Still Time: Dexter Gordon

Still Time: Dexter Gordon

In my capacity as ‘reviewer’ for a well-known UK jazz magazine I occasionally receive albums which resonate with me more personally than other. Such was the case last week when a two ‘new’ releases by that magnificent tree trunk of a tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon arrived. As ever with Dexter (a man who never stinted on quantity or quality within his improvisations) this was a bumper crop, these archive releases – taken from European broadcast tapes – capturing the great man in the period immediately after his famed 1976 ‘homecoming’ to the US, which followed a lengthy sabbatical in Europe. The reviews themselves will appear shortly, but hearing Gordon again has reminded me of what a key shaping force he was in my years as a teenaged jazz fan (and wannabe musician). I thought therefore that it might be a welcome move to share the chapter on him from my still to be published manuscript Upwards, Backward and Free: A Journey Into Jazz, telling the story of two of his other albums and, along with it, how the saxophonist’s elegant, expansive and engulfing sound impressed itself upon my younger ears. It was another American saxophone giant of the same vintage, the altoist Jackie McLean, who once summed up Dexter’s playing with the word ‘grand’. I can think of no better description. Gordon himself was no less imposing; a true world citizen who made friends (musical and otherwise) across the globe and whose relaxed approach to the business of being a jazz icon ensures that he remains the very exemplar of cool some thirty-one years after his death. He is truly one of the giants of the music, both literally and figuratively – a massive presence whose work continues to delight.

* * * * *

If you play the tenor saxophone – or make any claims, however slight, to love jazz saxophone - then sooner or later you’ll get to hear Dexter Gordon. The man himself is long gone – dead from cancer in 1990, three years short of his seventieth birthday, although fast living was killing him years before this – so there’s no chance you’ll be running into him live any time soon. You may well have already seen him though, as unwittingly as I once did, in that classic black and white Herman Leonard photo, taken on New York’s 52nd Street in the late 1940s, in which the young, handsome and pork-pie hatted Gordon sits statuesque and chiselled amid curling cigarette smoke. It’s one to the best known photos within all of jazz, almost too ‘perfect’ and almost too ‘jazz’ to be real, as if it were taken on the set of some stagey Hollywood film noir, the ‘saxophonist’ a model or actor. Indeed, the first time I ever saw it, brought home as a present by my parents from St. Albans’ market, a poster-sized image for the wall of my teenage-years bedroom, I pooh-poohed it out of hand. ‘Look’, I remember saying to my brother, ‘you can tell he’s just some guy posing; he hasn’t even put the ligature on the mouthpiece the right way round.’

In essence I was right.

Gordon had all the attributes of the great Hollywood leading man; he was imposingly tall (around 6 feet 5 inches), had the features of a Greek god, and the sort of winning smile that would’ve made him a matinee idol every bit as dashingly handsome as a Clark Gable or a Burt Lancaster. A born performer, rarely has anyone in jazz ever looked so right cradling a saxophone, man and machine seemingly made for each other, all sensuous curves and gleaming pearls. And – re: that ligature – he’d always done things the wrong way around.

For starters, he ended his career having actually become a movie star, just pipped to the post for the 1987 Academy Award for best actor – after being nominated for his role as a fading but elegant saxophonist in the movie Round Midnight – by none other than Paul Newman. Parts of his life already resembled fiction: his career-resurgence from a prison sentence in the 1950s; his triumphant success in continental Europe, where he was based from 1962 to 1976, and where to Scandinavian jazz fans in particular he became nothing less than a celebrity; his equally newsworthy return to the US – his ‘homecoming’ - said to have inspired a younger generation’s interest in classic old-school acoustic bop in the late 1970s. Gordon had ridden all these ups and downs with great grace and style, every change dealt with in his characteristic ‘body clock in slow-motion’ manner.

Even at the very beginning of his career he was doing things his way. Taking the model of Lester Young and welding it to the new devices of bebop, he was widely credited with inventing ‘modern jazz tenor saxophone’, ignoring the wisdom of elders like Ben Webster who thought the bigger horn shouldn’t be played fast, and in turn creating a whole raft of imitators and disciples, including, as very young men, both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. In this, Gordon was the crossroads at which the old byways of swing intersected with the novel freeways of bop. To some this made him a transitional figure – a distinctive voice but not an innovator per se – and there are moments throughout his discography when you’re aware, through his sense of pacing and huge, caressing tone that he never stopped being a child of an earlier era. Nevertheless, it was when signed to the most iconic of modern jazz labels – Blue Note – in the early 1960s that he created his best work, surrounded by players who were very much post-boppers; Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Donald Byrd, Horace Parlan. This hardly makes him unique – there are dozens of examples of swing-based jazzmen sounding at their best in the company of players of younger generations (Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet) but what makes Gordon’s Blue Notes sound so right is their absolute conviction in the art of unhurried improvisation. Having begun in the locked-down era of the 78rpm, wherein strict time limits hemmed in this most expansive of soloists (his famous head-to-head with his spiritual twin Wardell Gray, The Chase, was issued over two sides of a single 78), he appeared tailor-made to fully capitolise on the extended parameters of the LP and recorded at least one long player in the 1950s (Daddy Plays The Horn) that is definitive. However, narcotics offences wrecked much of the following five years and in and out of clink a new decade had dawned before Gordon was was once more in the recording studio.

