In concert with Dizzy Gillespie, Toronto
August 19, 1978
Also known as Long Tall Dexter, Dexter Gordon
Born February 27, 1923
Los Angeles, California, United States
Died April 25, 1990 (aged 67)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Genres Jazz, swing, bebop, hard bop
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, bandleader, actor
Instruments Tenor saxophone, Soprano saxophone
Years active 1940–1986
Labels Blue Note, Savoy, Columbia
Associated acts Gene Ammons, Billy Eckstine, Dizzy Gillespie, Wardell Gray, Lionel Hampton
Dexter Gordon (February 27, 1923 – April 25, 1990) was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. He was among the earliest tenor players to adapt the bebop musical language of people such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell to the instrument. Gordon's height was 6 feet 6 inches (198 cm), so he was also known as "Long Tall Dexter" and "Sophisticated Giant". His studio and live performance career spanned over 40 years.
Gordon's sound was commonly characterized as being "large" and spacious and he had a tendency to play behind the beat. He was famous for humorously inserting musical quotes into his solos. One of his major influences was Lester Young. Gordon, in turn, was an early influence on John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Rollins and Coltrane, in turn, influenced Gordon's playing as he explored hard bop and modal playing during the 1960s.
Gordon was known for his genial and humorous stage presence. He was an advocate of playing to communicate with the audience. One of his idiosyncratic rituals was to recite lyrics from each ballad before playing it.
A photograph by Herman Leonard of Gordon taking a smoke break at the Royal Roost in 1948 is one of the iconic images in jazz photography. Cigarettes were a recurring theme on covers of Gordon's albums.
Gordon was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in the Bertrand Tavernier film Round Midnight (Warner Bros, 1986), and he won a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist, for the soundtrack album The Other Side of Round Midnight (Blue Note Records, 1986).
1 Life and career
1.1 Early life
1.2 Bebop era recordings
1.3 The 1950s
1.4 New York renaissance
1.5 Years in Europe
1.7 Musician Emeritus
4.1 As sideman
5 In popular culture
Life and career
Dexter Keith Gordon was born on February 27, 1923 in Los Angeles, California. His father, Dr. Frank Gordon, was one of the first African American doctors in Los Angeles who arrived in 1918 after graduating from Howard Medical School in Washington, D.C. Among his patients were Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. Dexter’s mother, Gwendolyn Baker, was the daughter of Captain Edward Baker, one of the five African American Medal of Honor recipients in the Spanish–American War. Gordon played clarinet from the age of 13, before switching to saxophone (initially alto, then tenor) at 15. While still at school, he played in bands with such contemporaries as Chico Hamilton and Buddy Collette.
Between December 1940 and 1943, Gordon was a member of Hampton's band, playing in a saxophone section alongside Illinois Jacquet and Marshal Royal. During 1944 he was featured in the Fletcher Henderson band, followed by the Louis Armstrong band, before joining Billy Eckstine. The 1942–44 musicians' strike curtailed the recording of the Hampton, Henderson, and Armstrong bands; however, they were recorded on V-Discs produced by the Army for broadcast and distribution among overseas troops. In 1943 he was featured, alongside Harry "Sweets" Edison, in recordings under Nat Cole for a small label not affected by the strike.
