April 10, 2019

A Player for All Seasons: Dexter Gordon Sets the Pace

By Stuart Mitchner

My life has a happy ending.
— Dexter Gordon (1923-1990)

It’s that time of year, Princeton’s in its glory, baseball’s here again, and I’m driving with the windows down listening to Dexter Gordon, a player for all seasons. I can choose from postwar wonders like “Dexter Rides Again,” where Long Tall Dexter comes charging, guns blazing, out of the box, or it might be the headlong post-penitentiary euphoria of “Daddy Plays the Horn” and “Stanley the Steamer,” or the sound of his early 1960s New York renaissance in Go, surely the only jazz album to make it into a Swedish novel in which a character who hears it feels “blessed, clear-headed and strong,” for when you’ve listened to Dexter “you tell nothing but the truth for a long while.”

That quote from Svante Foerster’s novel is among the riches in Maxine Gordon’s Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon (Univ. of California Press), which was the subject of a lively, jazz-ambient conversation late last month at Labyrinth Books between Maxine and Richard Lawn, the author of Experiencing Jazz, and All About Jazz’s Victor L. Schermer. The only thing  lacking was a set of speakers so that everyone present could hear samples of the tenor saxophonist’s massive sound; instead, people happily settled for the story of the fan who fainted when he heard the real thing in person.

They Met in 1490

The giant Maxine Gordon lived with for the last 15 years of his life was a much more interesting, sympathetic, and multi-dimensional character than the word “sophisticated” would suggest. The book borrows the title of the 1977 album that marked Gordon’s triumphant return to the United States after 15 years in Europe, a feat skillfully orchestrated by his manager, then known as Maxine Gregg. When asked by a journalist when he and Maxine first met, Dexter said, “The first time was around 1490, but it took us many lifetimes to work things out to find each other again.”

That’s just the sort of answer you’d expect from a musician who liked to tell audiences the lyrics of ballads before playing them and who wrote a birthday poem for a wife who can live “under pressure,” handle problems “with pleasure,” and feed her “wild and hungry family with ease/While maneuvering the telephone with one hand” as the other “rattles the pots and pans.”

Two Tall Men

I should say up front that the Dexter Gordon I’ve found most exciting is the one wailing with fellow gladiator Wardell Gray in the marathon tenor sax battles that produced jazz best sellers like “The Chase” and “The Hunt.” I’ve always found it impossible to listen to Gordon without thinking of Gray, whose life and death and music have haunted me for the past 20 years. After reading Sophisticated Giant, I have a better understanding of the bond between these two friendly virtuosos, one who survived productively into his sixties against all odds, the other who died under suspicious circumstances at the age of 34. Physically, both were well over six feet, though Gordon at 6’6 had the advantage. While Dexter was a seriously imposing presence, Wardell attracted nicknames like Bones and the Thin Man. Both players were compulsive readers, Gray with a taste for Sartre and Camus, Gordon with a special fondness for J.P. Donleavy’s picaresque classic The Ginger Man, which he carried with him everywhere in a duffle bag full of books that included the copy of Les Miserables he first read while learning French during his enforced 15-month “vacation” in the “open prison” at Chino State Penitentiary. Although Les Miserables had a special meaning for Dexter because of his French ancestry, he related to the story in other ways, as when he and Maxine were detained at the Paris airport because of his “previous drug offenses” and he told an apologetic French Minister of Culture Jack Lang “that he felt like Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread.” At the end of the “Trouble in Paris” chapter, Dexter says, “I had forgotten that the past never leaves you even if you fly first class on Air France and are staying at the Hotel Crillon and have been nominated for an Oscar. They will always find a way to remind you that you were once arrested for using drugs.”

Home Movie

Gordon had originally intended to write his own story, which he imagined in the improvisatory spirit of The Ginger Man, with its “comic element,” its “unexpectedness,” the way “the thoughts would sometimes rush at you.” Rather than writing “along a linear timeline,” he “wanted to improvise and have the book play out like a long jazz set.” Although Maxine insisted that an outline was necessary, one of the strengths of Sophisticated Giant is her willingness to go with Dexter’s flow. The result is an intimate  sense of how he passed his time, how he slept, what he dreamed, what he feared.