Blue Note signed him in 1961, an opportune time for both label and artist. The saxophonist was keen to rebuild a career blighted by circumstance, and his new label were happy to once more have a genuine ‘heavyweight’ tenor on their books, having signed previous such incumbents Rollins and Coltrane to limited deals (in the latter case a single album). Gordon’s steady stream of Blue Notes were a propaganda exercise par excellence; here he was – a genuine boss tenor – back in business and showing how things should be done. Sure, Coltrane, Rollins and all the other new cats were making all those novel sounds and going for all that ‘freedom’ but for unrivalled, both in-the-pocket and deep in the groove soulful sounds Dexter was your man. The man, in fact.

Both album covers and contents said so. Even more handsome now he’d hit his forties, and tailored more sharply than anyone in jazz bar Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon was made for the twelve-inch album cover, especially those designed by Reid Miles, who over the ensuing four years cropped him variously in profile (Our Man In Paris), in impressively leggy full-length (One Flight Up), even riding a bicycle (Gettin’ Around). The camera, as they say in Hollywood, loved Gordon and he too loved the up-close, intimate focus of the LP, all of his Blue Notes taking their time to make their point, an approach that reached its zenith on the truly elongated One Flight Up, which unwinds across an entire eighteen-minute album side, with nary a hint of tedium.

Gordon’s best Blue Note – in fact the album he named as his own personal favourite among scores of others – is Go, half of a double-date made in the company of ill-fated bebop pianist Sonny Clark in 1962 (the balance can be heard on A Swingin’ Affair). It’s one of the all-time great tenor saxophone jazz albums, full of witty compositions (Cheesecake), lustrous balladry (I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry) and no-holds barred fun (Three O’Clock In The Morning). It wasn’t the first I heard by Gordon, though. That had come, again, via Our Price in Watford around August 1991, from a trip which furnished me with both Our Man In Paris and a cheap Giants of Jazz compilation marrying all of the earlier Daddy Plays The Horn and some sundry live recordings made in Europe in the Sixties (including a Coltrane-esque For All We Know, one of tenorist’s most moving ballad performances).

The Paris date was often regarded as one of the great missed opportunities of Gordon’s career. Having secured the services of the legendary bop pianist Bud Powell, both saxophonist and producer Francis Wolff (who’d flown to supervise the session) were dismayed to learn that Powell wasn’t up for playing any new music. A hastily prepared list of classic jazz themes was then busked instead; Broadway, Scrapple From The Apple, A Night In Tunisia and so on. In lesser hands this would have had the distinct air of a cop-out, but as is so often the case in recorded jazz, in this instance adversity fuelled creativity. The resulting recital – really no more than a studio-staged jam session – delivered definitive readings of virtually every theme chosen, with Gordon sounding as if he were still determined to throw in a few new wrinkles, including some ‘new thing’-ish overtones. But whereas another Blue Note signee saxist Jackie McLean had used similar devices to add still more modish atmosphere to his Let Freedom Ring, taped the year before, Gordon’s squeals and choked notes seemed to come more naturally, as if he were saying to all the young turks ‘I’ve had this in my bag for years now; you ain’t doing nothin’ new’.

Listening to this album recumbent on my bed in the summer sunshine, the music seemed almost too powerful to be contained by headphones. For starters there was ‘that’ tone; boiling, almost impossibly large, rich to the point of opulence, one of the great saxophone sounds. What Gordon then did with it was equally startling; unusually bebop’s tricksiness hadn’t result in a thinning of the tone, as so often happened with ‘post-bop’ tenor, so that - rather than listening to music that sounded as if it might be sped up by artificial means – you heard complex phrases delivered with the weight and punch of a bulldozer. I adored it and couldn’t quite believe how energised Gordon was in full flight, having only really seen photos of him as a sad-eyed, shadow of his former self in the Round Midnight-era. True, this wasn’t the bebopper of that Herman Leonard classic either, but it was Gordon in his prime; middle-aged, playing full-fat tenor with a contentment that said he’d found a style workable for the rest of his days.

