"Dexter left for Europe because Ronnie Scott had invited him to perform at his club in London," Maxine Gordon said yesterday. "When he got there, he was invited to Copenhagen and to Paris, and when he looked up, it was 14 years later. He was not the type to be fed up with anything. He was the eternal optimist."
The move abroad was a remarkably easy one for Gordon, since he hadn't really lived in America emotionally for many years. While he made his mark in the 1940s in Lionel Hampton and Billy Eckstine's bands and with Wardell Gray in Los Angeles, Gordon was absent for critical stretches in the 1950s as a result of jail terms for heroin possession.
By 1962, Gordon's bop style no longer was cutting edge. Spiritual, free-form saxophonists like John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman were dominant players and at the forefront of a new style. In London, Paris and Copenhagen, Gordon was revered for his lanky good looks, suave manner and heated playing style. In Europe, bebop was still exciting, especially in the hands of someone of Gordon's stature and stamina.
As Gordon told Down Beat in 1972...
"For me, [the move to Europe] has been very good because my whole lifestyle is much calmer, much more relaxed. I can devote more time to music, and I think it is beginning to show. It's not that everyday scuffle, and I'm able to concentrate more on studying.
"Of course, the music scene is more competitive in the States. I think it would be very easy for an American jazz musician to come over here and just relax and play by rote; so to speak, but I think that's very rare, 'cause, you know, if a man is a musician he is interested in music and he is going to play as much and study as much as possible."
But by 1976, Gordon was homesick but somewhat apprehensive about returning to the U.S. As Maxine, Gordon's widow, continued:
"Dexter wanted to return to the States and have his own band. When we met, I was the road manager for his agent, and we agreed to work together on the prospect. When Dexter returned, he was warmly received and formed his dream band—George Cables, Rufus Reid, and Eddie Gladden. He financed our office and we worked on his return for six months before he arrived."
Rebooting his career seemed as though it might be daunting. Popular music in 1976 was driven by rock, soul and disco, and jazz artists —particularly saxophonists and trumpeters—no longer were jazz stars. They had been replaced by electric guitarists and electronic keyboard players. Acoustic jazz forms such as bebop were on the ropes, widely considered a dated form that younger fans found formulaic and dull.
But whatever trepidations Gordon might have felt, they dissolved once he played Manhattan's Storyville, a short-lived club on E. 58th St., and the Village Vanguard in December 1976. Audiences were thunderstruck. Many older jazz listeners who found jazz-rock fusion a bore had been yearning for more straight-up jazz and were highly receptive.
What followed Gordon's Vanguard appearance was remarkable. Between 1976 and 1980, the saxophonist recorded five polished albums for Columbia that never lost their originality. As a result, these recordings gave him and bebop an enormous lift, not to mention acoustic jazz in general.
Gordon's starring role in Bertrand Tavernier's film Round Midnight in 1986 also raised his visibility. His performance seemed autobiographical, allowing him to express through acting and playing his own expatriate frustration with jazz's treatment and lack of recognition in the U.S.
Recently, Sony packaged all of Gordon's recordings for Columbia in a single box, featuring six CDs—five albums plus a disc of bonus material. The five albums are Homecoming (1976), Sophisticated Giant (1977), Manhattan Symphonie (1978), Live at Carnegie Hall (1978) and Gotham City (1980).
As Michael Cuscuna recalls in the box's liner notes...
"One hurdle was Dexter satisfying his contract with Steeplechase Records in Copenhagen before he could sign with Columbia. On Friday, December 11, 1976, Dexter Gordon and I were sitting in the business affairs department at Columbia waiting for a last-minute green light to proceed while the rest of the quintet and engineer Malcolm Addey were getting set up at the Village Vanguard. We didn't get the nod until about 7:30 p.m. and hopped into a cab to head down to the Vanguard with very little time to spare."
Listening to these albums now, you realize immediately how timeless these recordings are. You also will find forgotten favorites like Laura on Sophisticated Giant, Moment's Notice on Manhattan Symphonie, End of a Love Affair on Live at Carnegie Hall and The Blues Walk on Gotham City.
There's also a stunning Polka Dots and Moonbeams on the bonus CD that was recorded in Cuba. First, Gordon records the song in full. After audience applause, Stan Getz steps up and records the same song. A fascinating contrast of superb styles. There's even an alternate, roaring version of Woody Shaw's The Moontrane and a playfully quixotic version of Gordon playing Stevie Wonder's Isn't She Lovely with strings, which was released in '77 as a single.
What the Columbia box illustrates is that even in his later years (Gordon would die in 1990), Gordon towered over many of his peers. His ability to give bebop a new lfe at a time of great upheaval in the music industry remains remarkable.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Dexter Gordon: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection at Sony's Popmarket.com. The CDs come in miniature LP jackets.
JazzWax note: A special thanks to Maxine Gordon and Woody Shaw III, who co-produced the new box with Michael Cuscuna. For more on Dexter Gordon, visit DexterGordon.com, which features clips, videos and more.
JazzWax clip: Here's Dexter Gordon playing Laura...
And here's the Round Midnight trailer...