Dexter Gordon: His career on the record

by Marshall Bowden

One of a handful of tenor players who defined the instrument in the post-bop period (others include Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins), Dexter Gordon’s discography casts a long shadow over recorded jazz.

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Dexter Gordon’s career spanned the period from the birth of bebop through the golden period of American jazz in the 1950s and 1960s, a period of European exile in the 1970s and a triumphant return to the States in ’76, leading to a period of renewed interest in his playing that lasted until his death in 1990.

Dexter Gordon first turned professional in December of 1970, when he was offered a job with Lionel Hampton’s band. He left Hampton in 1943 and spent six months in 1944 touring with Louis Armstrong. He then was a member of Billy Eckstine’s band until 1945, when he began to establish himself in New York as a regular on 52nd Street. There he played in a group with Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, CurlyRussell, and Max Roach. Gordon had a reputation for being smooth, even-tempered, and unflappable, as illustrated by the following story, recounted in Ira Gitler’s Masters of Bebop:

One night at the Spotlight, a drunk dropped a handful of change into the bell of his horn during a solo. Outwardly impassive, Gordon continued his lovely ballad statement; when he finished, he calmly upended his saxophone and pocketed the coins…

Gordon returned to L.A. (his birthplace) in the summer of 1946, carrying a boatload of experience and a heroin habit. He began to play in after-hours and weekly jam sessions, and soon encountered one of the West Coast’s leading tenor players, Wardell Gray. The two would trade choruses in after-hours sessions and eventually began recording together, with “The Chase” becoming one of their best-known sessions. “Wardell was a very good saxophonist who knew his instrument very well,” Gordon once said. “His playing was very fluid, very clean. Although his sound wasn’t overwhelming, he always managed to make everything very interesting, very musical. I always enjoyed playing with him. He had a lot of drive and a profusion of ideas. He was stimulating to me.”

Dexter Gordon in Copehnhagen

Dexter Gordon and Gray recorded several sides in 1946/47. Dexter returned to NYC, working for a time with Benny Goodman, then back to L.A. in 1949, at which time Gray was himself working in New York. The two revived their duetting sporadically from 1950 through 1952.

From 1953-54 Dexter Gordon was an inmate of Chino as a result of his heroin addiction. Gitler states that Gray was also addicted at this time. There are those who dispute this, but it does appear possible that Gray had fallen under the influence of narcotics. Gray still recorded occasionally and was playing with Benny Carter’s band in Las Vegas when he died under mysterious circumstances in 1955. Gordon had gotten out of Chino and went see Gray in L.A., only to discover that he had left for Vegas with Carter. Three days later he heard of Gray’s death.

In1955, Gordon recorded for the first time in three years. He recorded two LPs for the Bethlehem label, including one with Stan Levey and one under his own name, Daddy Plays the Horn. He also recorded a session for the Dootone label, released as Dexter Blows Hot and Cool. As Gitler says “all…(of these recordings)…demonstrate Gordon’s quicksilver swing, his audacity in the upper register, his tonal power and the apt use he makes of inflection whenever he contrasts a sustained note with those complex, mellowing phrases he manages with so expert a sense of time.”

Reissued as part of Shout! Factory’s Bethlehem Jazz reissues, Daddy Plays the Horn is indeed a wonderful Gordon session and one which shows him in the transition from his earlier, strictly bebop playing. As Gitler suggests, all of the elements that have made Gordon one of the most influential post-bop tenorists are in place here, albeit without the maturity that Gordon’s later Blue Note and Prestige recordings would show. Still, Gordon, along with the accompanying combo (KennyDrew/piano, Leroy Vinnegar/bass, and Larry Marable/drums) sounds very comfortable, very relaxed here.

It was drummer Marable who nicknamed fellow L.A.-based tenor saxophonist Harold Land ‘The Fox,’ which became the title of his most-revered album, recorded in1959. This recording, as well as Land’s, demonstrate the quality of music that was being played on the West Coast in the mid-50s. This important bop and post-bop period is largely forgotten, in part because some of its best musicians were recorded infrequently. This was due to either a lack of name recognition, as in the case of Land, or personal difficulties, such as those Dexter Gordon was experiencing at this time.

