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Maxine Gordon on Dexter Gordon

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Dexter Gordon was a remarkable tenor saxophonist. A towering, dashing figure with an embracing smile and a wry sense of humor, Gordon was a powerful player whose bebop approach was equally assertive and romantic. [Photo above of Maxine Gordon by Fiona Ross, courtesy of Maxine Gordon]

A bebop star in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, Gordon didn't tour or record for much of the 1950s due to incarceration for heroin use. Nevertheless, Gordon made up for lost time in the 1960s thanks to Blue Note and was a star in Europe in clubs and on record labels. In 1976, Gordon returned to the U.S. and signed a long-term contract with Columbia. Then he appeared in Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight (1986), arguably one of the finest jazz feature films ever made.

Gordon's great strides starting in 1976 had a great deal to do with the acumen and determination of Maxine Gordon, who worked with Gordon in Europe and became his wife in 1983. She is the author of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon.

I've been listening a great deal to Dexter Gordon lately and had some unanswered questions. Thankfully, Maxine recently made time for me. 

Here's my interview with Maxine Gordon:

JazzWax: What made Dexter special among the many tenor saxophonists of the late 1940s?

Maxine Gordon: Dexter would never consider himself “special.” But what we know is that in the 1940s, he translated the language of bebop for other tenor saxophonists as he played with bands led by Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton and Billy Eckstine. As Jimmy Heath said to me, “Dexter was the link between Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Charlie Parker and the future of the tenor saxophone." [Publicity photo of Dexter Gordon courtesy of Maxine Gordon]

JW: From 1952 to ’55, Dexter was off the scene. Then from 1955 to 1959, he again wasn’t recording. What happened exactly?

MG: Dexter referred to the 1950s as the “trapped years." He was a heroin user during that period and spent time in and out of jail in Los Angeles and prison in California. The laws in L.A. at the time gave the police the right to arrest people for “internal possession.” Using was considered a health-code violation. This law was later overturned by the Supreme Court.

JW: A health-code violation?

MG: The police used what was called a Naline test to determine if there was drug intoxication. If the test was positive, you were sentenced immediately to 90 days in the L.A. jail. Then you were placed on parole. If you violated parole, you were sent to the California Institution for Men, known as Chino. It was a minimum security prison.

JW: It was quite a struggle to get that material into your book, wasn't it?

MG: Dexter wanted me to leave this part of his life out. But, as you know, I persisted with the research and included it. Everything I learned through my research of these years is in Chapter 10 of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon.

JW: Did Dexter tell you why he turned to heroin?

MG: I'm not qualified to know why people use drugs, and I wonder why so many people focus on that part of jazz history. There are many people who have difficult periods in their lives where they to drugs or alcohol but make it through. I think it might be better to look at the great contribution these artists have made rather than their shortcomings.

JW: Jazz fans focus on it because it’s difficult to rationalize how such impossibly brilliant artists became entrapped by such dangerous substances. I, for one, am always curious about the factors that led to addiction, just as I'm passionate about the art. Whether it’s depression, anxiety or experimentation, it’s part of who these people were and how their art evolved.

MG: One thing Dexter did say about drug use was that in Denmark, being a drug user did not make you a criminal. It was considered a health issue. He wished that had been the case in the States.

JW: Did Dexter practice while he was incarcerated?

MG: At Chino, there was a very good band with many notable musicians, including Roy Porter and Hadley Caliman. Dexter never stopped practicing and playing whenever he could. This was not unusual. Many jazz musicians were imprisoned during the 1950s. At the Federal Medical Center near Lexington, Ky., known as the Narcotics Farm, musician inmates formed a group that came to be known as the Greatest Band Never Heard. Sadly, they weren't permitted to record.

JW: Was Dexter sober after he was released from Chino and paroled?

MG: He definitely was done with drugs after parole in 1959 and he was able to leave L.A. for New York. He never looked back. He went to Europe in 1962 and returned in 1976.

JW: How did Alfred Lion come to sign Dexter to a series of spectacular albums starting in 1961?

MG: Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff offered Dexter a Blue Note contract in 1961 through an agent in L.A. Dexter had other offers, but he was very fond of Blue Note and had a great relationship with the label. His friend, tenor saxophonist Ike Quebec, was Blue Note's A & R man. That made Dexter feel very comfortable with Blue Note.

JW: Was Dexter happy with the results?

