Standing at six-and-a-half-feet tall, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (1923–1990) was head and shoulders above everyone in jazz, literally and musically. His rich, full-bodied saxophone tone—captured on such classic recordings as Go, Our Man in Paris, and Homecoming—was an amalgam of iconic saxophonists Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and Gordon’s playing influenced a multitude of saxophonists including John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, and Wayne Shorter.
Gordon left America in the 1960s, lived in Europe for 14 years, and moved back to New York City to much fanfare. But he was best known to the general public for his starring role in the 1986 jazz-life movie Round Midnight, which garnered him an Academy Award nomination for best actor and a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Soloist, for the movie’s soundtrack.
Though more than a foot shorter than him, his widow, New York City–born Maxine Gordon, stood tall in her own way and was a major factor in the saxophonist’s late-career success, working as his manager and guiding him from his European base in Denmark until his final days at their vacation home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He was already a jazz industry veteran when they met; she worked as a record producer for Columbia Records, was road manager for legendary arranger Gil Evans, and negotiated recording contracts. She personally managed the late trumpeter Woody Shaw—with whom she had a relationship that produced a son, Woody III—before marrying Dexter.
Based on those sterling credentials, Maxine has authored Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon (Univ. of California, Nov.), an informative, well-paced, suitelike literary work that chronicles the saxophonist’s family, influences, inspirations, zeniths, and nadirs, and documents his legacy as one of the most influential saxophonists in jazz history.
“Dexter was working on an idea for the book, after Round Midnight, when we were living in Cuernavaca,” Maxine says during an interview in a meeting room at the Institute of Jazz Studies on the Newark, N.J., campus of Rutgers University. “A publisher said, ‘You need a writer,’ and he called James Baldwin, but he said, ‘I’m not doing too well, you write it.’ And Tragic Magic novelist Wesley Brown was going to work with him.”
Then, Maxine continues, Dexter decided to write the book himself in the third person, “about this character, Society Red, his nickname, who gets in and out of trouble, and, in the end, everything works out. So he started writing on yellow legal pads, and I would type on a little Olivetti typewriter. And then one day, he said, ‘If I don’t finish the book, promise me that you’ll go back to college and finish the book.’ ” She laughs and says, “Little did I know what it would take.”
Maxine also wanted a solid academic foundation to tell her husband’s story. At the urging of her friend, Philadelphia jazz organist Shirley Scott, Maxine fulfilled her late husband’s wishes and enrolled at CUNY in Manhattan in 1991,where she earned her BA in sociology and African-American and Puerto Rican studies. With the encouragement of Robin D.G. Kelley, a history professor at New York University, Maxine was on her way to earning a PhD in history and was working on her dissertation on Minton’s Playhouse, the legendary Harlem nightclub that gave birth to bebop in the late 1930s.
“I didn’t do all of those years of graduate work to teach,” Maxine says. “I did it to write the book. Then, I’d have the skills to write an African-American cultural history, which was always my idea of how to write the book.”
Dexter’s writings, shaped and structured by Maxine, unfold in a cinematic panorama, beginning with the saxophonist’s birth in Los Angeles to a father who was a Howard University doctor and who counted Duke Ellington as one of his patients. Dexter also had an ancestor who served as a Buffalo Soldier, a member of a 19th-century black cavalry regiment of the American West; his mother’s genealogy included French and Malagasy ancestry.
Dexter’s musical apprenticeship on L.A.’s culturally rich Central Avenue jazz strip is also superbly detailed, as is his apprenticeship as a sideman with such bandleaders as Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine, and Lionel Hampton, and an account of his 1947 hit record, “The Chase,” an up-tempo, two-tenor duel with his friend Wardell Gray.
As Maxine writes in the book, the “image of the cool jazzman fails to come to terms with a three-dimensional figure full of humor and wisdom, a man who struggled to reconcile being both a creative outsider who broke the rules and a comforting insider who was a son, a father, and world citizen.” She adds, “This book is an attempt to fill in the gaps—the gaps created by our misperceptions, but also the gaps left by Gordon himself.”
The gaps Maxine refers to range from 1948 to about 1960, the worst years for the saxophonist, who spent much of the period imprisoned for drug use. Dexter wanted to omit those “lost years” from the written record. “I said, ‘You can’t leave out a decade,’ ” Maxine recalls. She says he replied, “Yeah, I’m leaving it out. If you want it in the book, you write it your damn self!”
Thankfully, Maxine prevailed, through meticulous research into incarceration records and an extensive oral history from Hadley Caliman, a friend of the saxophonist who spent time locked up with Dexter.
After his release from prison, Dexter moved to Copenhagen, where he flourished and toured the continent, occasionally traveling back to the States for gigs. During this fruitful period, the saxophonist recorded for a number of labels, including Blue Note Records, and with several pioneers of bebop jazz—among them older bop luminaries such as drummer Kenny Clarke, pianist Bud Powell, and a then-up-and-coming postbop keyboard phenomenon named Herbie Hancock.
In 1975, Maxine met Dexter while she was coordinating a European jazz tour for booking agent Wim Wight and was assigned to get Dexter’s group to their home base in Denmark. After a handshake, Dexter and Maxine began their professional relationship.
And the historic result of their professional partnership was Dexter’s 1976 “homecoming” engagement at the Village Vanguard jazz club with a small band featuring Shaw, who spread the word about Dexter’s return. The engagement was a resounding success and a cultural event well beyond the jazz world, thanks to heavy promotion by the saxophonist’s new label, Columbia, which recorded the Vanguard dates—all of this made possible by Maxine’s shrewd negotiations.
With Dexter back in New York and supported by a major label, his subsequent recordings enjoyed critical acclaim, which peaked in 1986 with his role in Round Midnight as jazz saxophonist Dale Turner, a fictional composite of Powell and Lester Young. The film greatly benefitted from Dexter’s insistence on casting real jazz musicians—including pianists Hancock and Cedar Walton, bassist Ron Carter, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and drummer Billy Higgins—as well as his nuanced script changes.
Dexter was thrilled with the Academy Award nomination. “He thought being a jazz musician was the greatest thing you could be,” Maxine says. “And he felt that being nominated kind of spoke to the possibilities for jazz musicians.”
Twenty-eight years after Dexter’s death from throat cancer, Maxine guards his legacy well as she moves on to her next opus. “In my next book, The Geography of Jazz, I look at four women: organist Shirley Scott, singer Velma Middleton, trombonist and arranger Melba Liston, and singer Maxine Sullivan,” she says. “How old were they when they came to New York from Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Philly? And how did that change them? That old kind of jazz history—they’re born, they go on the road, they make records, they die a tragic death... We’re done with that.”
Eugene Holley Jr. is a freelance writer who contributes often to Publishers Weekly.