Dexter Gordon: Daddy Plays the Horn

Dexter Gordon should have owned the Fifties.  As the tenor playing counterpart to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and as a player revealed on concert air checks of the late forties as one who could sustain long, thematically cohesive solos, Dexter was poised to maintain his preeminence among tenor players and to make the most of the expanded blowing opportunities that LP’s offered at the dawn of the new decade.   However, hampered by drug addiction and ensnared in the California penal system, Gordon, a Los Angeles native, spent most of the fifties in prison while players bearing his influence, chief among them John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, came to prominence.  And while Stan Getz dominated the Downbeat Critics poll, Dexter didn’t even rank among vote-getters.

dexter by francis wolff

Dexter Gordon, photo by Francis Wolff


Lesser characters might have been undone paying dues like these, but Gordon, who seemed preternaturally disposed to finding the silver lining, made the most of his confinement.  He described himself as a “perpetual optimist” to the British writer Mike Hennessey in a Melody Maker profile in 1966, and noted that his years in prison helped restore him to good health and focus as intensively as ever on his playing.  During each of his jail terms Gordon was allowed to have his instrument with him, and given the scandalous numbers of West Coast jazz artists who did time, he often joked that some of the best bands he played with were “in the jug.”

Dexter was paroled in 1955, and while it proved to be short-lived, he made three recordings late that year that rank with the finest of his career: Daddy Plays the Horn; Dexter Blows Hot and Cool; and a sideman appearance on Stan Levey’s This Time the Drum’s on MeDexter Blows Hot and Cool was made for Dootone, a Los Angeles label specializing in r&b; the others were released on the jazz-oriented Bethlehem which afforded Gordon and company the opportunity to stretch out on sets of ballads, bebop, and up-tempo blues.

In Ira Gitler’s chapter on Dexter in Jazz Masters of the Forties, he quotes a 1961 Jazz Monthly article by Michael James that praises these mid-fifties LP’s and concisely summarizes the essence of his style: “All demonstrate Gordon’s quicksilver swing, his audacity in the upper register, his tonal power, and the apt use he makes of inflection whenever he contrasts a sustained note with those complex, elbowing phrases he manages with so expert a sense of time.”

Once he was paroled and allowed to leave California, Dexter returned to New York for the first time in nearly 12 years and began recording for Blue Note.  However, the Big Apple had its own draconian form of punishment for ex-cons and drug offenders.  Cabaret cards were required for musicians working in establishments where alcohol was served, and Dexter’s record precluded him from securing one.  This same punishment was meted out against Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and many other jazz greats with drug problems.  In Gordon’s case, it came at what would have been the beginning of a glorious second act on the New York scene, but Dexter was hungry for work and Europe soon beckoned.  In 1963, he played an extended engagement at Ronnie Scott’s in London, and from there he moved on to Copenhagen.

Here’s Dexter in 1963 in Copenhagen, charismatic as ever, in rarely seen documentary footage filmed by German television.  His frontline partners are the Swedish baritone saxophonist Lars Gullin and the American-born flutist and alto player, Sahib Shihab.

For tonight’s Jazz à la Mode celebration of Dexter’s 91st birthday anniversary, we’ll hear him with fellow expat and tenor great Ben Webster in 1969 playing the Ellington standards, “In a Mellotone,” “C-Jam Blues,” and “Perdido.”  Gordon and Webster first met when Dexter was touring with Lionel Hampton in 1943.  On that occasion, Ben sat in with the band and played Dexter’s tenor.  Afterwards he advised the 20-year-old to get something better than “this boy’s horn!”  30 years later, Ben had developed such admiration for Dexter that he bequeathed him his trusty Selmer when he died in 1973.


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