MG: After the release of the film Round Midnight and the celebrity that followed, Dexter was often asked about his favorite recording. I remember that he sat and listened to all his albums, which was something he had never done before. In the end, he said he would have to say that Go in 1962 was his favorite for the rhythm section of Sonny Clark, Butch Warren and Billy Higgins. He said that it was four musicians as one and that he could play whatever came to mind because they were all playing together. That was what he was always striving for. He found this again with George Cables, Rufus Reid, and Eddie Gladden.

JW: Was Dexter self-critical?

MG: Dexter never thought he was “great” on any recording. He said he was always trying to get better. He said that only Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie could really play bebop and that “the rest of us are trying to get that good.” On a jazz cruise in 1988, Dizzy said to him, “Dex, you're sounding pretty good. Keep practicing.” He said, “Thank you, John. I appreciate that.” Dexter was so happy to hear that from Dizzy.

JW: Why exactly did Dexter decide to move to Europe?

MG: Dexter went to London first as a guest at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. As he said, “I went for two weeks and when I looked up, it was 14 years later.” After his first gig in London, he went to Copenhagen. There, he soon realized that he had found a life where he could live comfortably and perform all over Europe. He often said that he would not have survived had he returned to the State then.

JW: Why?

MG: Dexter didn’t make a firm decision to move to Europe. But once he was there and working all the time, he stayed. When he settled in Copenhagen, he worked all the time and traveled throughout Europe easily, mostly by train. He felt comfortable in Europe most of the time. Of course, there was racism there. But he felt that for the first time he was considered an artist. That gave him entry into a new world.

JW: What was the looming issue that kept him from returning at that point?

MG: Dexter felt that if he returned in the '60s, he would never have been able to work. He said that in Europe, it was a relief not to be looking over his shoulder all the time to see if the police were following him. He kept up with the civil rights movement in the U.S,. and, of course, you know he was a member of the Black Panther Party in Denmark.

JW: When did you leave for Europe and what were you doing there?

MG: I spent quite a lot of time in Europe with groups that toured and played six weeks of one-nighters. Then I'd come back to New York for two weeks and return to Europe for six weeks. I heard some of the greatest musicians and was able to be in their presence. I also learned so much about the life of the musicians I had been listening to since I was a teenager.

JW: Where did you work first? MG: My first job in Europe was as road manager for the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1973. The job was offered to me at Boomers in Greenwich Village. I was sitting with Louis Hayes and George Gruntz, the director of the festival. Louis said to George that I could do the job. By then, I had been the road manager for Gil Evans’s big band. But I had never traveled in Europe and did not speak German, which would have been helpful for that job. I did manage to learn how to do the job and I traveled with lots of great groups. My first tour was with Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins, Sam Jones and Clifford Jordan.

JW: How did you meet Dexter? MG: I met Dexter in 1975, when I was working as a road manager for jazz groups and jazz festivals in Europe. In '75, there was a threatened rail strike in France so his agent sent me to escort his band by train back to Copenhagen. I was sent to Nancy to travel with Dexter’s group. We became fast friends.

JW: What happened when you heard him for the first time? MG: In Nancy, I experienced what many Dexter fans call “the Dexter moment.” I was mesmerized by his sound and his presence. The gig was a concert in a lovely theater. The audience was enthralled and gave him two standing ovations and two encores. I remember he played Tenor Madness. The band included Kenny Drew on piano, Jimmy Woode on bass and Tony Inzalaco on drums.

JW: No contract? MG: No. Every New Year’s Eve after that, Dexter would say, “OK, kid, let’s keep it going.” I became his manager.

JW: Why did Dexter decide to return to the States when he did, in '76? MG: When I first heard Dexter live in Nancy, I told him I thought people would love to hear him back home. Dexter started to talk about returning. He said, “I think it’s time. I want my own band.” Many musicians living in Europe tried to discourage him, but we agreed to give it a try.

JW: Was it a process?

MG: Yes. We traveled by train and boat back to Copenhagen through Italy and Germany and had time to talk about what he wanted to do and how he thought about his return to the States. He said he would take six months to get himself ready.

JW: And you?

MG: I returned to New York and started to lay the groundwork for his return. Michael Cuscuna and I opened an office near Columbia Records in New York. The poet Hattie Gossett ran the office and we worked long hours and long days on Dexter’s bookings and recordings.

JW: When did you line up the Village Vanguard?

MG: Soon after I heard him in Nancy, I called Max Gordon, the owner of the Vanguard, and told him how great Dexter sounded. It took a bit of convincing, but he finally offered Dexter a week in the club.

