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Dexter Gordon

In concert with Dizzy Gillespie, Toronto
August 19, 1978 Photo: Jean-Luc Ourlin
Background information
Also known as Long Tall Dexter
Born February 27, 1923(1923-02-27)
Origin Los Angeles, CA, U.S.
Died April 25, 1990 (aged 67)
Genres Swing, Bop, Hard bop
Occupations Composer, Bandleader, Musician, Actor
Instruments Tenor saxophone
Years active 1940 – 1986
Labels Blue Note, Savoy, Columbia
Associated acts Dizzy Gillespie

Dexter Gordon (February 27, 1923–April 25, 1990) was an American jazz tenor saxophonist and actor. He is considered one of the first bebop tenor players. A famous photograph by Herman Leonard of Gordon smoking a cigarette during a set at the Royal Roost in New York City in 1948 is one of the most iconic images in the history of jazz.

Gordon's height was 6 feet 6 inches (about 198 cm), and so consequently he was also known as 'Long Tall Dexter'. He played a Conn 10M 'Ladyface' tenor [1] until it was stolen in a Paris airport in 1961. He then switched over to a Selmer Mark VI. His saxophone was fitted with an Otto Link metal mouthpiece, which can be seen in various photos.




Early life

Gordon was born and grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was a doctor who counted Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton among his patients. He played clarinet from the age of 13, before switching to saxophone (initially alto, then tenor) at 15. While still at school, he was playing in bands with such contemporaries as Chico Hamilton and Buddy Collette.[2]

Between 1940 and 1943, Gordon was a member of Lionel Hampton's band, playing in a saxophone section alongside Illinois Jacquet and Marshall Royal. In 1943 he made his first recordings under his own name, alongside Nat Cole and Harry Edison. During 1943-44 he featured in the Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson bands, before joining Billy Eckstine.

By 1945, Gordon had left the Eckstine band and was resident in New York, where he was performing and recording with Charlie Parker, as well as recording under his own name. Gordon was a virtuoso particularly famous for his titanic saxophone duels with fellow tenorman Wardell Gray, that were a popular live attraction and that were documented in several albums between 1947 and 1952.

Many would characterise Gordon's sound as being 'large' and spacious (a feature partially owed to his big'n'tall physical stature), and his tendency to play behind the beat is discernible. One of his major influences was Lester Young. Gordon, in turn, was an early influence on John Coltrane during the 1940s and 1950s. Coltrane's playing, however, during his early period from the mid to late '50s or early '60s influenced Gordon's playing from then onward. Similarities in their styles include their clear, strong, metallic tones, their tendencies to bend up to high notes, and their abilities to single-tongue and still swing. One of Gordon's idiosyncrasies was to recite the lyrics of each ballad before playing it.

Blue Note recordings

Dexter Gordon in Amsterdam (1980)

Gordon was saxophonist for the L.A. production of the Jack Gelber play The Connection in 1960, replacing Jackie McLean who performed and recorded the Freddie Redd score in New York City. By this time he had begun recording for Blue Note Records a collaboration that was to produce some of his most highly-regarded work on the albums Doin' Alright, Dexter Calling..., Go, and A Swingin' Affair. The first two, his Blue Note debuts, were recorded over three days in May 1961 with Freddie Hubbard, Horace Parlan and others. The last two were recorded in August 1962 just before Gordon left for his extended stay in Europe. On these albums the rhythm section was Blue Note staples Sonny Clark, Butch Warren and Billy Higgins.

Years in Europe

After that, he spent 15 years in Europe, mostly in Paris and Copenhagen, where he played regularly with fellow expatriate jazzmen such as Bud Powell, Ben Webster, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Kenny Drew, Horace Parlan and Billy Higgins. Gordon also visited the States occasionally for further recording dates with Blue Note Records. From this period Our Man in Paris, One Flight Up, and Gettin' Around are regarded as among his finest sessions. Our Man in Paris was a Blue Note session recorded in Paris, France in 1963 with a quartet including pianist Bud Powell, drummer Kenny Clarke, and French bassist Pierre Michelot. One Flight Up features an extended solo by Gordon on the track "Tanya" recorded in Paris in 1964 with trumpeter Donald Byrd, while Gettin' Around was recorded during a visit back to the US in May 1965, as was the unreleased album Clubhouse.

