Dexter Gordon was one of the coolest cats ever to blow a tenor sax, which may explain why he was given multiple lives in jazz rather than just one.
He was born in 1923 when jazz was still young, and by the age of seventeen was playing with Lionel Hampton, where he played second fiddle to Illinois Jacquet whose solo on Hampton’s “Flying Home” was a landmark. Gordon moved on–no one was going to replace Jacquet–and after brief work with Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong, he ended up in New York in 1944.
Gordon became the leading tenor practitioner of the style that would come to be known as bebop; he played in Billy Eckstine’s Orchestra, a school for bop scoundrels Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and as a leader of his own groups on the Savoy label. In 1946 he returned to Los Angeles, the city of his birth, which had a bop scene of its own going that was less renowned, then and now, but where life may have been less hectic than New York due to climate or other factors.
Whatever the reason for the move, it took Gordon out of the bop scene of New York, which was still the media and recording center of America. In 1952 Gordon was sent to jail for possession of heroin, and so was even further removed from the spotlight. He did, however, appear in a movie while in jail, as a member of the prison band in Unchained. In a self-inflicted artistic wound, the studio overdubbed the sound track so that the music you hear does not include the man who could outplay any tenor then alive.
By 1960 Gordon was healthy and free, and recorded a series of dates for Blue Note that were his first claim to greatness. The Savoy tracks were short takes, intended for radio and jukebox play. Blue Note allowed Gordon to stretch out, and the talent that others had witnessed only in after-hours jam sessions was recorded for posterity. Gordon had a lustreless tone that was designed for fast execution, and which is said to have been a major influence on John Coltrane.
In 1962 just as Gordon was starting to attract attention and claim his rightful place in the American scene he decamped to Europe, where he stayed until 1976. The acclaim with which he was greeted upon his return shocked even him. “There was so much love and elation,” he said. “[S]ometimes it was a little eerie at the [Village] Vanguard. After the last set they’d turn on the lights and nobody would move.”
Gordon’s encore came with the release of the movie Round Midnight in 1980; he played “Dale Turner,” an expatriate jazzman like himself. His technique was showing signs of age, but he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Gordon, performing an end-of-gig reverence with his saxophone.
I saw Gordon shortly after he returned from Europe but before he became more widely-known through Round Midnight. He had two stylistic flourishes that some might have considered eccentric; first, he would recite the lyrics to songs before playing them, a latter-day version of a technique practiced by fellow tenor Ben Webster, who said it helped him understand the tune and plot his phrasing.
Second, at the end of a performance, Gordon would hold his sax across his body and bow low, a gesture that recalls the ballet dancer’s reverence to his or her instructor at the end of a class out of deference and respect. At first I thought Gordon was bowing to his instrument, but I’ve come to the conclusion that he meant it for his American audiences, who uncharacteristically welcomed him back from his Odysseus-like journey through drugs, jail time and exile.