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Dexter Gordon

The only musician ever nominated for an Oscar was, "Dexter 'LTD' Gordon (Long Tall Dexter)," for his role in the most praised jazz film of all time, Bertrand Tavernier's, "Round Midnight"; titled for Theolonius Monk's signature composition. In Tavernier's jazz classic, Dexter plays expatriate, "Dale Turner," whose mission was to depict a great creative artist, and reveal the pain which often accompanies the exploration of beauty; an ongoing search for new melodic lines and harmonies that prevail within the full musical spectrum...that is be-bop.

On October 16, 1986, I had the pleasure of attending the Hollywood Premier of "Round Midnight;" I was a guest of KLON, Long Beach; they were playing one of my charts at the time. Seeing and hearing Dexter in person was an exciting and emotional experience to behold. But seeing this 'sophisticated giant,' who stood 6' 5" tall, the foremost tenor saxophonist of the be-bop era, on that silver screen, not as big as life-bigger than life, was an experience I will remember as long as I live.

Producer Tavernier hired Gordon for the leading role in Round Midnight after paying him a visit at his New York apartment; he was bewildered at what he saw. "I had to wait because he was sleeping, but when he entered the room I was really affected, just by the way he walked. Watching him come into the room, I had the impression that he was going to fall down and die on the spot. I don't know who else could project that."

Gordon's portrayal of Dale Turner in the film was truly captivating; when he was on stage, that's all you could see; he dominated the screen with his lofty and tottering presence. And with his raspy voice, which is probably a few octaves below the average human voice, he dominated the sound-on stage and off.

On the film set, Dexter hung photographs of Charlie Parker and Lester Young in his trailer. And before every scene, he would meditate upon them. He told producer, Tavernier, that he felt a responsibility to the two idols because he had an opportunity to bring their jazz personas to the screen.

At one point in the film, Dale turner visits a French psychiatrist to discuss his pain dilemma. And with a hands-out-from-his-head jester, he tells the shrink, "My life is music...my love is music..." and with hands moving he finishes, "And it's...twenty-four...hours..a..DAY."

Born and raised in Watts, Ca., Dexter's father was an LA physician whose patients included Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. While in his early teens, Dexter fell under the sophisticated preponderance of Lester Young and later, mastered the extroverted resonance or Illinois Jacquet and the complex harmonies of Charlie Parker.

Dexter was the first 'real' be-bop tenor saxophonist. At 17, he started with the Lionel Hampton orchestra, and before he was 30, he had adorned the stages of some of the top names in jazz history, including Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Billy Ekstine; his be-bop-chops were glowing.

Producer Bertrand Tavernier had this to say about be-bop..."Be-bop musicians are the real geniuses of America. They created the only music in America that has never been co-opted or bastardized by the system." And says Dizzy Gillespie, "It is the most serious music ever made in America, and a lot of people have died for it." Theolonius Monk has this to say..."If you really understand the meaning of be-bop, you understand the meaning of freedom." And Dexter offers..."Be-bop is such a light name for such a demanding music."

Monk spoke of the meaning of freedom, and Tavernier relates this to the film..."I tried to reflect this spirit in the structure of the film: no intricate plots, no twists, but a free flow of voice-overs, time lapses, flash-forwards in the middle of the film, and the laying of one musical number over another."

In 1962, Dexter played a two week gig at Ronnie Scotts in London. Here he premiered his laid-back behind-the-beat phrasing; the gig was so successful, he decided to stay on. He found the racial climate quite relaxed, and eventually, he found home in Copenhagen. During his fifteen-year stay in Europe, he made a few sojourns, and during one, he performed at Storrytowne in New York. On opening night, the place was bulging with peers and fans; Dexter received a standing ovation after every set. One of his fans that night was Bruce Lundvall, president of CBS Records Group; subsequently, Dexter was signed by Columbia.

Dexter returned to New York in 1976. Then, in 1980, he was elected to the "Jazz Hall of Fame." And in 1978 and 1980, Downbeat Magazine named him the "Musician of The Year."

Gordon had a remarkable comprehension of the harmonic structure of chords. As Jimmy Heath once said. "Nobody knows chords like Dexter." From his album, "The Best of Dexter," when we listen to his acappella coda at the end of "Body and Soul," we hear an emotionally commanded, astounding exhibition of his inimitable saxophone prowess.

When it comes to playing ballads, there's Dexter Gordon, and then there's...........? From his 1982 album, "Dexter Gordon-American Classics," in an interview, Dexter had this to say about ballads. "When you know the lyrics to a tune...you have some kind of insight as to it's composition...if you don't understand what it's about, you're depriving yourself of being really able to communicate this poem." With longish tones emanating from the lowest register of his horn, Dexter ranks among the few most thoughtful and articulate ballad players existent.

Before Dexter gives the downbeat for a ballad, and at times, an up-tempo standard, he usually verbalizes, in his low-pitched, raspy voice, the first few lines, and sometimes, the first eight bars, of the lyrics. And when the tune comes to an end, Dexter's method of cutting the band off is anything but...conventional; with his horn hanging form his neck, his arms out to the side, he does a few half-knee bends while his side-men exercise a few moments of musical freedom. With one last knee-bend, his hands come down ending the tune. Dexter does not exercise a conventional bow, rather, his signature bow; holding his horn in a horizontal fashion, he turns to thank the audience for their generous applause...bowing his head; truly a dramatic performance in itself.

During interviews, Dexter has made many quotes that, to this day, still ring in the ears of so many. Here are a few: "Darlin...be-bop is the music of the future." "If you can't play the blues...you might as well hang it up." And, from the back of one of my videos, "...Jazz to me is a living music. It's a music that since it's beginning has expressed the feelings, the dreams, hopes, of the people." And when I think of the tremendous amount of music within his musical self, I can see him, with his hands held at the side of his head as he says, "A...reservoir...of sounds..."

On Wednesday, April 25th, 1990, the free spirited saxophone signature of the be-bop era, whose dispirited demeanor and laconic wit gracefully adorned the stages and sets of that jazz classic, "Round Midnight," did his last gig...here. However, it is my intuitive and spiritual guess that, Dexter is fronting his own group at...'that big gig in the sky.'

The day after his passing, I received two phone calls from lady friends, also friends of Dexter's; they asked how I was feeling, and suggested I get out my 'ax' and start wood-shedding. When I didn't show too much excitement, they came up with, "Richard, you're the only one that can sound like him."

Dexter left behind a legacy of records, videos, and...memories; his performances still ring in the eyes, ears, and hearts of so many...especially my own; such as his lyricism and mannerisms emanating from a...'composite of Dexter.'

Before I leave Dexter, a few rounds about the Academy Awards of February, 1987. The Oscar for best actor 'did not' go to Dexter Gordon; it went to .... ......! Was it because he was black; he wasn't a member of the Screen Actors Guild? At the time, critics had said, Dexter wasn't acting, he was just being himself. For most, it's history now...but not for me!

He towered over most, but not just because of his 6'5" stance. He was towering on the inside-with pride-pride for what he brought to the 'silver screen.' In the classic jazz film, one that had an ambiance unique only unto itself, "Round Midnight," Dexter's role as Dale Turner exemplified more than some know; the trials and tribulations of an archetypal of jazz/be-bop musicians as they exercise their search for beauty-the expansion of musical sonorities-new harmonic horizons.

At the time, Dexter may not have been aware of this but, in the film, he gave inspiration and hope to so many-musicians and non-musicians alike......I am one of those musicians. " THANK YOU DEXTER "

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Dexter Gordon
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