Less well-known, but of similar quality, are the albums he recorded during the same period for the Danish label SteepleChase (Something Different, Bouncin' With Dex, and a few dozen others). They feature American sidemen but also such Europeans as Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu and Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.

Gordon found Europe in the 1960s a much easier place to live, saying that he experienced less racism and greater respect for jazz musicians. Furthermore in America he had experienced drug addiction and imprisonment (twice), and must have found the change of location helpful. While in Copenhagen, Dexter Gordon and Kenny Drew's trio appeared onscreen in Ole Ege's theatrically released hardcore pornographic film Pornografi (1971), for which they composed and performed the score.[3]

From 1965-1973 he switched from Blue Note to Prestige Records but stayed very much on the hard-bop track, while the rest of the jazz-world was getting funky Gordon was making classic bop albums like 1972's Tangerine with Thad Jones, Freddie Hubbard, and Hank Jones. Some of the Prestige albums were recorded during visits back to North America while he was still living in Europe, others were made in Europe including live sets from the Montreux Jazz Festival. The American recordings included The Chase a tenor battle with Gene Ammons cut in Chicago in 1970.


Gordon finally returned to the United States for good in 1976. He appeared at the Village Vanguard, NY, for a gig that was dubbed as his 'homecoming;' and was recorded and released under that title. He noted "There was so much love and elation; sometimes it was a little eerie at the Vanguard. After the last set they'd turn on the lights and nobody would move"[citation needed].

After this appearance, Gordon recorded several more albums that proved he was as good if not better than before his years in Europe, and he finally gained appreciation as one of the great jazz tenors. The increased attention that he received because of Columbia Records promotions has been seen as a turning point in jazz because they focused on acoustic jazz rather than the commercial cross-over styles which had been heavily promoted during the first part of the 1970s.

Gordon made several notable film appearances. The first occurred, oddly enough, while he was in prison for possession of heroin. He portrayed an inmate playing in the prison band in Unchained, though the soundtrack was later overdubbed. In 1987, Gordon starred in the movie Round Midnight as 'Dale Turner', an expatriate jazz musician much like himself; the role might even be a thinly veiled biography of him, though Lester Young and Bud Powell were its main inspirations. Gordon received a nomination for Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. In addition, he had a non-speaking role in the film Awakenings, which was released after his death. Between these two roles, Gordon made a guest appearance on the Michael Mann series Crime Story.

Gordon died of kidney failure on April 25, 1990, at age 67. He was voted musician of the year by Down Beat magazine in 1978 and 1980, and in the latter year was inducted into Down Beat's Jazz Hall of Fame.


Gordon's maternal grandfather was Captain Edward L. Baker, one of the five Medal of Honor winners (9th Cav.) in the Spanish-American War and served in the 9th and 10th Cavalries - in the group known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

Gordon's father, Dr. Frank Gordon, M.D., was one of the first prominent African-American physicians and a graduate of Howard University.

Dexter Gordon had a total of six children, from the oldest to the youngest: Robin Gordon (Los Angeles, CA), James Canales Gordon (Oakland, CA), Deidre (Dee Dee) Gordon (Los Angeles, CA), Mikael Gordon-Solfors (Stockholm, Sweden), Morten Gordon (Copenhagen, Denmark) and Benjamin Dexter Gordon (Copenhagen, Denmark), and three grandchildren, Raina Moore (Brooklyn, NY), Jared Johnson (Los Angeles, CA), and Matthew Johnson (Los Angeles, CA).

When he lived in Denmark, he became friends with the family of the future Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and subsequently became Lars's godfather.[4]

Gordon is also survived by his widow and former manager-producer Maxine Gordon.



  1. ^ Dexter Gordon's instrument
  2. ^ Joop Visser, essay booklet with Settin' the Pace
  3. ^ Jazz on the Screen, David Meeker
  4. ^ Justice for all: the truth about Metallica, Joel McIver, 2004, Omnibus Press

External links


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