Bebop era recordings
By late 1944, Gordon was a featured soloist in the Billy Eckstine big band (Blowin' the Blues Away, Lonesome Lover Blues, I Love the Rhythm in a Riff), and later was featured on recordings by Dizzy Gillespie (Blue 'n' Boogie) and Charlie Parker (Takin' Off, If I Had You, 20th Century Blues, The Street Beat). Later that year, he was resident in New York and recording under his own name for the Savoy label. His recordings during 1945-46 included Blow Mr. Dexter, Dexter's Deck, Dexter's Minor Mad, Long Tall Dexter, Dexter Rides Again, I Can't Escape From You, and Dexter Digs In. By mid-1947, he was in Los Angeles, recording for Ross Russell's Dial label (Mischievous Lady, Lullaby in Rhythm, The Chase, Iridescence, It's the Talk of the Town, Bikini, A Ghost of a Chance, Sweet and Lovely). During his stint in Los Angeles, he became known for his saxophone duels with fellow tenorman Wardell Gray, which were a popular concert attraction documented in recordings made between 1947 and 1952 (The Hunt, Move, The Chase, The Steeplechase). The Hunt gained literary fame from its mention in Jack Kerouac's On The Road, which also contains descriptions of wild tenormen jamming in Los Angeles. Cherokee, Byas a Drink, and Disorder at the Border are other live recordings of the Gray/Gordon duo from the same concert as The Hunt. In December 1947, Gordon returned to New York and the Savoy label (Settin' the Pace, So Easy, Dexter's Riff, Dextrose, Dexter's Mood, Index, Dextivity, Wee Dot, Lion Roars). Through the mid-to-late 1940s he continued to work as a sideman on sessions led by Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Ralph Burns, Jimmy Rushing, Helen Humes, Gerry Mulligan, Wynonie Harris, Leo Parker, and Tadd Dameron.
By 1949, Gordon was again based in Los Angeles. His recorded output and live appearances declined as heroin addiction and legal troubles took their toll. The Chase And The Steeplechase, from February 1952, was the last recording of Gordon with Wardell Gray. After an incarceration at Chino Prison during 1953-55, he recorded the albums Daddy Plays the Horn and Dexter Blows Hot and Cool in 1955 and played as a sideman on the Stan Levey album, This Time the Drum's on Me. The latter part of the decade saw him in and out of prison until his final release from Folsom Prison in 1959. He was one of the initial sax players for the Onzy Matthews big band in 1959, along with Curtis Amy. Gordon continued to champion Matthews' band after he left Los Angeles for New York, but left for Europe before getting a chance to record with that band. He recorded The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon in 1960. His recordings document a meander into a smooth West Coast style that lacked the impact of his bebop era recordings or his subsequent Blue Note recordings.
The decade saw Gordon's first entry into the world of drama. He appeared in an uncredited and overdubbed role as a member of a prison band in the movie Unchained, filmed inside Chino. Gordon was a saxophonist performing Freddie Redd's music for the Los Angeles production of Jack Gelber's play The Connection in 1960, replacing Jackie McLean. He contributed two compositions, Ernie's Tune and I Want More to the score and later recorded them for his album Dexter Calling.
New York renaissance
Gordon signed to Blue Note Records in 1961. He initially commuted from Los Angeles to New York to record, but took up residence when he regained the cabaret card that allowed him to perform where alcohol was served. The Jazz Gallery hosted his first New York performance in twelve years. The Blue Note association was to produce a steady flow of albums for several years, some of which gained iconic status. His New York renaissance was marked by Doin' Allright, Dexter Calling..., Go, and A Swingin' Affair. The first two were recorded over three days in May 1961 with Freddie Hubbard, Horace Parlan, Kenny Drew, Paul Chambers, George Tucker, Al Harewood, and Philly Joe Jones. The last two were recorded in August 1962, with a rhythm section that featured Blue Note regulars Sonny Clark, Butch Warren and Billy Higgins. The albums showed his assimilation of the hard bop and modal styles that had developed during his years on the west coast, and the influence of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, whom he had influenced before. The stay in New York turned out to be short lived, as Gordon got offers for engagements in England, then Europe, that resulted in a fourteen-year stay. Soon after recording A Swingin' Affair, he was gone.
Years in Europe
Over the next 15 years in Europe, living mainly in Paris and Copenhagen, Gordon played regularly with fellow expatriates or visiting players, such as Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Kenny Drew, Horace Parlan and Billy Higgins. Blue Note's German-born Francis Wolff supervised Gordon's later sessions for the label on his visits to Europe. The pairing of Gordon with Drew turned out to be one of the classic matchups between a horn player and a pianist, much like Miles Davis with Red Garland or John Coltrane with McCoy Tyner.
