and Roy Eldridge stopped him and said, "I don't care if nobody's here! We're playin' some good music!" And Eddie said he never forgot that.
AAJ: In a way, the music is a devotion, a spiritual act that brings people together. It goes deeper than almost any other art form. There's a real sense of community.
MG: Facebook is an example of that. My son does Dexter's Facebook page, where there are over 33,000 Dexter Gordon fans, and they're so devoted and know so much about Dexter, and many of them write about "the first time I heard him"and with the younger ones it's on a recordingit's unbelievable how they connect. And with Dexter it's his sound that captivates people. Also, Dexter was like ushe was a jazz fan. One time, he played at the Village Gate with Machito. A group of musicians were having a conversation in the dressing room. A woman journalist who couldn't get their lingo asked Dexter, "Do you understand what they're talking about?" He said, "Maxine can translate for you. She speaks bebop." [Laughter]
AAJ: There is a special language the musicians and speak in common.
MG: The historical tradition is also a source of commonality. Dexter would point out to me how, since I first got interested in jazz in 1957, I missed hearing a whole slew of jazz greats perform live, like Bird, and Billie Holiday, of course.
AAJ: The tradition lives in the music despite the changes. And we have recordings. But one does miss not having heard one or another player live in concert or at a nightclub.
MG: And the recordings don't always measure up to live performances. I heard Junior Cook on almost a daily basis when we were on tour together, and he was terrific night after night. But he suffered from claustrophobia, so in the recording studio, he was very uncomfortable. The truth is that if you never heard Junior Cook in person, you'll never know how great he was. He was very restrained on the recordings.
AAJ: Even the best recordings miss a dimension that you get when you're in the room experiencing the whole ambience of the performance. Now, to conclude, what's on tap for Maxine Gordon?
MG: On February 27, Dexter's birthday, I'm giving two talks at Brown University in Providence, RI. And I'm going to L.A. in March. In May, I'm going to the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Of course, I need to complete Dexter's biography. And when that's done, I plan to work on developing The Dexter Gordon Foundation, especially the educational component and preserving and disseminating Dexter's legacy, a task which my son Woody III is increasingly doing. I'm also planning my next book, which will be on Shirley Scott, Melba Liston, and Maxine Sullivan, a social history of three prominent women in jazz. They're three very important figures in jazz, and I'll include a fictive conversation on what they would say to each other now. Melba was very close to Dexter, who felt he learned so much from her. When he was a student in L.A., she did all the band arrangements. He loved her. He always called her "Mischievous Lady," and they hung out together until the end.
AAJ: You also mentioned Mary Lou Williams, one of the great women in jazz.
MG: Yes. Woody III is on the Board of The Mary Lou Williams Foundation, Inc. and I work with the Foundation in an advisory capacity. Woody handles their website.
Dexter Gordon, Night Ballads: Montreal 1977 (Uptown Records. 2012)
Dexter Gordon, The Complete Columbia Albums Collection (Columbia Legacy, 2011)
Dexter Gordon, Round Midnight (Columbia, 1985)
Dexter Gordon, Gotham City (Columbia, 1980)
Dexter Gordon, Live at Carnegie Hall (Columbia, 1978)
Dexter Gordon, The Apartment (SteepleChase, 1974)
Dexter Gordon, Tangerine (Prestige, 1972)
Dexter Gordon, Body and Soul (Black Lion, 1967)
Dexter Gordon, Gettin' Around (Blue Note, 1965)
Dexter Gordon, Our Man in Paris (Blue Note, 1963)
Dexter Gordon, Go! (Blue Note. 1962)
Dexter Gordon, Doin' Allright (Blue Note, 1961)
Dexter Gordon, The Chase (Dial,1947)
Dexter Gordon, Long Tall Dexter (Savoy, 1946)
Page 1: Courtesy of Sony Music Archives
Pages 2, 3: Francis Wolff
Page 5: Brian McMillen