July 1, 2019

The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon



FOR A MUSICIAN WHO passed away in 1990, Dexter Gordon has been extremely busy lately. 2018 saw the release of not only a new biography, but multiple LPs and CDs of previously unreleased material – a series of releases which has continued into 2019.

The biography Sophisticated Giant – The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon (University of California Press) was written by his widow Maxine Gordon, who also worked as his manager from the mid-1970s forward. The book is predominantly a memoir of both Maxine’s time with Gordon and her efforts researching Gordon’s early years in America and his years in Europe. It does include snippets from a proposed autobiography written by Dexter himself as well as anecdotes from those around him in his later music and film careers.

Like most musicians of his generation, Gordon got his start in the big bands. In his case, Lionel Hampton took on the seventeen-year-old tenor player from 1940 through 1943. Other stints with big bands followed including brief stays with Fletcher Henderson and even Louis Armstrong. By the mid 1940’s, Dexter, only in his early twenties, came home to Los Angeles and became a fixture in the Central Avenue scene.

at-subway-clubBy 1962, Dexter Gordon had moved to Europe where he would reside until 1976. While in Europe, Gordon would make occasional return trips to play clubs or to record for the Blue Note and later Prestige labels. Over the years, a number of European live recordings of Gordon have surfaced, including the 2018 release In The Cave: Live At Persepolis Utrecht 1963 (Dutch Jazz Archives). Featuring Gordon with a local piano trio, the set consists mostly of the standards Gordon loved to play, including one he would return to repeatedly, the Billie Holiday classic “Body & Soul.”

2018 also saw the re-release of Jazz At Highschool (Storyville). Recorded live by Danish National Radio at a Swedish high school in 1967, the set features Gordon along with possibly his best rhythm section: pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and drummer Al Heath. The Gordon compositions “Soy Califa” and “Society Red” highlight a strong program of standards, blues and ballads that formed the basis of Gordon’s regular repertoire.

By the 1970s, Dexter Gordon would be among the many jazz giants who would regularly play at festivals in Japan. From 1975 comes the previously unreleased live recording Tokyo 1975 (Elemental Music), which again features backing from Drew, Pederson and Heath in a program highlighted by a rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning” and Gordon’s own “Fried Bananas.”

Gordon’s return to America in 1976, brilliantly orchestrated by manager Maxine, was greeted as a major event in the jazz world. Gordon would make the most of it by touring throughout the country and recording extensively for Columbia and Blue Note.

dexter_gordon_playboyBut Dexter would not limit his touring to the U.S. and Japan. From 1973 comes At The Subway Club – Koln Germany 1973 (Elemental Music) which includes CD bonus recordings from elsewhere in Europe totaling over an hour of additional music. A later stop in Paris yielded Espace Cardin 1977 (also on Elemental Music), which features Gordon in his only known performance with bebop piano pioneer Al Haig. The quartet for this particular club date is rounded out by bassist Pierre Michelot and drummer Kenny Clarke.

In 1982, Dexter returned to his home town of Los Angeles to play the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. The resulting set (Dexter Gordon – Live at the Playboy Jazz Festival on Run Out Groove) features Woody Shaw on trumpet, Kirk Lightsey on piano and as special guest on two extended tracks, the vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Due to contractual issues at the time it was recorded, the set was only partially released on vinyl in the early 1980s. This edition restores the Milt Jackson tracks to this outstanding set; bringing the complete performance to fans for the first time.

By December 1982, Gordon was recorded again at the Keystone Korner club for Dexter Gordon Quartet – San Francisco ‘82 (Hi-Hat), which finds Dexter and company playing their standard set augmented by several Christmas tunes.

By the mid-1980s, Gordon would slow down his touring to star in the 1986 film Round Midnight, for which his portrayal of an expatriate jazz musician during the early 1960s earned him an Academy Award nomination.

As his health started to decline in the late 1980s, Gordon would occasionally tour and play jazz festivals in Europe and Japan, where additional unreleased tapes may exist. While he has been gone for close to thirty years, we may not have heard the last from Dexter Gordon.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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