Dexter Gordon Plays Bebop and Ballads
[Ed. note: This post was originally published on Feb 27, 2015]
Dexter Gordon vies with Duke Ellington as the most charismatic jazz artist I’ve ever seen in person. His horn shook with the same swagger as the Los Angeles native’s 6’5″ gait, and good looks landed him occasional acting roles that culminated in his portrayal of Dale Turner in the movie ‘Round Midnight. That performance earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Gordon was a bebop marathoner. He emerged in the mid-’40s when it was still customary for soloists to limit their improvisations to one, two, or three choruses and hew to the three-minute time frame of the 78 rpm record. But jam sessions and nightclub performances were another matter, and the tenor saxophonist was among the first players caught on tape playing in the unrestricted setting of a blowing session.
Dexter’s 1947 appearance at the Elks Auditorium in Los Angeles finds him playing extended solos that at age 24 were already distinguished for their drive and ingenuity. Few players ever generated such an arresting combination of ecstatic frenzy and structural coherence. Dean Moriarty was captured by it in On the Road, where Jack Kerouac wrote, “Dean stands bowed before the big phonograph listening to a wild bop record, ‘The Hunt,’ with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.”
Dexter was still enthralling the crowds when I began seeing him in 1977. When I listen to him today, I feel grateful all over again that he came back to the U.S. after living abroad for close to 15 years. His 1976 return not only gave many of my generation their first opportunity to see this living legend; he also proved to be a galvanizing force in stimulating renewed interest in straight ahead modern jazz. Dexter didn’t come as a bebop messiah, he just wore the mantle of returning hero with such ease and aplomb that the idiom he’d helped establish 30 years earlier was once again the hippest thing in town.
Dexter would have been 92 today. Here he is with Oscar Peterson playing “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” It brings to mind his hero Lester Young’s dictum that improvisers should know the words of the songs they’re playing. He refrains from doing so here, but whenever I heard him play the song by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen, he would intone Burke’s opening line: “A country dance was being held in a garden/I felt a bump and heard an ‘Oh, beg your pardon’.” True to the song’s promise, Dexter helps me see the lyrical equivalent of “polka dots and moonbeams” whenever I give this a listen. It’s Dexter’s opener once he’s introduced by Oscar around 16:10.