In any case, Gordon is in excellent form on this date, and it is one well worth hearing for those who find that Dexter Gordon is their cup of tea. Kenny Drew, a disciple of Bud Powell (with whom Gordon also recorded) gives a great performance on this album and is the main diversion from Gordon’s own playing since Vinnegar and Marable are mainly employed as timekeepers and do little soloing. Gordon’s performance on the blues numbers, “Daddy Plays the Horn” and “Number Four” is ebullient and swinging. He tackles Bird’s “Confirmation,” and brings back echoes of his tenor battles with Wardell Gray, swinging in the Pres-influenced manner favored by Gray and Gordon in his young years. Drew again distinguishes himself with a blues and gospel-influenced solo that presages hard bop while still offering a Powell-esque edge.

On the ballads, “Darn that Dream” and “Autumn in New York,” Gordon is already demonstrating a very mature, melodic approach to ballads. In fact, it’s hard to believe that his ballad work acquired more and more depth throughout his career when one listens to “Autumn in New York.” A fast version of “You Can Depend on Me” rounds out the set with wonderful solos all round, and one feels very much like one has just heard a great set at a local club when the disc ends.

In 1960, Dexter Gordon became involved in the West Coast version of Jack Gelber’s play “The Connection”. Gordon composed music for the play, led the musical quartet that played onstage, and had a speaking role in the play itself. The East Coast version had featured music by pianist Freddie Redd, and the album, recently reissued by Blue Note as part of its Connoisseur Series, also features young alto saxophonist Jackie MacLean.

By the following year, Dexter Gordon had become one of a rapidly growing number of American expatriate jazz artists living and working in Europe. It is often made to sound as though Europe was a land of unlimited opportunity for jazz musicians at this time, a place where their race didn’t matter and jobs were plentiful. This idyllic picture is not quite accurate, however. The truth is that many of the musicians who went to Europe were not particularly well known, and there were those who had serious competition from the best European players, not to mention the protectionism of local musicians’ unions in European countries.

In addition, there were the old temptations of drug and drink, as musicians like Chet Baker and Richard Twardzik discovered during European tours in the 1950s. Gordon’s own bouts of depression and heroin abuse resurfaced during his European time, but he was apparently able to successfully combat them in the somewhat more supportive atmosphere of Copenhagen and Paris.

Blue Note’s Dexter Gordon: Five Original Albums features the complete recordings of Doin’ Alright, Dexter Calling, A Swingin’ Affair, One Flight Up, and Gettin’ Around. A great value for your jazz collection at $16.73

From 1961 to the middle of the decade, Gordon recorded seven albums worth of material for the Blue Note label: Doin’ Allright, Dexter Calling…, Go, A Swingin’ Affair, Our Man in Paris, One Flight Up, and Gettin’ Around. Most of these sessions were recorded in Paris, with Francis Wolff flying there to supervise the recordings. A few were done in New York during Dexter’s infrequent visits there. These Blue Note sessions are often regarded as Gordon’s very best work, and it’s difficult to argue with that assessment. Gordon was generally able to work with the best American and European musicians available at the time, and his playing is so very relaxed and swinging here that the word effortless seems insufficient to describe his ability to freely express his musical ideas.

Doin’Alright features Gordon with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Horace Parlan, bassist George Tucker, and drummer Al Harewood. It features a number of outstanding Gordon performances on such tracks as the Gershwin brothers’ “I Was Doing All Right,” and such originals as “For Regulars Only” and “Society Red.” Gordon’s ability to play lengthy solos that were neither repetitive nor boring is starting to become apparent here, though nowhere near the lengths seen by 1963’s One Flight Up and also on his 1970s releases for the Prestige label. Dexter Calling was recorded during the same 1961 visit to New York. 

In the summer of 1962, Dexter Gordon played a number of dates in New York City and utilized the rhythm section of Sonny Clark, Butch Warren, and Billy Higgins. The West Coast connection is very much in evidence, as both Clark and Higgins initially made their mark on the L.A. jazz scene. Warren hailed from D.C. before he migrated to New York City, and though he never recorded as a leader he worked with stellar musicians including Jackie McLean and Joe Henderson.

Gordon always considered Go! to be his best recording, and certainly his big, big tenor sound and perfusion of fresh ideas had to please him. In addition, there’s some of everything here: swinging near-bop (“Cheese Cake”, sensitive ballad readings “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” and “Where Are You”, a bossa-infused “Love for Sale” and a hard-driving “Three O’Clock In the Morning.” Only two days later Gordon recorded A Swingin’Affair with the same rhythm section. Of particular note on that album is a hot version of “Soy Califa.”

This is Part 1 of 2 Parts. Read Part 2 Here

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