From this period come Our Man in Paris, One Flight Up, and Gettin' Around. Our Man in Paris was a Blue Note session recorded in Paris in 1963 with a quartet including pianist Powell, drummer Kenny Clarke, and French bassist Pierre Michelot. One Flight Up, recorded in Paris in 1964 with trumpeter Donald Byrd, pianist Kenny Drew, drummer Art Taylor, and Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, features an extended solo by Gordon on the track "Tanya".
Gordon also visited the US occasionally for further recording dates. Gettin' Around was recorded for Blue Note during a visit in May 1965, as was the album Clubhouse which remained unreleased until 1979.
Gordon found Europe in the 1960s a much easier place to live, saying that he experienced less racism and greater respect for jazz musicians. He also stated that on his visits to the US in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he found the political and social strife disturbing. While in Copenhagen, Gordon and Drew's trio appeared onscreen in Ole Ege's theatrically released hardcore pornographic film Pornografi (1971), for which they composed and performed the score.
He switched from Blue Note to Prestige Records (1965–73) but stayed very much in the hard-bop idiom, making classic bop albums like The Tower of Power! and More Power! (1969) with James Moody, Barry Harris, Buster Williams, and Albert "Tootie" Heath; The Panther! (1970) with Tommy Flanagan, Larry Ridley, and Alan Dawson; The Jumpin' Blues (1970) with Wynton Kelly, Sam Jones, and Roy Brooks; The Chase!(1970) with Gene Ammons, Jodie Christian, John Young, Cleveland Easton, Rufus Reid, Wilbur Campbell, Steve McCall, and Vi Redd; and Tangerine (1972) with Thad Jones, Freddie Hubbard, and Hank Jones. Some of the Prestige albums were recorded during visits back to North America while he was still living in Europe; others were made in Europe, including live sets from the Montreux Jazz Festival.
In addition to the recordings Gordon did under his major label contracts, live recordings by minor European labels and live video from his European period are available. The video was released under the Jazz Icons series.
Less well known than the Blue Note albums, but of similar quality, are the albums he recorded during the 1970s for the Danish label SteepleChase (Something Different, Bouncin' With Dex, Biting the Apple, The Apartment, Stable Mable, The Shadow of Your Smile and others). They again feature American sidemen, but also such Europeans as Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.
At the 1980 Edison Award, Amsterdam
Gordon finally returned to the United States for good in 1976. He appeared with Woody Shaw, Ronnie Mathews, Stafford James, and Louis Hayes, for a gig at the Village Vanguard in New York that was dubbed his "homecoming." It was recorded and released by Columbia Records under that title. He noted: "There was so much love and elation; sometimes it was a little eerie at the Vanguard. After the last set they'd turn on the lights and nobody would move." In addition to the Homecoming album, a series of live albums was released by Blue Note from his stands at Keystone Corner in San Francisco during 1978 and 1979. They featured Gordon, George Cables, Rufus Reid, and Eddie Gladden. The sensation of Gordon's return, renewed promotion of the Dexter Gordon catalog by Columbia (Savoy) and Blue Note, and the continued efforts of Art Blakey through 1970s and early 1980s, have been credited with reviving interest in swinging, melodic, acoustically-based classic jazz sounds after the Fusion jazz era that saw an emphasis on electronic sounds and contemporary pop influences.
During the 1980s, Gordon was weakened by emphysema. He remained a popular attraction at concerts and festivals, although his live appearances and recording dates tapered off as the decade wore on. In 1978 and 1980, he was the Down Beat Musician of the Year and in 1980 he was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame. The US Government honored him with a Congressional Commendation, a Dexter Gordon Day in Washington DC, and a National Endowment for the Arts award for Lifetime Achievement. In 1986, he was named a member and officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters by the Ministry of Culture in France.
