In the spring of 1961, Dexter Gordon was living in Los Angeles, against his will. Born in the city, the dynamic tenor saxophonist had left town in the mid-1940s to work and record in New York. But drug addiction plagued his career just as it was taking off. Arrested in 1952 for possession, he was sentenced to a two-year term. Arrested again on drug charges in California in 1955, Gordon was sentenced this time to a longer stretch. During his years away, the independent sound he had pioneered was leveraged to great advantage by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Released on parole in 1960, Gordon had to remain in L.A. until the end of April 1961. Which made the phone call he received on April 25, 1961 much sweeter. [Photo of Dexter Gordon with Blue Note founders Alfred Lion, left, and Francis Wolff]
On the line that day was Blue Note Records founder Alfred Lion. After some small talk, Lion, in his thick German accent, told Gordon that he wanted to record two albums with him as leader in New York over the coming weeks. Overjoyed, Gordon asked Lion about money, and they agreed on a fee. The next day Lion sent Gordon a letter confirming their phone conversation. In the correspondence, Lion told Gordon that he wanted to record the first album on May 6th with pianist Horace Parlan, bassist George Tucker and drummer Al Harewood. The rhythm section, Lion wrote, had been recording steadily behind Lou Donaldson and now with tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin.
Lion cautioned in the letter: "I don't want any complicated music; but rather some good standards in medium, medium-bright and medium bounce tempos." He also asked Gordon to consider a blues and a slow, walking ballad. "I'd like to make something that can be enjoyed and played on jukeboxes stationed in the soul spots throughout the nation."
Gordon flew East, and the result was Doin' Allright, a masterpiece by any measure and to my ear Gordon's finest recording for the label. At some point between Lion's letter in April and Gordon's arrival for the May 6th session, Lion added trumpeter Freddie Hubbard to the mix. Hubbard was at his youthful peak (two weeks later he would record Africa Brass with John Coltrane).
Yesterday, I spoke with Maxine Gordon, Dexter's wife, about the vibrant and exciting Doin' Allright session:
"I love Doin' Allright, too. If I had to choose a favorite tune from the album, it would be Society Red. It's something of a theme song that Dexter wrote for himself. 'Society Red' was one of his nicknames along with 'Long Tall' and 'Vice.' I love the way that he and Freddie Hubbard blend to make the tenor sax and trumpet sound unified.
"When Freddie came to Paris in 1986 to record the Birdland scenes for the film 'Round Midnight, he and Dexter played Society Red. They both had serious flashback moments. It was 25 years later, but Freddie still remembered the tune as though they were still in the studio in '61. Jazz musicians have phenomenal memories I've noticed."
"Just after Dexter arrived in New York to record Doin' Allright, I went to see him. I had been assigned by Down Beat to write a feature. It was the first time I had met him personally, and we hit it off immediately. For whatever reason, we became close, and that friendship lasted until he passed in 1990. We saw each other regularly with our families for years in Europe and in New York. I loved his sound.
"His personality was so open, and he had such a quick wit. I had been a great fan of his since the late 1940s. For me, it was an honor to meet him personally. I remember that day in May 1961. Dexter was excited about recording for Blue Note. The label had become a big deal by the late 1950s, and Dexter was back in New York. Which for him was a relief."
Interestingly, despite the power and magnetism of Doin' Allright, Maxine told me yesterday that Gordon's own Blue Note favorite was GO, recorded on August 27, 1962. Maxine said the reason was simple: "The rhythm section—Sonny Clark on piano, Butch Warren on bass and Billy Higgins on drums. Dexter said the trio was 'as close to perfect as you can get.' "
After a careful re-listen to both albums, it's still a tough call. Both feature dynamic playing and flawless execution, and both are jammed tight with sticks of energy. What you do realize is that what one hears as a listener is often very different from what an album leader hears—and wants. Listeners are fixed on the album's soloist. The soloist, meanwhile, is focused on the rhythm section, for drive, swing and motivation. [Photo by Riccardo Schwamenthal/CTSImages.com]Doin' Allright has a melodic toughness, with Hubbard and Gordon operating like two drag racers. The song choices are lyrical and off the beaten path. When Gordon turned up at the recording session, he had reached deep into his bag of lesser-known standards. The three here are I Was Doing All Right (Gershwins), You've Changed (Bill Carey and Carl Fischer) and It's You or No One (Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn). The Gordon originals are For Regulars Only, Society Red and I Want More. What's remarkable is that you can't tell the standards apart from Gordon's own contributions. That tells you just how brilliant Gordon was as a songwriter.
GO is a more tightly wound and competitive album. Sonny Clark's piano punctuates with rhythmic clarity, as though he's pecking out his solos on a typewriter, and Gordon seems to be fencing with him throughout. Higgins on drums has full command of the beat, holding steady on the cymbal while serving up an endless stream of mixed beats on the snare. This album also carries three well-known standards as well as three jazz tunes—Cheese Cake (an original), Second Balcony Jump (by Gerry Valentine for Billy Eckstine's band) and Three O'clock in the Morning, a song from the 1920s.
Both albums are standouts during a period of transition for Gordon, who would depart for an extended stay in Europe in the fall of 1962 and not return to the U.S. until 1976.
JazzWax tracks: Both Doin' Allright and GO have been remastered as part of Blue Note's Rudy Van Gelder Series. You'll find Doin' Allright and GO at iTunes—or here and here. The original liner notes in both cases are by Ira Gitler, with updates by Bob Blumenthal.
Gordon's first album following his prison release in 1960 was The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon (Jazzland). It can be found here. Prior to this album, he had not recorded since 1955.
A special JazzWax thanks to Maxine Gordon for sharing with me Dexter Gordon's correspondence. For more, visit the official Dexter Gordon site here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Dexter Gordon playing Sonny Stitt's Loose Walk in Denmark in 1964...