Maxine Gordon: The Legacy of Dexter Gordon

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
Legendary tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon was a focal point of the bebop and hard bop revolutions. Later in his career, he achieved the status of an American icon with his lead role in Bernard Tavernier's 1986 film, Round Midnight, which garnered him an Academy Award nomination. His "homecoming" in New York City, after living in Europe for over a decade, resembled that of the main character in the film, although the scripted role is known to be a synthesis of the lives of pianist Bud Powell and saxophonist Lester Young. When he passed away in 1990, Dexter Gordon left behind a recording and live performance legacy that rivals any in the history of jazz.

Gordon's wife and longtime manager, Maxine Gordon, has kept the legacy strong through lectures and guest appearances, donation of all of Gordon's archival work to the Library of Congress, the licensing group Dex Music LLC and The Dexter Gordon Foundation. She is currently writing his biography, due for release in 2013. She often works closely with her son, Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, who is administrator, general manager, and web publisher for Gordon's legacy. Woody III was curator, co-producer and project director for two recent box sets covering the mid-to-late 1970s recordings by Dexter Gordon (his stepfather) and the great trumpeter Woody Shaw (his father), both called The Complete Columbia Albums Collection and both released by Columbia/Legacy in 2011.

In addition to her tireless efforts on behalf of the Dexter Gordon legacy, Maxine Gordon is a scholar, researcher, and archivist who has done pioneering research on jazz in Harlem in the 1930s and the history of jazz in the Bronx, NY. She is also compiling information for a book on three great women of jazz: trombonist Melba Liston, organist Shirley Scott, and singer Maxine Sullivan. An avid jazz fan for decades, Maxine Gordon is a force in her own right, advocating for the music and the musicians in many capacities, as partner, friend, manager, and scholar. Her presence at and recollections of many events in Dexter Gordon's career and in jazz history provided rich material for an interview, and her own career and scholarly work provided additional incentive and inspiration.

Chapter Index
Dexter Gordon's Famous Homecoming

The Dexter Gordon Legacy Today

Recalling Dexter Gordon and His Cohorts

Making the Film Round Midnight

Maxine Gordon: Entrepreneur, Scholar, Writer

Researching the Jazz Scene in Harlem and the Bronx

The Special Relationship between Musicians and Their Fans

Dexter Gordon's Famous Homecoming

AAJ: You had close contact with Dexter Gordon for a couple of decades. What has been the nature of your relationship with him? How and when did you meet him?

MG: I first met Dexter in 1975 in Nancy, France. I was working as a tour manager, which at that time was called "road manager." My job, among other things, was to help the groups move around Europe. Dexter was living and performing in Europe at the time. He had Tony Inazalaco on drums, Jimmy Woode on bass, and a pianist whose name I don't recall, and they all traveled by train at that time. It so happened there was a train strike, and I had the daunting task of moving them around through Italy, France, Denmark, and everywhere. I was under a lot of pressure to get them to the next gig. So I had to go to talk with Dexter about all that.

Prior to that, I had only seen him once before at the Jazz Gallery in New York in the 1960s. I was an avid jazz fan even then, but I didn't know Dexter well, because I came in with Art Blakey, John Coltrane, and so on. But when I went to see Dexter at his gig in Nancy, we immediately struck up a friendship and started traveling together as well.

I remember at one point saying to him, "You should come back to New York. You sound great. People there should know how good you are. There's a big hole there because Trane is gone, and you can help fill it."

AAJ: That's a piece of jazz history—you were the one who encouraged him to return to New York.

Dexter Gordon Homecoming Live at the Village VanguardMG: He said, "I want to come back. But I don't know how to arrange it." And we started a conversation about him coming back to the States. I didn't know much about the management end, but I had helped [organist] Shirley Scott with some bookings. And I had done some similar things for Harold Vick. I wanted to help him, but wasn't sure what I could do. When we got to Holland, we decided to work together for six months and see how it went. Dexter had some money saved and gave me an advance for my expenses.

