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. His studio and live performance career spanned over 40 years.
Gordon's height was 6 feet 6 inches (198 cm), so he was also known as "Long Tall Dexter" and "Sophisticated Giant". He played a Conn 10M Lady Face until 1964. He lost the instrument in a Paris hotel and then switched over to a Selmer Mark VI. His saxophone, seen in various photos, was fitted with an Otto Link metal mouthpiece.
In 1986, Dexter Gordon was named a member and officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters by the Ministry of Culture in France. His performance in Round Midnight (Warner Bros, 1986) was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Leading Role and he won a Grammy for Best Soundtrack. On April 25, 1990, Dexter Gordon died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Gordon was born and grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was a doctor who counted Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton among his patients. He played clarinet from the age of 13, before switching to saxophone (initially alto, then tenor) at 15. While still at school, he was playing in bands with such contemporaries as Chico Hamilton and Buddy Collette.
Between 1940 and 1943, Gordon was a member of Lionel Hampton's band, playing in a saxophone section alongside Illinois Jacquet and Marshall 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.
By 1945, Gordon had left the Eckstine band and was resident in New York, where he was performing and recording with Charlie Parker, as well as recording under his own name. Gordon was particularly known for his saxophone duels with fellow tenorman Wardell Gray that were a popular live attraction which were documented in recordings made between 1947 and 1952.
Gordon's sound was commonly characterized as being 'large' and spacious and he had a tendency to play behind the beat. One of his major influences was Lester Young. Gordon, in turn, was an early influence on John Coltrane during the 1940s and 1950s. Coltrane's playing, however, during his early period from the mid to late '50s or early '60s influenced Gordon's playing from then onward. Similarities in their styles include their clear, strong, metallic tones, their tendencies to bend up to high notes, and their abilities to single-tongue and still swing. One of Gordon's idiosyncrasies was to recite the lyrics of each ballad before playing it.
Gordon was performing Freddie Redd's music for the Los Angeles production of Jack Gelber's play The Connection in 1960, replacing Jackie McLean. Around this time, he signed to Blue Note Records, an association that was to produce a steady flow of albums for several years: 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 would record again for Blue Note. During this time he would be a big advocate of Onzy Matthews and be one of the initial sax players to start Matthews' big band in 1959 along with Curtis Amy; Gordon would leave to Europe before getting a chance to record with that big band on Capitol Records.
Over the next 15 years in Europe, living mainly in Paris and Copenhagen, he played regularly with fellow expatriate, or visiting players, such as Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Kenny Drew, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Horace Parlan and Billy Higgins. Blue Note Records' 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, France in 1963 with a quartet including pianist Bud 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 States occasionally for further recording dates with Blue Note: Gettin' Around was recorded during a visit back to the US in May 1965, as was the unreleased album Clubhouse.
Less well-known, but of similar quality, are the albums he recorded during the same period for the Danish label SteepleChase (Something Different, Bouncin' With Dex, Biting the Apple, and a few dozen others). They again feature American sidemen, but also such Europeans as Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.
Gordon found Europe in the 1960s a much easier place to live, saying that he experienced less racism and greater respect for jazz musicians. Furthermore in America he had experienced drug addiction and imprisonment twice, and must have found the change of location helpful. While in Copenhagen, Dexter Gordon and Kenny Drew's trio appeared onscreen in Ole Ege's theatrically released hardcore pornographic film Pornografi (1971), for which they composed and performed the score.
He switched from Blue Note to Prestige Records (1965-1973) but stayed very much in the hard-bop idiom, making classic bop albums like 1972's Tangerine 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. The American recordings included The Chase, a tenor battle with Gene Ammons cut in Chicago in 1970.
Dexter Gordon finally returned to the United States for good in 1976. He appeared at the Village Vanguard, NY, for a gig that was dubbed as his 'homecoming;' and was recorded and released 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".
After this appearance, Gordon recorded several more albums that proved he was as good if not better than before his years in Europe, and he finally gained appreciation as one of the great jazz tenors. The increased attention that he received because of Columbia Records promotions has been seen as a turning point in jazz because they focused on acoustic jazz rather than the commercial cross-over styles which had been heavily promoted during the first part of the 1970s.
Gordon made several notable film appearances. The first occurred, oddly enough, while he was in prison for possession of heroin. He portrayed an inmate playing in the prison band in Unchained, though the soundtrack was later overdubbed. In 1986, Gordon starred in the movie Round Midnight as 'Dale Turner', an expatriate jazz musician much like himself; the role might even be a thinly veiled biography of him, though Lester Young and Bud Powell were its main inspirations. Gordon received a nomination for a Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. In addition, he had a non-speaking role in the film Awakenings, which was released after his death. Between these two roles, Gordon made a guest appearance on the Michael Mann series Crime Story.
Gordon died of kidney failure in Philadelphia, PA, on April 25, 1990, at the age of 67. He was 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, one of the five Medal of Honor winners (9th Cav.) in the Spanish-American War who served in the 9th and 10th Cavalries in the group 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, CA), James Canales Gordon (Oakland, CA), Deidre (Dee Dee) Gordon (Los Angeles, CA), Mikael Gordon-Solfors (Stockholm, Sweden), Morten Gordon (Copenhagen, Denmark) and Benjamin Dexter Gordon (Copenhagen, Denmark), and five grandchildren, Raina Moore (Brooklyn, NY), Jared Johnson (Los Angeles, CA), and Matthew Johnson (Los Angeles, CA) Maya Canales (Oakland, CA), Jared Canales (Oakland, CA)
When he lived in Denmark, he became friends with the family of the future Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and subsequently became Lars's godfather.
Gordon is also survived by his widow and former manager-producer Maxine Gordon.