Burmese Mermaid

Burmese Mermaid

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Clio Speaks - Dexter Gordon - Legendary Jazz Tenor Saxophonist (Career after 1945)

I was honored to meet Dexter backstage after a concert in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the late 1970s, just after he had moved back to the States permanently after living for many years in Denmark. We got to chat a little bit, with me craning my neck (you will learn why). He had a voice as melodious as his tenor. His body movements and speech patterns followed the same "other plane" tempo.

Dexter Gordon was a charismatic presence. Looming at a height of six feet five inches, a theatrical manner and warm magnetism premeated both his personality and his music. His music has been described as hot, extrovert dramatic, exciting, and according to Brian Priestly, "excruciatingly enjoyable." A musical link between Lester Young and John Coltrane, he was bebop's first major tenor player. Heavily influenced by Lester Young, he also incorporated some of the stylistic elements of Charlie Parker, in a style characterized by a huge tone, spare melodic lines, and relaxed, behind-the-beat phrasing.

Gordon became a major influence in the 1950s on John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Clifford Jordan, Jimmy Heath, and many others. After a brief period playing and recording with Louis Armstrong, Gordon worked from 1944-1945 with the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, the first big band to play bebop. He also made recordings with Dizzy Gillespie ("Blue 'N Boogie") and Fats Navarro. When he left Eckstine, he freelanced briefly with Bird at the Spotlite in New York, led his own combo at the Three Deuces, and made a series of recordings for Savoy under his own name ("Long Tall Dexter", "Dexter's Minor Mad"). All of these activities established Gordon as a major bebop figure.

In the late 1940s, Gordon worked as a freelance artist and traveled extensively, first to Hawaii, then alternately between the East and West coasts. In New York he played with Tadd Dameron. His notoriety also increased during this time as a result of "saxophone duels" with Wardell Gray. The two musicians tried to outplay each other in live performances recorded between 1947 and 1952, of which "The Chase" is the most vivid example, becoming a model for his later saxophone duels.

Like many other musicians of the 1940s and 1950s, Gordon maintained a vicious heroin habit. He spent a total of six years in prison for drug use, from 1952-1954, at Chino Penitentiary in California, made a brief and successful comeback but was jailed again in 1956. Gordon made his acting debut in prison when Hollywood made a movie about Chino Penitentiary called Unchained, and Gordon was included in the cast. Released from the prison in 1960, Gordon joined a theatre production of The Connection, a play about heroin addicts. Besides writing the musical score for the play (some of which was later recorded in an album on Blue Note called Dexter Calling) and directing the onstage quartet, he had an important speaking part that required ad libbing. Though the play received mixed reviews, Gordon became a symbol of the black artist struggling to survive the ravages of drugs and racism.

In 1962, he returned to New York, but his parole conditions and lack of a cabaret card prevented him from performing. In the same year, he performed throughout Europe, and settled in Denmark where he lived till 1977, with brief trips back to the States. He performed widely at jazz festivals, toured Japan, made many recordings with European musicians, married for a second time (nothing is known of his first marriage), and remained active as a teacher and performer in Denmark. In a Down Beat interview, he said that he felt respected as an artist in Europe. In 1977, he returned to the States permanently. Voted Down Beat's Musician of the Year in 1978 and 1980, he also entered the Jazz Hall of Fame in 1980.

In 1986 he starred in the film Round Midnight for which he received an Academy Award nomination for best actor. Loosely based on the life of Bud Powell, the film also contained autobiographical elements. As a result of the film's success, Gordon began to play again, after a period of infrequent performances. He died in Philadelphia while touring and is survived by his wife and five children. Still....Dexter lives!

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