Gordon's most memorable works from his later years were not in music but in film. He starred in the 1986 movie Round Midnight as "Dale Turner", an expatriate jazz musician in Paris during the late 1950s based loosely on Lester Young and Bud Powell. That portrayal earned him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor. In addition, he had a non-speaking role in the 1990 film Awakenings, which was posthumously released. Before that last film was released he made a guest appearance on the Michael Mann series Crime Story.
Soundtrack performances from Round Midnight were released as the albums Round Midnight and The Other Side of Round Midnight, featuring original music by Herbie Hancock as well as playing by Gordon. The latter was the last recording released under Gordon's name. He was a sideman on Tony Bennett's 1987 album, Berlin.
Gordon died of kidney failure and cancer of the larynx in Philadelphia, on April 25, 1990, at the age of 67.
Gordon's maternal grandfather was Captain Edward L. Baker, who received the Medal of Honor during the Spanish–American War, while serving with the 10th Cavalry Regiment (also known as the Buffalo Soldiers).
Gordon's father, Dr. Frank Gordon, M.D., was one of the first prominent African-American physicians and a graduate of Howard University.
Dexter Gordon had a total of six children, from the oldest to the youngest: Robin Gordon (Los Angeles), James Canales Gordon (Oakland, California), Deidre (Dee Dee) Gordon (Los Angeles), Mikael Gordon-Solfors (Stockholm), Morten Gordon (Copenhagen) and Benjamin Dexter Gordon (Copenhagen), and five grandchildren, Raina Moore Trider (Brooklyn), Jared Johnson (Los Angeles), and Matthew Johnson (Los Angeles), Maya Canales (Oakland, California), Jared Canales (Oakland, California).
When he lived in Denmark, Gordon became friends with the family of the future Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and subsequently became Lars's godfather.
Gordon was also survived by his widow and former manager-producer Maxine Gordon.
The earliest photographs of Gordon as a player show him with a Conn 30M "Connqueror" and an Otto Link mouthpiece. In a 1962 interview with the British journalist Les Tomkins, he did not refer to the specific model of mouthpiece but stated that it was made for him personally. He stated that it was stolen around 1952. The famous smoke break photo from 1948 shows him with a Conn 10M and a Dukoff mouthpiece, which he played until 1965. In the Tomkins interview he referred to it as a medium-chambered piece with a #5* (.080" under the Dukoff system) tip opening. He bought a Selmer Mark VI from Ben Webster after his 10M went missing in transit. In a Down Beat magazine interview from 1977, he referred to his current mouthpiece as an Otto Link with a #8 (.110" under the Otto Link system) tip opening.
Dexter Rides Again (1947 78 album; Savoy MG 12130, 1992; SV-120, 2010)
The Hunt with Wardell Gray (1947, Savoy SJL 2222, 1976)
Dexter Gordon - The Chase with Wardell Gray (Dial Records, 1947, re-released as Spotlite (E) SPJ 130)
Dexter Gordon - Move! (Dial Records, 1947, re-released as Spotlite (E) SPJ 133)
The Duel with Teddy Edwards (Dial, Spotlite, 1947)
Dexter Gordon On Dial, The Complete Sessions - The Chase (compilation, Spotlite (E) SPJ 130 CD)
Dexter Gordon - Long Tall Dexter (Savoy SJL 2211, 1976, compilation of 1940s Savoy tracks, previously released and unreleased)