Admittedly, I was perhaps less in love with Gordon than I ought to have been at this point. I could readily see his connections to Rollins and Coltrane (in particular), and therefore his hand in every modern tenor who’d come since, and I could hear that his was possibly the last way station on the routes charted by Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but, to be honest, I was simply too drawn to the music of his successors to really ‘get’ his message. That particular epiphany came some time later, during the early part of my own professional career, circa. 1997, when, still living at home with my parents I’d spend long afternoons watching and re-watching Round Midnight. It wasn’t that I was especially taken with the music in the film – much of it courtesy of Herbie Hancock far too ‘modern’ for the story’s 1959 setting – it was that I was utterly gripped by Gordon himself. By now a husk of the figure he’d been on those Blue Note covers (the film’s director had sought him out for the role, despite rumours that the saxophonist had died. In reality he was in semi-retirement in Mexico), his charisma was nevertheless remained intact. Indeed as ‘Dale Turner’, a sort of homogenised synthesis of Bud Powell, Lester Young and Ben Webster, all of whom he’d known, Gordon shuffled, pantomimed and croaked his way through the film, channelling all the melancholy he’d seen in these old friends into a performance that is still unique. Nobody but a jazzman could’ve given so sentimental and cliche-ridden a story (a black musician finding himself again and then returning home to die) the gravitas Gordon did. You literally cannot take your eyes off him, whatever he is doing; talking about saxophone reeds, taking a walk, struggling to remember the lyrics of a ballad. Even watching him order an orange juice you’re aware of beholding a thing of split-second timed beauty.

Having now heard all of Gordon’s Blue Note output listening to the soundtrack album to Round Midnight was an experience I’d rather not rate in technical terms. On the few tracks on which he plays (there are titles by Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Chet Baker and others), Gordon’s tenor is halting, his lack of breath clearly an issue, its general lack of match-fitness highlighted by the otherwise slick backings by Hancock and co. But like the venerable warrior rallying himself for one last fight, there are triumphs too. Body and Soul – its title surely full of implication – has a careworn majesty to it, reminding me very much of latterday Lester Young, whose end-game solos could be as painfully executed as they were poignantly powerful. Likewise Still Time which finds Gordon on soprano saxophone, his tremulous sound perfectly catching the sheer fragility of Hancock’s gently unfurling theme.

The soundtrack to Round Midnight is, like so many other such movie tie-ins, not the sort of thing you should hear without first watching the film that birthed it. Yet if you know the picture, and the back story to it, it becomes a sort of morbidly fascinating bookend. You can hear the Gordon of Go and Our Man In Paris in ghostly, trace-element form, hovering between the notes on Una Noche Con Francis, and in the phrasing that continues to find its own space, albeit now almost reductio ad absurdum. Nor would it be the kind of album you’d recommend to anyone wanting to hear Gordon for the first time. Yet to me it’s very much part of a time in which the saxophonist was most certainly ‘the man’ for me. As I’d done with all the jazz figures I’d obsessed about, I tried to hear everything, read all I could, watch all the footage extant, absorb every nuance. In this regard, Dexter Gordon was a godsend; he gave great interviews, photographed well, moved in a way that was (according to Bertrand Tavernier) ‘jazz’; had even made a feature film. There was lots to imbibe, lots to chew upon. Above all there were the records, including, of course, Our Man In Paris. While it may not be the best Gordon on disc, nor indeed my favourite (that prize goes to Gettin’ Around), it was an incredibly lucky punch for one looking for an entry-level introduction to the saxophonist. If you believe in symmetry, then it follows that the Round Midnight soundtrack must be equally effective exit-level Gordon. In its grooves are the sound of a man close to the end, who had, like Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins before him, distilled the essence of what he had once done at length into what were, in his dying days, gestural signatures.

If jazz is, as we’re often told, a music in which truth cannot hide, then Gordon’s final bows on record are quite literally a goodbye. They certainly helped me to realise that old jazzmen can still function as vessels for the vast reservoir of sound within them even when their own bodies are on the verge of giving out. In that, Round Midnight is both a film (and an album) about facing the biggest of the inevitable truths, that we are all on borrowed time, either knowingly or not. Gordon’s music in the face of death is ravaged, stripped bare and no longer pretty, but it is wise, knowing and still able to move you. I adore it, just as I adored The Chase and Daddy Plays The Horn and Go. Fittingly too, there’s also a full circle traversed in my two choices of album here – Our Man In Paris and Round Midnight – both of which are products of the same era, one real, the other realised through cinematic facsimile. The link, of course, between the genuine Left Bank and the film set one is Dexter Gordon, a figure always somehow bridging the old and the new; a man as mighty as any Parisian landmark, as American as baseball and as timeless as time itself.

Photo: shaggy dog stories - Dexter Gordon and friend stretching out, circa. 1974

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