More Than A Jazz Legend: Dexter Gordon and His Search For Personal Integrity

Victor L. Schermer By

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Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon
Maxine Gordon
261 Pages
ISBN: #9780520280649
University of California Press

Dexter Gordon became a jazz legend in his own time. He played a key role in the bebop and hard bop movements, created an instantly recognizable style that came from Louis Armstrong and Lester Young but moved quickly into the modern jazz era, and established a new standard for tenor saxophone playing. His music and rich recorded legacy has sustained its appeal to several generations of jazz fans. His playing was controlled, knowledgeable, and electrifying. Gordon also had a big, warm personality that lit up a room. "Long Tall Dexter" was six foot five in height, and his words introducing the tunes by quoting from the lyrics, delivered in a deep, melodious voice, charmed his audiences. At the end of a song, he tilted and held up his saxophone in the way that Lester Young did. Decades later, many who saw him in person still fondly remember these hallmark gestures.

There were many aspects of Dexter Gordon's life that made him an even larger figure, the "sophisticated giant" that the title of Maxine Gordon's new book implies. (The title, by the way, is taken from one of his recordings.) His widow Maxine, who for many years also served as his road manager and business partner, knew him inside out through close proximity, business ventures, and long conversations in which they shared every aspect of their lives. In addition, she retained his autobiographical notes, and being a trained researcher into African American history, she made extended forays into the neighborhoods and archives to fill in details, ask and answer questions, and get a historian's perspective about the world in which he lived and made music. As a result of the author's combined interests and her intimate relationship with Dexter, the humanness of this man of multiple gifts is transmitted to us in a way that is palpably felt.

What emerges is a sense of an African American man who survived the indignities of segregation and drug addiction with grace, hope, resourcefulness, and integrity. The overriding impression of Dexter Gordon the human being is of someone who falls but always gets up, who has flaws but transcends them, who sustains his dignity in the most challenging circumstances, who is reflective about life's difficulties but always hopeful and ready to take on the next task. In this respect, he differs from some of his most noteworthy peers like Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, and Gordon's beloved friend and tenor saxophone cohort Wardell Gray, all of whom, like many others, went into the darkness and never came out. His paternal grandfather, Captain Edward L. Baker, Jr., was a member of the Buffalo Soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment after the Civil War. His paternal grandfather, Frank Gordon, a barber, was a man of character and a valued citizen of Fargo, North Dakota. And his father, Dr. Frank Gordon Jr, was a prominent physician and music lover in Los Angeles, whose patients included noted jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. Dexter was thus given a legacy that fostered independence, ambition, resilience, knowledge of the world and of literature, and compassion for the common man.

Throughout the book, Maxine provides rich descriptions of people, places, and events, often quoting from Dexter. Through her meticulous research, new information about him emerges. In particular, she documents the manipulation of royalties and creative property rights in the music industry in ways that not-so-subtly suggest its relationship to racism. While meticulous about details, the author is also a good storyteller, so, aside from its scholarly discipline, the book is intriguing and leads the reader forward like an absorbing detective novel.

The book takes us through Dexter Gordon's high school years when he took up saxophone and performed with his peers, to his induction into Lionel Hampton's band, and soon after that, Billy Eckstine's forward-looking crew which included Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Ammons, and Art Blakey in a list that reads like a Who's Who of modern jazz. Landing in New York, he was thrilled to hear the great bands at the Apollo Theater and Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. When he sat in with, among others Lester Young and Ben Webster, he was immediately recognized as a comer, and soon thereafter he appeared on recordings, notably on the Blue Note label, which established him as a top jazz artist.


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