He had a huge tone: full, round, present. And at 1.96 meters he really was a giant: the American saxophonist Dexter Gordon. His sound was unique and his face became one of the most famous in modern jazz thanks to his starring role in the film “At Midnight”. On February 27, Dexter Keith Gordon would have been 100 years old.
A hotel room. The man in the white shirt with suspenders crossed over his back sits on the bed and reaches into a suitcase containing his saxophone. He says in a rough, low, almost gurgling voice: “Lady Sweets. Are you ready for tonight?” Cover.
The camera pans to a stage. A double bass, fingers that gently strum the thick strings, and a casually creeping rhythm sets in. A few bars later, the extremely clear, straightforward, strong tones of a tenor saxophone sound above it. They form the theme of the famous lyrical piece “Body and Soul”. And then the camera already shows the musician playing these notes. It’s the man from the hotel room. He sits on a chair in front of the other musicians in the band and blows into his instrument. He’s still wearing a shirt and suspenders, no jacket, and a casually tied tie.
MOVIE MEMORIAL TO DEXTER
In this film his name is Dale Turner. For all jazz-loving observers, however, his name is quite different: Dexter Gordon. It’s his tones that you hear here. And in this film, “At Midnight” by French director Betrand Tavernier, he plays a fictional character, of course – but at the same time he portrays himself here in an incredibly poignant way. Dale Turner plays like Dexter Gordon, speaks like Dexter Gordon, walks like Dexter Gordon. And so back then, in 1986, the director Bertrand Tavernier, with his fictional story, also memorialized a really great, real musician: the saxophonist and actor Dexter Gordon himself.
THE FILM – AND THE RELATIONSHIPS TO DEXTER GORDON’S LIFE
This film was a sensation. Because it was possibly the first feature film that profoundly captured the essence and soulful expressiveness of (modern) jazz. The strength of the film also lay in the choice of the main actor. Because it couldn’t be more authentic. The life of a failing giant was told: an extremely talented musician who blocked a lot in life due to addiction problems. And as an American in Europe, he had the opportunity to breathe deeply, find new strength and get back on his feet. At the time, the film was inspired by the life stories of jazz greats Lester Young and Bud Powell – but it also had strong ties to the life of the main character. Because Dexter Gordon was also a jazz great who had to cope with big falls after his early glory; yes, because of his drug addiction he was even imprisoned several times. And in the years following the film, Gordon almost seemed to emulate the film’s story in his own life: like film hero Dale Turner, he is back in the United States in his final years, and like him, he dies young: Gordon succumbs at the age of 67 , also a lifelong heavy smoker, on April 25, 1990 of throat cancer. The sad end of an extraordinary musician.
TONES WITH RADIANCE AND TENDERNESS
How Dexter Gordon played around and rewrote melodies: That was a maximum of expression – and at the same time of intimacy. Tones with radiance and tenderness. Tones that reflected a life between special splendor and special tragedy. Dexter Keith Gordon was born on February 27, 1923 into the family of an African American physician, Dr. Frank Gordon, and his wife Gwendolyn Baker, who is said to have had Malagasy-French ancestors. dr Frank Gordon was the personal physician of the jazz stars Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington and at the same time an amateur clarinettist. Jazz music and especially the sound of big bands was part of everyday life for son Dexter from an early age. He soon learned the clarinet, later switching to alto saxophone and finally to tenor saxophone, the instrument on which he would become famous. After the early death of his father, Dexter left high school and became a professional musician – at the age of 17 he played with Lionel Hampton. He accompanied the likes of Louis Armstrong and Billy Eckstine from a very young age. In New York he absorbed the new style of bebop. From then on, this style shaped his musical life – also in the more contoured, soulful form called Hard Bop.
