Born on this Date in History: Jazz Giant Dexter Gordon

By Ryan Scates/WUSF

Dexter Gordon, a literal giant of the jazz saxophone at 6 feet 6 inches was a legend during his time. He was one of the first tenor saxophonists to explore the emerging improvisational sound of bebop jazz in the 1940’s. He would become one of the reigning kings of the style by the 1960’s.  He was known for having a large, spacious sound, playing behind the beat, and for having a humorous stage presence.

Early Life

Born as Dexter Keith Gordon in Los Angeles on February 27, 1923 to Dr. Frank Gordon (one of the first black doctors in LA) and Gwendolyn Baker, daughter of Captain Edward Baker (one of five black recipients of the American Medal of Honor in the Spanish–American War). Dexter’s father had both Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington as patients. When Gordon was thirteen, he started playing the clarinet, before he switched to the saxophone. During that same time, he played with contemporaries of his such as Buddy Collette and Chico Hamilton. In late 1940, Gordon joined Lionel Hampton’s band alongside the likes of Illinois Jacquet and Marshal Royal. In 1944 he played in bands lead by Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, and Billy Eckstine.

A Jazz Revolution

Between 1942 and 1944, bebop was in formation in the jazz clubs of New York and Dexter was a regular at various bebop jam sessions. In 1944, he played on numerous Billy Eckstine recordings like If That’s The Way You Feel, I Want To Talk About You, Blowin’ the Blues Away, Opus X, I’ll Wait And Pray, The Real Thing Happened To Me, Lonesome Lover Blues, and I Love the Rhythm in a Riff.

Groovin' High Original 78 RPM release, Discogs

1945 would prove to be a pivotal year in jazz history and Dexter Gordon’s life. In November of 1945, Charlie Parker recorded Ko-Ko, one of the first bebop tracks ever made. With Ko-Ko, Parker permanently changed the face of jazz and Gordon would contribute to this new direction. During this same year, Gordon joined bebop legend Dizzy Gillespie where he recorded Blue ‘n’ Boogie and Groovin’ High. After playing with Gillespie, he joined Charles Thompson on his tracks Takin’ Off, If I Had You, 20th Century Blues, and The Street Beat.

The Savoy and Dial Recordings

The Chase Original 78 RPM release,

Late in 1945, he got to record as a bandleader for the first time on the legendary Savoy label which led to recordings such as Blow Mr. Dexter, Dexter’s Deck, Dexter’s Minor Mad, Long Tall Dexter, Dexter Rides Again, I Can’t Escape from You, and Dexter Digs In. Gordon returned to Los Angeles in 1946 and signed on to famed jazz label Dial (which Charlie Parker also recorded on). On Dial, Gordon recorded Mischievous Lady, Lullaby in Rhythm, The Chase, Iridescence, It’s the Talk of the Town, Bikini, Ghost of a Chance, and Sweet and Lovely in 1946 and 1947. The Chase, was alongside The Hunt, one of the famed saxophone duets Gordon performed with Wardell Gray that gained him additional notoriety. The Hunt gained immortality through a reference in Jack Kerouac’s beat classic On the Road.

Gordon’s career stalled in the 1950’s as he struggled with heroin addiction and was in and out of jail. In 1960, he made a successful comeback, recording a series of classic hard bop albums for Blue Note like “Doin’ Alright” (1961) and “Dexter Calling” (1962) and his personal favorite album, “Go!” (1962) which is widely regarded as being a seminal classic of hard bop Ira Gitler wrote in the liner notes that “Go!” was “not recorded in a nightclub… but in it’s informal symmetry, it matches the relaxed atmosphere that the best of those made in that manner engender.”

Album Cover for Dexter Gordon's Go!, Allmusic

“Go!” Perfectly captures his unique style at it’s maturity with its playful, occasionally mischievous and humorous qualities such as his liking for diverse and often unusual musical quotes. This is exemplified by his quoting of Take Me Out to the Ballgame on Three O’Clock in the Morning and El Jarabe Tapatio (the Mexican Hat Dance) on Love for Sale. He also indirectly pays tribute to one of his influences Lester Young with Cheese Cake taking inspiration from his composition Tickle Toe.

In 2019, the Library of Congress honored “Go!” by adding it to the National Recording Registry for being aesthetically, historically and/or culturally significant.

Away from the American Madness

Cover Art for Dexter Gordon's Our Man in Paris Album, Allmusic

After recording Go!, Dexter left for an extended stay in Europe that would last until 1976. Living mostly in Copenhagen and Paris and occasionally returning to the United States to record. He chose Europe because of the greater respect jazz musicians enjoyed there. He continued to record prolifically during this time. He continued his streak of Blue Note comeback classics with albums like Our Man in Paris (featuring fellow expatriate and bebop pioneer Bud Powell on piano) and One Flight Up before switching to Prestige to record records like Tower of Power and More Power! And after that, Steeplechase in the early 70’s.

Back in the U.S.A.

Cover Art for Dexter Gordon's Homecoming: Live At The Village Vanguard Album, Wikipedia

In 1976, after 15 years in Europe, Gordon returned to the United States for good. He performed a special engagement at the legendary Village Vanguard in New York billed by Columbia as his homecoming concert. A milestone performance in his career, he performed extended versions of several jazz standards, each measuring more than ten minutes in length, including Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight. A standard which had become heavily associated with him. The concert quickly became the stuff of jazz legend. He was greeted with an incredibly warm welcome and immense reverence as an elder statesman of jazz.

By the time Gordon returned, bop jazz had fallen out of fashion in favor of jazz fusion.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Gordon never experimented with fusion. He and was among the few jazz artists who kept their sound firmly based in be bop until the very end.

Gordon died April 25 1990 in New York at the age of 67.