In 1986, when he and Maxine were at their house in Cuernavaca during the period before he played his life-changing role in Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight, Gordon had a dream in which “his old friend Ben Webster — who had died in 1973 and whose tenor sax, a Selmer Mark VI, Dexter would play for the rest of his life — walked into the bedroom and sat down on the side of the bed. Dexter said he felt the bed sink down quite a bit under Ben’s weight,” a detail to savor if you have any notion of Webster’s physical magnitude. When Ben says, “Hey Dex, I heard you can’t play anymore,” Dexter’s frightened, “That’s not true, Ben,” and Ben says, “If it’s not true, prove it….Get up and start practicing.”

Instead of closing the door on the anecdote of the dream, Maxine  keeps it in play, recounting how Dexter increased “the intensity of his practicing,” and “would wake up, have his breakfast, walk barefoot around the garden, and then start playing long tones, followed by scales, chords, melodies, and vigorous lines of improvisation.” Now it’s a home movie: “Our garden had beautiful bird of paradise and hibiscus plants, and Dexter would walk around and check out the trees and plants. Sometimes he would sit by the pool thinking and practicing.”

Jazzing Up the Mets

At this point Maxine reminds us that Round Midnight is looming, which is why Dexter’s practicing, he’s rusty, but the one thing he isn’t concerned about is his acting. “He felt that most jazz musicians could act if need be. They had to act their way out of a lot of situations in their lives on the road, and they had to act in front of an audience most nights.” Then she remembers something that has nothing to do with performing or audiences or advancing the narrative. “At heart,” she writes, “Dexter was a very quiet man who liked to stay home and read a book or watch a baseball game on television. We had a satellite dish installed on the roof for just that reason. Dexter was a big fan of the New York Mets, and they, like Dexter, were in the midst of a very good run.”

Here, in spite of that nice pairing of runs, a demanding editor might be nudging the author to get to the filming of Round Midnight and the Oscar Night festivities and all that glamorous Hollywood stuff. Instead Maxine jumps ahead to let us know that after the film premiered in October 1986, she and Dexter returned to New York in time to watch the Mets defeat the Boston Red Sox and win the World Series. She then proceeds to devote a full page to Dexter’s fantasy of the 1986 Mets as a hard-swinging big band in which each player has an instrument or role to play, Keith Hernandez on lead alto, Gary Carter on baritone sax, and, no surprise, Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden as the Dexter and Wardell of the tenor section, with Mookie Wilson on drums, Rafael Santana on percussion, and three vocalists, Tim Teufel, Lee Mazzilli, and Roger McDowell performing as The Amazettes.

Now imagine that just as Maxine is temped to placate the editor and skip the baseball fantasy, a familiar voice in her head says Don’t do it and a familiar weight settles down next to her, causing the sofa to sink a bit. And instead of writing about Dexter in Paris and Hollywood, she goes back to Cuernavaca and how her husband exercises in the pool, drinks “horrible-tasting herbal teas,” and considers his afternoon nap the most important part of the day.

The Closer

Yes, baseball’s here again and I’m thinking that as much as I like Dexter’s Mets-as-a-big-band idea, I like it even better the other way around, with, say, a line-up of heavy hitters like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins up front, Ben Webster hitting clean-up, Charlie Parker batting lead-off, and pork-pie-hatted manager Lester Young in the dug-out sending signals to Lady Ben. And on defense, how about Thelonious Monk on the mound, with his crazy stuff, and Bird in the outfield making unreal over-the-shoulder catches. And for the closer, the big guy who comes in to save every game in the top of the ninth, who else but Long Tall Dexter? 

Saturday the Princeton Record Exchange is hosting the 12th annual National Record Store Day, featuring three 50th anniversary Woodstock-related releases. The store opens at 10 a.m. and there will be a line.