JW: Your negotiation with Columbia on behalf of Dexter is legendary. What sort of deal did you secure for him? MG: It was Michael Cuscuna who said, “Maxine made the best deal I ever saw when she negotiated with Columbia for Dexter. I don’t know how she did that.” I have wondered how I did that myself. The contract with Columbia was very complicated because Dexter had to get out of a questionable label deal in Europe.

JW: What was the big ask?

MG: I wanted terms that I knew would suit Dexter’s history as a popular artist in Europe. Columbia’s vice president of business affairs didn’t think that what I wanted was “standard practice.” But I persisted, since Dexter’s career was not “standard” in any way.

JW: In the end? MG: It all worked out for the best. I have always tried to get musicians to read a contract before they sign it. If they can play this music, they can read a contract. It’s just words on paper but it can change their lives and the future of their work.

JW: What was the holdup with the Columbia deal?

MG: Dexter had signed with Steeplechase Records in Copenhagen. That relationship ended badly. The negotiations to end that contract so Dexter could sign with Bruce Lundvall and Columbia Records was not finalized until the first night of recording Homecoming for Columbia live at the Village Vanguard.

JW: What were some of the key provisions? MG: I discuss the history of recording contracts in Dexter’s book. Thank you for asking about the provisions. They remain relevant for young artists today. The first and most important item was publishing. In earlier contracts, including Blue Note’s, the company expected to own the artists' original tunes in their publishing divisions. As a result, beginning with Dial and Savoy Records, artists could not own their own songs. This meant they had no income for earnings “in perpetuity” (forever and beyond). This is one of the worst things an artist can agree to. Fortunately, Dexter had his own publishing company and all his original music remains in that company.

JW: What was the second provision?

MG: Foreign rights. Often, record companies base their royalty rate on U.S. sales and then offer 50% for foreign rights. Because Dexter had lived in Europe for 14 years, I knew that his audience was there rather than in the U.S. Columbia’s vp of business affairs didn’t think that was a good idea. He felt there wasn’t much proof of jazz sales in Europe. I won that battle. When the first sales report came in, Marvin said, “Well, I guess you were right about that.”

JW: What else?

MG: We agreed that Columbia would provide tour support for Dexter’s band. Bruce Lundvall had always worked in marketing and he was determined to prove that jazz could sell. After he signed Dexter, he signed Woody Shaw, the Heath Brothers, Arthur Blythe and Cedar Walton. Bruce loved jazz and always respected the artists. He was a man of his word, something rather unusual in a business that has not always been good for artists.

JW: When did you and Dexter marry?

MG: In 1983, Dexter decided to stop touring, close the office and the business, and live what he called “a normal life.” We moved to Mexico and were married there. I wrote Dexter’s autobiography as a promise to him. The book is his story. I only come into the story when we met in 1975.

JW: Was acting harder than Dexter thought it would be in Round Midnight in 1986?

MG: Dexter said that after being on the road with Lionel Hampton’s band when he was 17, nothing was difficult. No, he was prepared and had dedicated himself to doing the film and representing all the musicians who never had the same opportunity he had. Dexter acted before in the L.A. version of The Connection, written by Jack Gelber. He also was an avid film fan and loved Marlon Brando. Dexter was nominated for best leading actor in a film in 1986 for his role in the film. Contrary to some opinions, he was not playing himself. As he liked to say, “My life has a happy ending.”

JW: As Dexter’s wife, what did you love most about him?

MG: Not to sound overly romantic, I would have to say that I loved everything about him. Maybe his sense of humor and the fact that he was never pessimistic.

JW: Ever argue?

MG: When Dexter and I closed the office and began to live together in 1983, we agreed not to discuss business and money at home except for one hour—from 9 to 10 on Friday mornings. His attorney, Norman Annenberg, handled all the calls and offers. This was a very good rule that I have suggested to other musicians' wives. I traveled with Dexter as his wife, not his manager. Unless, of course, something came up where I had to speak up. I learned to watch baseball and he learned to love Aretha.

JW: What are your five favorite Dexter Gordon albums?

MG: Go!; Clubhouse (for I’m a Fool to Want You, when Freddie Hubbard comes in and continues Dexter’s thought); Homecoming; Ballads (for Body and Soul); and Sophisticated Giant.

JW: What are you working on now?

MG: A book called Quartette, which will feature stories about four female jazz artists—Velma Middleton, Maxine Sullivan, Shirley Scott and Melba Liston. I have received two writing fellowships so far. One at the Dora Maar House in Provence, France, and one at the Women’s International Study Center in Santa Fe, N.M. I'm writing during the virus lockdown with no excuses for not making progress on the research and writing.

Dexter Gordon died in 1990.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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