So we formed a loose partnership based on the idea of getting Dexter back to New York. But I had also been traveling with a great band with Woody Shaw, Louis Hayes, Junior Cook, Ronnie Matthews, and Stafford James. I was the sixth person with that group on the train—six of us could fit in a train compartment, the quintet and me. When I told them Dexter wanted to come back to New York, Woody was excited. He said, "Great! Fabulous! We need him there!" They'd played together in George Gruntz's big band. So Woody was the one who talked it up with the musicians about Dexter's coming back, how he was modern but very bebop, and so on.

So, when I got back to Holland, the first thing I did was to call Max Gordon [owner of the Village Vanguard in New York] I'd been going to the Vanguard since I was 16, and Max had become a friend. He would look out for all the bands, but he kind of pitied us young fans who had no money, and he'd have us sit in the back by the bar—and that was me. So I called him and said excitedly, "Max, I heard Dexter Gordon, and he sounds so great, and he wants to come back to New York. Why don't you give him a gig?" Disappointingly, he said, "No, I can't give him a gig. Everyone here forgot him. He's been away too long." So I said, "Max! You have to book him. If you don't, I'll never speak to you again!" And he said, "So what, I don't care!" And he hung up on me! But the next day, I called him back, and said "Max! Let's talk about this!" And he said, "OK! I'll give him a gig, but no guarantees. If he makes money, I'll give him money. If he doesn't, you'll have to pay the band yourself."

I then told Dexter, "Max's deal is a tough one, but if you play in the Vanguard, if we promote it and people come, you'll sound great and people will love it. So would you invest your own money and take the risk?" He said, without hesitation, "Yeah! Let's do that! How much do we need?" So he put aside the money, and we also booked a couple of gigs outside of New York prior to the Vanguard. And then he also got an opportunity to open at Storyville in Manhattan, George Wein's little club on the East Side. Wein gave Dexter a bit of a showcase there. In Stanley Crouch's depiction of Dexter's return, he describes how he appeared out of nowhere, and it's snowing, and there are lines of people around the corner, and he gets a contract with Columbia Records. That was the place, but of course it wasn't all that dramatic.

AAJ: Wasn't it Bruce Lundvall who came down there and offered him the Columbia gig?

MG: Yes. I knew Bruce already by then. Michael Cuscuna was Woody Shaw's producer, and he came down there when Dexter was rehearsing, they talked, and it was decided that Michael would be the producer of Dexter's recordings as well. Then Bruce came in, and said right away, "I want to sign him to Columbia." And I became the executive producer.

Dexter did great at Storyville and got fabulous reviews. By the time we got to do the Vanguard, we had already set up a live recording with Columbia, namely Homecoming (Columbia, 1977). But the band that he first used wasn't exactly what we wanted, so Woody stepped in and said, "OK. I'll play with Dexter, and I'll get Ronnie Matthews, Louis Hayes and Stafford James to do it." And they did the Vanguard together. And then Woody also got a contract with Columbia.

Shortly thereafter, Michael Cuscuna and I opened an office at 38 West 53rd Street, in a brownstone, which has since been torn down for shops, across from the Museum of Modern Art and right next to Columbia Records. We were over at Columbia's office every day, because we couldn't afford long distance and had to use theirs. So we had daily contact with Bruce Lundvall, who was excited about Dexter's return and so helpful to the project.

We were also very lucky to have Hattie Gossett working with us. She ran the office and kept everything moving and did the publicity and all those phone calls. This was before internet. We used a teletype machine in those days.

AAJ: What a terrific story, and it fills in some gaps in Dexter's homecoming, a famous episode in jazz history.

The Dexter Gordon Legacy Today

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 Liston—quite 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 dedication—to 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 writing—vignettes, 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 sound—all 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 ground—it'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.



Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles