Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Gordon, Dexter (Keith)

Balanced perfectly between the swing and bebop eras, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon played a major role in linking the styles of earlier players, such as Lester Young and Ben Webster, with those who followed, including Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Gordon made some of the first bebop recordings in the 1940s, and was an active and highly influential player through the 1970s.

                      Dexter Gordon at Monterey (1978)
                             Photo by Ron Hudson

Dexter Keith Gordon was born on February 27, 1923 in Los Angeles, California, son of Dr. Frank Gordon, one of Los Angeles’s first African-American doctors, and Gwendolyn Baker, the daughter of an honored captain in the Spanish-American War. While still in his teens, Gordon was drafted into Lionel Hampton’s band, with which he toured and made his first recordings. Playing alongside primary saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, Gordon rarely soloed while with the Hampton band but gained essential experience. In late 1943 or early 1944, Gordon made his first recordings as a leader with Harry “Sweets” Edison and Nat “King” Cole.

He spent the majority of the first half of the 1940s touring with some of America’s top big bands, from Hampton to Fletcher Henderson to Louis Armstrong to Billy Eckstein. It was his tenure in Eckstein’s band that led to his progression into a bebop player, performing alongside fellow swing-to-bop architects Fats Navarro, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, and Sarah Vaughan.

In the mid 1940s, Gordon released some of his brand name “self-titled” compositions, including “Long Tall Dexter,” “Dexter Digs In,” “Blow Mr. Dexter,” “Dextrose” and “Dextivity,” among others. Musicians who were featured on some of these recordings include Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron, Fats Navarro, Max Roach, and Art Blakey. In 1947, Gordon and fellow west-coast tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray released "The Chase," a famous bebop recording featuring extended duels between the two tenors.

                           Dexter Gordon
                   Artwork by Jerry Blank

With a few exceptions (this version of “"Autumn in New York"being one) the 1950s saw few recordings from Gordon due to drug-related incarcerations. When released, Gordon was invited to record on Blue Note Records. This led to a career-revitalizing run of successful, well-received records. Some tracks from these Blue Note session dates include:"Love For Sale" from 1962’s Go!"You Stepped Out Of A Dream"from 1962’s A Swingin’ Affair, and "Willow Weep For Me" from 1963’s Our Main in Paris.

From 1962 to 1976, Gordon moved to Europe, which he felt was more conducive to the sustenance of both his personal life and jazz career. Recording sessions and occasional family visits were the only events that would have bring Gordon to the U.S. for nearly fourteen years. While based in either Paris or Copenhagen, Gordon recorded for European labels Steeplechase and Black Lion, and led extended runs at the Montmartre Club in Copenhagen, many of which have been recorded and released. While still living in Europe, Gordon released post-Blue Note American recordings for the Prestige Label, including The Tower of Power!, The Panther, The Jumpin’ Blues, Tangerine and Generations.

Upon relocating to New York in 1976, Gordon’s return engagement at the Village Vanguard was a critical and popular success that revitalized his prominence in America. Released as Homecoming on the Columbia Label, Gordon borrowed Woody Shaw and his current band for the Vanguard run, and the band performed a combination of Gordon originals and classic standards, including this extended version of"'Round Midnight."

Throughout the late 1970s, Gordon released his final recordings for Columbia and Blue Note, including "The Moontrane" from 1977’s Sophisticated Giant and "As Time Goes By" from 1978’s Manhattan Symphonie

As the 1980s emerged, Gordon’s playing decreased and his interest in acting sprouted into a second career. He was nominated for an Academy Award for portraying an expatriate jazz musician in ‘Round Midnight in 1986, and had a minor role in the posthumously released Awakenings in 1991. Dexter Gordon passed away from kidney failure on April 25, 1990. He was survived by his widow, Maxine, and children Robin, Dierdre, Mikael, Benjamin, and a stepson, Woody Shaw III.

