Dexter Keith Gordon (February 27, 1923 – April 25, 1990) was a giant in the literal and professional sense. At 198 cm (6 feet 6 inch) tall, Mr. Gordon towered over nearly all the people he played with.
Photos and videos of him in the various clubs that he played show a giant of a man, bent over as though to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling.
Long Tall Dexter, as he was fondly called, had a very large, fat, magisterial and unique sound that one quickly recognizes after a few notes. Think of Coleman Hawkins playing in a Charlie Parker style.
Among his protégés were Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, two purveyors of the big sound that I prefer to the thinner tenor sound. (Lester Young excepted!)
Yet Dexter’s hard-driving sound was consistently melodious, in the mold of Lester Young and Herschel Evans, his mentors.
Born in Los Angeles, Dexter was the only son of Dr. Frank Alexander Gordon and Mrs. Gwendolyn Gordon. Dr. Gordon was a successful medical doctor in private practice.
According to Gordon biographer Stan Britt, Dr. Gordon “had become a great Jazz fan, from his time at medical school, when he’d also played a little self-taught clarinet. Jazz records spun regularly in the Gordon home; then, of course, at the frantic speed of seventy-eight revolutions per minute. And when Frank Gordon observed that his son was responding – eagerly and spontaneously – to practically anything he was played, on the record player or from the radio, he was quick to actively encourage that interest.”
His first instrument was a clarinet, before switching to the tenor saxophone at age fifteen. He played with various bands, including a stint with Billy Eckstine whose group was a highly sought after internship for many who went on to become the dominant voices on their instruments. His tenor battles with Teddy Edwards and Wardell Gray set him apart as a master of his horn.
The same personal difficulties that troubled many great masters like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Tina Brooks, Lee Morgan and so on, interrupted Gordon’s progress in the 1950s. He was involuntarily inaccessible to the public for a number of years, finally emerging in 1961 to re-ignite his career with stellar recordings for Blue Note.
He removed to Europe, first Paris, then settling in Copenhagen, Denmark, which became his home, an exile where he enjoyed full acceptance, respect, adoration, consistent work and financial comfort.
Whereas his discography as a leader and as a sideman is very long and consistently enjoyable, his Blue Note Years (1961-65) stand very tall and in their own category. His records on the Prestige and Steeplechase labels are some of the finest in any good collection of Jazz music. “Setting the Pace”, his tenor battle with Booker Ervin (Prestige) is indispensible Jazz, as is The Montmartre Collection Vol. 1 (Black Lion) and his series of Radio broadcasts preserved on Steeplechase LPs. The tracks “Devilette” and “Doxy” on the Montmatre Collection represent classic Gordon, with changing tempos that keep you wanting and waiting for the next turn.
For the newcomer to Jazz, Dexter Gordon’s Blue Note LPs are a perfect place to start. For the Jazz aficionado, they are a joyful treat that reward repeated listening.
My top-five Dexter Gordon records are:
- Our Man in Paris / Blue Note
2. Go / Blue Note
. 3. Doin’ Alright / Blue Note
4. The Montmatre Collection, Vol. 1/ Black Lion
5. Dexter Calling / Blue Note
Others that are worth checking out are:
- A Swingin’ Affair / Blue Note
- Clubhouse / Blue Note
- One Flight Up / Blue Note
- Getting’ Around / Blue Note
- The Panther / Prestige
- The Tower of Power / Prestige
- More Power / Prestige
- Something Different / Steeplechase
- Lullaby for a Monster / Steeplechase
- Cheesecake / Steeplechase
- Dexter Gordon: A Musical Biography – Stan Britt (Da Capo, NY, 1989)
- dextergordon.org (website of The Dexter Gordon Society)