Dexter Gordon

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Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon1.jpg
In concert with Dizzy Gillespie, Toronto
August 19, 1978
Background information
Also known as Long Tall Dexter, Dexter Gordon
Born (1923-02-27)February 27, 1923
Los Angeles, California, United States
Died April 25, 1990(1990-04-25) (aged 67)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States
Genres Jazz, swing, bebop, hard bop
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, bandleader, actor
Instruments Tenor 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.[1] 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).

Life and career[edit]

Early life[edit]

Gordon was born and raised in Los Angeles, where his father was a doctor who counted Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton among his patients. 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.[2]

Between 1940 and 1943, Gordon was a member of Hampton's band, playing in a saxophone section alongside Illinois Jacquet and Marshal Royal. In 1943 he made his first recordings under his own name, alongside Nat Cole and Harry "Sweets" Edison. During 1943–44 he featured in the Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson bands, before joining Billy Eckstine.

Bebop era recordings[edit]

In early 1945, Gordon was a featured solist in the Billy Eckstine big band (Blowin' the Blues Away, Lonesome Lover Blues, I Love the Rhythm in a Riff), as well as a soloist on recordings by Dizzy Gillespie(Blue 'n Boogie) Sir Charles Thompson (Takin' Off) and Earl Coleman(Don't Sing Me the Blues). Later that year, he was resident in New York and recording under his own name for the Savoy label. His output 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 that were documented in recordings made between 1947 and 1952 (The Hunt, Move, The Steeplechase). Cherokee, Byas a Drink, and Disorder at the Border are other live recordings of the Gray/Gordon duo. In December 1947 he returned to New York and the Savoy label (Settin' the Pace, So Easy, Dexter's Riff, Dextrose, Wee Dot, Dexter's Mood, Index, Dextivity, Wee Dot, Lion Roars).

The 1950s[edit]

By 1950, Gordon was again based in Los Angeles. His recorded output and live appearances declined as heroin addiction and legal troubles took their toll. After a stint of incarceration, he recorded the albums Daddy Plays the Horn and Dexter Blows Hot and Cool in 1955. Later he recorded The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon,which was released in 1960. These albums lacked the impact of his earlier recordings or his subsequent Blue Note recordings. He was finding his way both musically and personally. 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. 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.

Blue Note recordings[edit]

Gordon signed to Blue Note Records in 1960. That association that 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, his Blue Note debuts, were recorded over three days in May 1961 with Freddie Hubbard, Horace Parlan and others. The last two were recorded in August 1962, just before Gordon left for his extended stay in Europe, with a rhythm section that featured Blue Note regulars Sonny Clark, Butch Warren and Billy Higgins. During the next few years, Gordon continued to record for Blue Note.

Years in Europe[edit]

Over the next 15 years in Europe, living mainly in Paris and Copenhagen, Gordon played regularly with fellow expatriate, 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.

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 with Blue Note: Gettin' Around was recorded during a visit in May 1965, as was the unreleased album Clubhouse.

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.[3] While in Copenhagen, Gordon and Drew's trio appeared onscreen[4] in Ole Ege's theatrically released hardcore pornographic film Pornografi (1971), for which they composed and performed the score.[5]

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."[citation needed] 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 and subsequent high visibility, along with the continued efforts of Art Blakey through 1970s, 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.

Musician Emeritus[edit]

During the 1980s, Gordon's playing was weakened by emphysema. His most memorable works from his later years were not in music but in film. He made several film appearances, dating back to his incarceration for possession of heroin. He portrayed an inmate playing in the prison band in Unchained; the soundtrack was later overdubbed. In 1986, Gordon starred in the movie Round Midnight as "Dale Turner", an expatriate jazz musician in Paris during the late 1950s, based loosely on Lester Young and Bud Powell. Gordon received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. 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. In 1986, Gordon was named a member and officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters by the Ministry of Culture in France.

Gordon died of kidney failure in Philadelphia, on April 25, 1990, at the age of 67. He had been voted musician of the year by Down Beat magazine in 1978 and 1980, and in the latter year was inducted into Down Beat's Jazz Hall of Fame.


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 (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.[6]

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." The famous smoke break photo from 1948 shows him with a Conn 10M, which he played until 1965. He bought a Selmer Mark VI from Ben Webster after his 10M went missing in transit. Gordon used an Otto Link mouthpiece for his first recordings in the 1940s. In a 1962 interview with the British journalist Les Tomkins, he did not refer to the model but stated that it was made for him personally.[1] He stated that it was stolen around 1952. The smoke break photo shows him with a Dukoff mouthpiece mounted on his 10M. In the Tomkins interview he referred to it as a medium-chambered piece with a #5* tip opening. In a Down Beat Magazine interview from 1977, he referred to his current mouthpiece as an Otto Link with a #8 tip opening.[3]


As sideman[edit]

With Gene Ammons

With Herbie Hancock

With Booker Ervin Setting the Pace (Prestige, 1965) With Jackie McLean

In popular culture[edit]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Dexter Gordon interview with Les Tomkins, 1962". 
  2. ^ Joop Visser, essay booklet with Settin' the Pace, Proper box set.
  3. ^ a b "Dexter Gordon interview with Chuck Berg, Downbeat Magazine, 1977". 
  4. ^ "Dexter Gordon & Kenny Drew - Pornography A Musical (1971) OST", YouTube video.
  5. ^ David Meeker,"Jazz on the Screen - A jazz and blues filmography", Library of Congress, Performing Arts Encyclopedia.
  6. ^ Joel McIver, Justice for All: The Truth about Metallica, Omnibus Press, 2004.

External links[edit]