Dexter Gordon: Settin' the Pace (Savoy SVY 17027, compilation of 1940s Savoy studio tracks, including alternate takes)
Dexter's Mood (Cool & Blue [Switzerland] C&B CD-114, 1994, compilation of Dial and Savoy studio tracks)
The Wardell Gray Memorial, Volume 2 (live jam, Move) (Prestige, PRLP 7009, 1983; CD, OJC 051, 1992)
The Chase and The Steeplechase, with Wardell Gray, Paul Quinichette (1952, Decca; Universal Distribution CD 9061, 2003)
Daddy Plays the Horn (1955)
Dexter Blows Hot and Cool (1955)
The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon (Riverside, 1960)
Doin' Allright (1961), Blue Note
Dexter Calling... (1961), Blue Note
Go! (1962), Blue Note
A Swingin' Affair (1962), Blue Note
Our Man in Paris (Paris 1963), Blue Note – with Bud Powell
One Flight Up (Paris, 1964) – Blue Note
King Neptune (1964)
Clubhouse (Blue Note, recorded 1965, released 1979)
Gettin' Around (New York, 1965)
The Squirrel: Live at Montmartre (1967)
Both Sides of Midnight (Black Lion, recorded on July 20, 1967, released in 1988)
Take The "A" Train (1967)
A Day in Copenhagen (MPS, 1969) – with Slide Hampton
The Tower of Power! (Prestige, 1969) – with James Moody
More Power! (Prestige, 1969)
Some Other Spring (Sonet, 1970) – with Karin Krog
Dexter Gordon with Junior Mance at Montreux (Prestige, 1970) – with Junior Mance
The Panther! (Prestige, 1970) – with Tommy Flanagan and Alan Dawson. Prestige Records
The Chase! (Prestige, 1970) – with Gene Ammons
The Jumpin' Blues (Prestige, 1970) – with Wynton Kelly
Tangerine (Prestige, 1972 )
Ca'Purange (Prestige, 1972) with Thad Jones, Hank Jones, Stanley Clarke and Louis Hayes
Generation (1972) with Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton and others – Prestige
All Souls with Eric Ineke and others (1972) – Dexterity
Afterhours/The Great Pescara Jam Sessions Vol 1&2 with Eric Ineke (1973) – Ports Song
The Apartment (SteepleChase, 1974)
Stable Mable (SteepleChase, 1975)
Swiss Nights Vol. 1 (SteepleChase, 1975 )
Swiss Nights Vol. 2 (SteepleChase, 1975 )
Swiss Nights Vol. 3 (SteepleChase, 1975 )
Something Different (SteepleChase, 1975)
Bouncin' with Dex (SteepleChase, 1975)
Lullaby for a Monster (SteepleChase, 1976 )
True Blue with Al Cohn (1976; Xanadu Records)
Silver Blue with Al Cohn (1976; Xanadu Records)
Biting the Apple (SteepleChase, 1976)
Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard (Columbia, 1976)
Sophisticated Giant (1977) with 11-piece big-band including Woody Shaw, Slide Hampton, Bobby Hutcherson – Columbia Records
Manhattan Symphonie (1978), Columbia Records—with Rufus Reid – bass, Eddie Gladden – percussion, and George Cables – keyboard
Gotham City (1980), Columbia Records
Landslide (1980), Blue Note
American Classic [featuring: Grover Washington Jr. and Shirley Scott] (1982) Elektra Entertainment
Round Midnight (1986), Columbia Records
The Other Side of Round Midnight (1986) Blue Note Records
Live at Carnegie Hall (1998), Columbia Records – Recorded in 1978
The Rainbow People with Benny Bailey (2002), Steeplechase Records – released in 2002
With Gene Ammons
The Chase! (Prestige, 1970)
Gene Ammons and Friends at Montreux (Prestige, 1973)
With Louis Armstrong
Dexter Gordon, Vol. 1 Young Dex 1941-1944 (Masters Of Jazz MJCD 112)
Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra 1944-1945 (Blue Ace BA 3603)
Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra (AFRS One Night Stand 240) (V-Disc, 1944)
Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra (AFRS One Night Stand 253) (V-Disc, 1944)
Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra (AFRS One Night Stand 267) (V-Disc, 1944)
Louis Armstrong New Orleans Masters, Vol. 2 (Swing House (E) SWH 44)
Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra (AFRS Spotlight Bands 382) (V-Disc, 1944)
Louis Armstrong - Chronological Study (MCA Decca 3063 72)
Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra (AFRS Spotlight Bands 444) (V-Disc, 1944)
Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra (AFRS Spotlight Bands 465) (V-Disc, 1944)
Various Artists, Louis, Pops And Tram (IAJRC 21) (off V-Disc, 1944)
Louis Armstrong Armed Forces Radio Service 1943/44 (Duke (It) D 1021)
With Ralph Burns
Various Artists - OKeh Jazz (Epic EG 37315)
With Benny Carter
The Fabulous Benny Carter (1946, Audio Lab AL 1505)
Benny Carter And His Orchestra (AFRS Jubilee 246) (V-Disc, 1947)
Various Artists - Jazz Off The Air, Vol. 3 (Spotlite (E) SPJ 147) (off V-Disc 1947)
With Nat King Cole
Nat King Cole Meets The Master Saxes 1943 (Phoenix Jazz LP 5)
With Tadd Dameron
Tadd Dameron/Babs Gonzales/Dizzy Gillespie - Capitol Jazz Classics, Vol. 13: Strictly Bebop (Capitol M 11059)
With Billy Eckstine
The Chronological Billy Eckstine and His Orchestra, 1944-1945 (CD, Classic Records [France], 1997)
Billy Eckstine, The Legendary Big Band (SVY 17125)
With Booker Ervin
Setting the Pace (Prestige, 1965)
With Lowell Fulson
Lowell Fulson (Swing Time 320)
With Dizzy Gillespie
Dexter Gordon, Vol. 2 Young Dex 1944-1946 (Masters Of Jazz MJCD 128)
Dizzy Gillespie - Groovin' High (Savoy MG 12020, 1992; SV 152, 2010)
With Lionel Hampton
Dexter Gordon, Vol. 1 Young Dex 1941-1944 (Masters Of Jazz MJCD 112)
Lionel Hampton, Vol. 1: 1941-1942 (Coral (G) COPS 7185)
Decca Jazz Heritage Series DL-79244
With Herbie Hancock
Takin' Off (Blue Note, 1962)
With Wynonie Harris
Wynonie Harris - Love Is Like Rain / Your Money Don't Mean A Thing (Come Live With Me Baby) (King 4217)
With Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson And His Orchestra (AFRS Jubilee 76), (V-Disc, 1944)
Fletcher Henderson And His Orchestra (AFRS Jubilee 77), (V-Disc, 1944)
With Helen Humes
Various Artists - Black California (Savoy SJL 2215)
Helen Humes - Be-Baba-Leba 1942-52 (Whiskey, Women And... Gene Norman "Just Jazz" concert, February 2, 1952, KM 701)
Helen Humes - New Million Dollar Secret (Whiskey, Women And... Gene Norman "Just Jazz" concert, February 2, 1952, KM 707)
with Stan Levey
Stan Levey - This Time The Drum's On Me (Bethlehem BCP 37)
With Jackie McLean
The Meeting (SteepleChase, 1974)
The Source (SteepleChase, 1974)
With Gerry Mulligan
Gerry Mulligan - Capitol Jazz Classics, Vol. 4: Walking Shoes (Capitol M 11029)
Classic Capitol Jazz Sessions (Mosaic MQ19-170)
With Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker - Every Bit Of It 1945 (Spotlite (E) SPJ 150D)
With Leo Parker
The Be Bop Boys (Savoy SJL 2225)
Leo Parker - Birth Of Bop, Vol. 1 (Savoy XP 8060)
With Pony Poindexter
Pony's Express (Epic, 1962)
With Jimmy Rushing
Jimmy Rushing/Don Redman/Russell Jacquet/Joe Thomas - Big Little Bands (1946, Onyx ORI 220)
Black California, Vol. 2: Anthology (1946, Savoy SJL 2242)
With Les Thompson
Les Thompson - Gene Norman Presents Just Jazz (RCA Victor LPM 3102)
With Ben Webster
Ben Webster Nonet (1945, Jazz Archives JA 35)
In popular culture
The narrator of the Stephen King short story "The Breathing Method", published in Different Seasons (1982), mentions that he is a fan of Gordon's.