Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Gordon, Joe (Joseph Henry)

Trumpeter Joe Gordon valued the quality of the melodic line over pompous brassy flashiness, an affinity he shared with his 1950s contemporaries Miles Davis, Blue Mitchell, and Kenny Dorham. But like Bix and Brownie before him, and Lee Morgan after him, Gordon died tragically during the prime of his career.

Joe Gordon

Gordon played with an introverted and somewhat pinched tone, especially in his high range, and a controlled lyricism and smooth delivery makes his playing cool and comforting. He would often use intentionally lazy articulation and would occasionally end phrases by dropping the tonal center of the final note a touch flat. Both of these techniques emphasized the casualness of his playing, but never detracted from his energetic swing and ability to drive a rhythm section during his improvisations.

Joseph Henry Gordon was born an only child to non-musical parents in Boston, Massachussetts on May 15, 1928. He developed an early interest in classical music by attending recitals with his mother, an amateur singer. As a teenager, he became a fan of Count Basie’s band, taking a strong liking to trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison.

At age 15, Gordon caught a live performance by the Coleman Hawkins/Don Byas group, which featured the trumpeter “Little” Benny Harris. Gordon was impressed by Harris and the burgeoning bebop sound, and his interest in jazz deepened. Soon after, he signed up for a modern music class at the New England Conservatory taught by trumpeter Fred Berman, whom he would later credit for much of his success.

Gordon took a job as a sandwich boy on the railroad between Boston and Albany; he would take his trumpet along the ride to play in jam sessions in each city as often as he could. By 1947 he quit his rail job and secured his first gig, playing with vibraphonist Pete Diggs’ band in Akron, Ohio.

Back in Boston, pianist and bandleader Sabby Lewis heard him play at the Boston Savoy and offered him a position in his in-demand local band. This high-profile gig led to many more opportunities in Boston for the young Gordon, including his first record session with alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano in December 1951, which was released on CD in 1990 as Boston All-Stars.

In the early 1950s Gordon played with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld, and Don Redman. The young trumpeter also had the opportunity to perform with Charlie Parker when the alto legend came through Boston in December 1952. The brilliant group—including pianist Dick Twardzik, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Roy Haynes - was recorded at the Hi-Hat for a radio broadcast and later released on CD by Original Jazz Classics in 1990 as Boston 1952.

More noteworthy sideman gigs followed in the mid-1950s. Gordon spent six months in a pre-Jazz Messengers group led by Art Blakey which also featured Gigi Gryce on alto, Walter Bishop Jr. on piano, and Bernie Griggs on bass. The group’s studio date from May 20, 1954 has been released by Verve on CD as Blakey.

Gordon led his first two record dates in New York on September 3 and 8, 1954. Released on Mercury, Introducing Joe Gordon, whichfeatured tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, pianist Junior Mance, bassist James Schenk, and Blakey on drums. Gordon, who contributed four out of the six compositions, has spotty control issues, but overall his playing is fresh and lyrical on this solid debut.

Gordon was freelancing in Boston for the majority of 1955 into 1956 when he received a call to join Dizzy Gillespie’s big band for a tour of the Middle East and Eastern Europe in the spring of 1956. He can be heard on Gillespie’s The World Statesman and Dizzy in Greece.

Back in New York City for a run at Birdland with Gillespie, Gordon made a session with pianist Horace Silver on July 2, 1956. He appears on three tracks on the album Silver’s Blue along with Hank Mobley, Doug Watkins, and Kenny Clarke.

The Gillespie group took off for a State-sponsored tour of South America later in July. Though he was given a prized break solo space on Dizzy’s classic “A Night in Tunisia,” Gordon was reportedly unhappy over what he perceived to be a lack of opportunity to blow in the group. This combined with Gillespie’s dislike of his heroin use forced Gordon off of the tour early, on July 25, 1956. Whether he quit or was fired remains in question.

Gordon returned to Boston to lead a group of his own before joining trumpeter Herb Pomeroy’s big band. He stayed with Pomeroy until May 1958 when he moved out to Los Angeles.

With his lyrical style and cool delivery, Gordon naturally became an in-demand sideman on the west coast, working with notable leaders such as Benny Carter, Dexter Gordon, Harold Land, and Barney Kessel. In 1959-1960 he was a member of drummer Shelly Manne’s quintet, which also included Richie Kamuca on tenor, pianist Victor Feldman, and Monty Budwig on bass. The group recorded at the Blackhawk in San Francisco on September 22-24, 1959 and released Shelly Manne & His Men at the Blackhawk Vols. 1-5 on Contemporary. Many of the performances are long, giving listeners a rare opportunity to hear Gordon stretch out on tracks like “Summertime,” from Volume 1.

Gordon and tenor saxophonist Harold Land augmented Thelonious Monk’s quartet (which at the time featured Charlie Rouse on tenor, John Ore on bass, and drummer Billy Higgins) on Thelonious Monk Quartet Plus Two at the Blackhawk, recorded on April 29, 1960. Gordon sounds more than comfortable on Monk’s originals, navigating the tricky forms and harmonies with fluid and inspired lyricism.

Lookin’ Good, Gordon’s second and final album as a leader, was released by Contemporary in 1961. For this album his group included Jimmy Woods on alto, Dick Whittington on piano, Jimmy Bond on bass, and drummer Milton Turner. Gordon showcases his growing compositional prowess with a set of eight diverse originals. His trumpeting also reached its zenith on this recording; he had truly found a voice of his own as his tone opens up and becomes more consistent and his lines grow increasingly exciting. His Harmon-muted work on “A Song for Richard” is one of the album’s many highlights.

Woods returned the favor by having Gordon on his Awakening!! album, recorded in September of 1961. Gordon and Woods are quite a complementary front line, with Gordon’s laid back swing balanced by Woods’ passionate and insistent style.

Tragically, Awakening!! was Gordon’s last record date. He died in Santa Monica Hospital on November 4, 1963 from injuries sustained from a house fire that he started by dropping a lit cigarette onto his bed while nodding off. He was only 35 years old.

Fresh Sound records released West Coast Days in 2005 an album featuring Gordon in Manne’s group with Kamuca, Budwig, and pianist Russ Freeman, recorded on July 31, 1960 at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, CA. Given Gordon’s lack of recordings, it is a prized release that spotlights the trumpeter in the prime of his all-too-short career.

Select Discography:

As a leader:

Introducing Joe Gordon (1955)

Lookin’ Good! (1961)

West Coast Days (2005)

As a sideman:

Boston All-Stars (Charlie Mariano, 1951)

Boston 1952 (Charlie Parker, 1952)

Blakey (Art Blakey, 1954)

The World Statesman (Dizzy Gillespie, 1956)

Dizzy in Greece (Dizzy Gillespie, 1956)

Silver’s Blue (Horace Silver, 1956)

Life is a Many Splendered Gig (Herb Pomeroy, 1957)

Aspects (Benny Carter, 1959)

At the Blackhawk, Vols. 1-5 (Shelly Manne, 1959)

Some Like it Hot (Barney Kessel, 1959)

Son of Gunn!! (Shelly Manne, 1959)

Thelonious Monk Quartet Plus Two at the Blackhawk (Thelonious Monk, 1960)

West Coast Blues! (Harold Land, 1960)

Swingin’ With Humes (Helen Humes, 1961)

Awakening!! (Jimmy Woods, 1962)

Contributor: Matt Leskovic