THE NEW JAZZ CIRCLE IN NEW YORK
Admittedly, Dexter Gordon only belonged temporarily to the famous circles of the new notes. He took part in sessions with musicians such as pianist Thelonious Monk, saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who in long nightly sessions in “Minton’s Playhouse” in New York’s Harlem district shaped a rough style that consciously broke away from the commercialized big sold band jazz, also made recordings with Dizzy Gillespie. In 1945 and 1946 he also recorded music as a bandleader in New York – including pieces like “Blow Mr. Dexter” and last but not least “Long Tall Dexter”, an original composition whose title quoted Gordon’s nickname. Established bebop greats such as pianist Bud Powell and drummer Max Roach were also present at his recording sessions for the famous Savoy label. But Gordon soon went back to the west coast, where he fought, among other things, in famous tenor saxophone battles with his colleague Wardell Gray.
TWO YEARS IN PRISON – AND A ROLL OF FILM AS AN INTAINE
In the 1950s, Gordon slipped deep into crisis. He was imprisoned for heroin possession from 1953 to 1955: he spent two years in the prison in Chino, California, and towards the end of the decade he was repeatedly imprisoned, including in the famous Folsom State Prison, also in California, to which singer Johnny Cash denied in 1955 well-known country song “Folsom Prison Blues”. In prison, he also became an actor in a film in the 1950s: “Unchained” by Hal Bartlett. In it, Gordon played the very small role of a saxophonist in a prison band – in scenes filmed in Chino prison.
“GO!” HE SAID – AND DID IT
Gordon’s difficult years were followed by particularly successful ones: the saxophonist settled back in New York and recorded several albums there for the outstanding label Blue Note – including one of his most famous, “Go!” from 1962. During the Blue Note years he played with such well-known colleagues as pianist Kenny Drew, bassist Paul Chambers, drummers Philly Joe Jones and Billy Higgins and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, musicians who – like Gordon himself – played at the time belonged to the great protagonists of contemporary jazz. But offers from Europe lured him back then, and that turned into a 14-year stay. At that time Gordon lived mainly in Copenhagen and Paris. Especially in Copenhagen, this jazz musician, who was looked up to by many, also left particularly big footsteps: Copenhagen’s jazz scene benefited a lot from the presence of this strong musical authority. Live recordings from Copenhagen’s “Jazzhus Montmartre” document this time, in which Gordon played with American colleagues such as pianist Kenny Drew and drummer Albert Heath, but also with the great Danish bassist Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen. Dexter Gordon felt artistically more respected in Europe than in the US, and he didn’t face the racism he was used to in his homeland. For him, as for many other musicians from the USA – Nina Simone and Bud Powell are well-known examples – Europe was therefore an adopted country. However, Gordon returned to the USA, where he lived again from 1976 onwards. After his return, the album “Sophisticated Giant” (1977) was released, the title of which describes the musician particularly well.
INDIVIDUALIST AND OUTSIDER OF THE SCENES
The BR-Klassik employee Marcus A. Woelfle characterized the saxophonist most aptly: “Dexter Gordon is the great individualist who swims against the tide of the times, who plays bebop unwaveringly, whether it’s cool jazz, free jazz or jazz rock are hip. He’s the underdog who’s just plain out of place when his seed sprout.”
BODY, SOUL, BLUE EYES AND SOUNDS WITH AUTHORITY
It’s the life of a loner. The tall sax player’s big tone could take company, but it was at its best when the sax was the only wind instrument in the band. Then Dexter Gordon took a breath and sent tones of earthy power and stylish refinement into the room. Above all, he played the great lyrical pieces such as “Body and Soul” or “Darn That Dream” and “Guess I’ll Hand My Tears Out To Dry” with an inimitable, kitsch-free beauty. His saxophone sound is always clear and powerful, does not purr or flatter, but sings with even articulation. Sounds of a solitaire. A musician who had a unique sound and followed his own path. And an Afro-American jazz giant with striking blue eyes, whose image inevitably comes to mind for many who think of cinematic midnight hours in a jazz club.