During his career, Dexter Gordon did not garner the acclaim that some of his fellow tenor saxophonists received. Perhaps this was because he was not strictly a swing-era star like Lester Young, or a musical pioneer like John Coltrane. However, over time the recognition of Gordon's achievements has grown as jazz aficionados have come to appreciate that he was simultaneously influenced by the swing players and an influence to the bebop players.

Gordon's powerful tone, harmonic inventiveness, and lyrical ballad playing have been embedded in the playing of all succeeding generations of bop saxophonists. Gordon was elected into the Down Beat Hall of Fame in 1980.


As a Leader:

Dexter Rides Again (1945), Long Tall Dexter (1945), Master Takes: The Savoy Recordings (1945), New Trends in Modern Jazz, Vol. 3 (1945), The Chase! (1947), The Hunt (1947), Dexter Gordon Quintet (1947), The Duel (1947), Daddy Plays the Horn (1955), Dexter Blows Hot and Cool (1955), The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon (1960), Doin' Alright (1961), Landslide (1961), Dexter Calling... (1961), Dexter Gordon (1961), Go! (1962), A Swingin' Affair (1962), Cry Me a River (1962), Our Man in Paris (1963), One Flight Up (1964), Cheesecake (1964), King Neptune (1964), I Want More (1964), Love For Sale (1964), It's You or No One (1964), Billie's Bounce (1964), After Hours (1964), After Midnight (1964), Clubhouse (1965), Gettin' Around (1965), Live at the Montmartre Jazzhus (1967), Body and Soul (1967), Both Sides of Midnight (1967), Take the "A" Train (1967), Squirrel: Live at Montmartre (1967), Live at the Amsterdam Paradiso (1969), Day in Copenhagen (1969), More Power! (1969), Power! (1969), The Tower of Power (1969), The Panther! (1970), Dexter Gordon at Montreux With Junior Mance (1970), Jumpin' Blues (1970), The Shadow of Your Smile (1971), Ca'Purange (1972), Generation (1972), Dexter Gordon-Sonny Grey with the George Arvanitas Trio (1973), Parisian Concert (1973), Blues a La Suisse (1973), The Apartment (1974), Revelation (1974), More than You Know (1975), Stable Mable (1975), Swiss Nights, Vol. 1, 2, 3 (1975), Something Different (1975), Bouncin' with Dex (1975), Strings and Things (1976), Lullaby for a Monster (1976), Biting the Apple (1976), Featuring Joe Newman (1976), Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard (1976), True Blue (1976), Sophisticated Giant (1977), Midnight Dream (1977), Nights at the Keystone, Vol. 1, 2, 3 (1978), Great Encounters (1978), Manhattan Symphonie (1978), Gotham City (1980), Jive Fernando (1981), Round Midnight (1985), The Other Side of Round Midnight (1985), Those Were the Days (1995), Hot and Cool (1995), Tenor Titans, with Ben Webster (1997), Live at Montmartre (1998), XXL (2002), Dextrose (2002), The Rainbow People (2002), Happy Birthday (2003), Cute (2003), Our Man in Amsterdam (2003), Live at the Both/And Club San Fransisco (2003), Live at Highschool (2003), Loose Walk (2004), Bopland: The Legendary Elks Club Concert (2004)

As a Sideman (Selected):

Benny Carter and his Orchestra, 1943-1946 (1997), Louis Armstrong, 1944-1946 (1997), The Complete Blue Note Sessions (Fats Navarro and Tadd Dameron, 1947), Nostalgia (Fats Navarro, 1947), Memorial Album (Wardell Gray, 1949), Memorial Album, Vol. 2 (Wardell Gray, 1950), Takin' Off (Herbie Hancock, 1962), Vintage Hampton (Lionel Hampton, 1965), Setting the Pace (Booker Ervin, 1965), Live at the Montmartre (Hampton Hawes, 1971), Ghetto Lullaby (Jackie McLean, 1973), The Meeting (Jackie McLean, 1973), The Source (Jackie McLean, 1973), Philly Mignon (Philly Joe Jones, 1977), Bennet/Berlin (Tony Bennett, 1987)

Contributor: Eric Novod