Dexter Gordon Biography 'Sophisticated Giant' Chronicles a Jazz Life

Ray Whitten Photography/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Dexter Gordon poses for a portrait with his saxophone on July 12, 1947 in Los Angeles.

The new book about the singular tenor saxophonist and his times by Maxine Gordon has sparked tribute concerts, and revival screenings of 'Round Midnight.'

Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, a new book by Maxine Gordon, is a portrait of the singular tenor saxophonist, and of his times.

Maxine Gordon, who was Dexter Gordon’s wife and his manager, likens Sophisticated Giant to a jazz composition, whose parts include Dexter’s own writings, as well as her own engrossing social history of his early life in Los Angeles as the son of the city’s second black physician, and the ups and downs and ups of a career that started on tour with Lionel Hampton at age 17. It is an insider’s account of what, during an interview about the book, the author often referred to as “the jazz life": a life of improvisation.

The legendary bebop sax player had begun writing notes for an autobiography in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where the couple frequently spent time off the road, and away from New York winters, in a house called Villa Verde.  “His book was not about telling his story,” explains Maxine Gordon. “It was more about telling what the life of a jazz musician was like, what it was like for the people around him, and how this world of jazz made a life for him that he loved.”

Before he passed away in 1990. Maxine made a promise to Dexter that she would finish the book. To do so, she went back to school to get a degree at the City University of New York in the department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino studies.

“It’s not a typical jazz biography,” she says. “[ Other jazz bios] weren’t talking about what it was like to be black if you were born in 1923...I knew that was the kind of book i wanted to write.”

Gordon covers topics such as racism and segregation of musicians on tour in the United States. Less expectedly, Sophisticated Giant includes an enlightening account of drug laws and prejudice in mid-century Los Angeles, where tracks on your arms or dilated pupils could land you in jail. (Jazz musicians were frequent targets of police in the 1950s, when L.A. led the nation in narcotics arrests.) Dexter Gordon’s own jail time included months in Folsom Prison, and in an interview quoted in the book, he says that incarceration saved his life by keeping him away from heroin.

The towering (6’6”) bebop pioneer would emerge from that dark decade, signing a contract with Blue Note Records in 1960, and in 1962, heading for Europe, where he stayed for 14 years. He lived in Copenhagen, and became a Danish citizen. Maxine was working as a road manager for a Dutch booking agent when she was assigned to get him and his group back to Copenhagen on the eve of a train strike in France.  She soon orchestrated a 1976 U.S. tour with Dexter, a triumphant return to the United States that culminated in a gig at New York’s Village Vanguard. On Dec. 9, a private party celebrating the book’s publication and honoring Dexter Gordon in what would have been his 95th year will be held at the Vanguard.

The publication of Sophisticated Giant (University of California Press) also sets the tone for a 20th anniversary revival of another of Dexter Gordon’s career highlights, Round Midnight, the film by French director Bertrand Tavernier that earned Gordon an Oscar nomination for best actor (he lost to Paul Newman.) The movie will be shown Dec. 13 at the Library of Congress’s Mary Pickford Theater in Washington D.C., following a Q & A with Maxine Gordon.

The film was also screened Nov. 21 at the Barcelona Jazz Festival, where the book had its official debut with a Dexter Gordon tribute concert the following night. While introducing the film, Maxine applauded Tavernier’s decision to “make a movie about jazz musicians with jazz musicians.” They included Bobby Hutcherson and Herbie Hancock. “The musicians were recorded live, so the musicians they chose had to be perfect,” added Maxine, who called the over two hour film “a ballad.”

With its extensive club performance scenes, which make it a must see for jazz fans, the unflinching and heartfelt movie about the jazz life stars Gordon as Dale Turner, a jazz great struggling with alcoholism (the character is not based on his own story). Like her book, Tavernier’s work is an homage to the musicians who invented, and continued to create, jazz.

“One of my missions is to recast the story [spotlighting] the humanity of these people,” says Maxine. She noted that after Dexter’s death, she received more than a thousand cards, and more than one of them said that listening to the sax giant’s ballads had steered them away from suicide. “Jazz is a way of thinking; it’s a way of living. If those musicians were alive now, they’d be continuing a conversation they started in 1986... they were always talking about music.”

In Barcelona last week, Dexter Gordon’s life and legacy was celebrated with the music of a big band made up mostly of young people. It was led by saxophonist Joan Chamorro, the founder of the St. Andreu Jazz Band. The now-celebrated group began as an after-school program and has since brought them to international stages; the Dexter Gordon tribute concert featured some of Chamorro’s prize students, now maturing into full-fledged professional musicians. The concert’s diverse program included Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” and Gordon’s own “Le Coiffeur,” among many other numbers that evoked different phases of Gordon’s career.

Before the concert, during a presentation with Barcelona Jazz Festival Artistic Director Joan Anton Cararach, Maxine Gordon was asked if she felt Gordon’s legacy would be stewarded by young musicians.

“Musicians have big ears,” Gordon said. “They hear something and they include it in their music. And now they listen to different things. Everything changes, that’s the way music is. But the future of jazz is a good one.” 

A full schedule of events surrounding the publication of Sophisticated Giant can be found on the University of California Press Web Site.

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