Soy Califa! On Dexter Gordon’s Life and Music
By Alex HarveyDecember 22, 2023
You know, there’s been nights … when I’ve been working and playing, and at the end of the night, you know, I look at my mouthpiece … and it’s all bloody, but I haven’t felt a thing, you know. My life is music. My love is music. And it’s 24 hours a day.
—Dale Turner in Round Midnight (1986)
WHEN DEXTER GORDON played the role of Dale Turner, a fictional, self-destructive saxophonist living in Paris, for Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film Round Midnight, he drew on his experience as an African American jazz musician exiled to Europe. The emotional intensity of his performance gained Gordon an Oscar nomination, but it wasn’t straight autobiography. In the figure of Turner, Gordon created a composite persona, based on the stories of Black American artists, who had been marginalized in the United States and sought respite from the racism they had experienced. Writers such as James Baldwin and Chester Himes, along with jazz musicians like Sidney Bechet, Ben Webster, and Bud Powell, found not only deep respect for their artistic talent in Europe but also some refuge from white hostility. Gordon knew he had the ability and the chance to embody this experience in Round Midnight, as he acknowledged:
There was a sense of responsibility in this film. […] I felt like I represented all these hundreds of cats. Not that they’d all been to Europe, but they were all jazz musicians who’d paid their dues and got no admiration and got no remuneration. […] [W]e were able to enlarge the character of Dale Turner. There must have been 100 personalities in him. All my heroes.
Round Midnight reads like a valedictory statement, since Gordon died only four years later. But the story of Dexter Gordon isn’t only that of a long career spent exploring jazz’s possibilities, or a matter of honoring an extraordinary generation of musicians. To mark the centenary year of this great Black musician, one who was formed and nurtured in Los Angeles’s thriving African American jazz community of the mid-20th century, it is important to affirm Gordon’s continuing relevance. His story goes to the heart of contemporary America and the way “it embraces and also pushes away brilliant creative Black people,” as Maxine Gordon, scholar and widow of the musician, puts it in her 2018 book Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon.
Dexter Keith Gordon was born in Los Angeles 100 years ago on February 27, 1923, the only son of Gwendolyn Baker and Frank Gordon, who was the second African American doctor to practice in the city. His father’s office, on Jefferson Boulevard off Central Avenue, was close to the Dunbar Hotel, a focal point for the African American community of the 1930s and ’40s, and where Frank met the famous jazz musicians who would become his patients and friends. Duke Ellington would come for dinner, requesting that Gwendolyn prepare spaghetti with meatballs (young Dexter was made to sit and his friends would “peek through the windows for a glimpse of the great man”).  His father had a love of music, buying Gordon a clarinet at 13, and taking him to see the leading jazz bands. The harmony of Gordon’s convivial family life was shattered only a year later, as Ellington recalled:
I had made a date to meet my Los Angeles doctor … Dexter Gordon’s father, in the bar of the Dunbar Hotel on Forty-first and Central at four o’clock Christmas morning. A friend came in right on the nose and told me the doctor couldn’t make it, because he had just died of a heart attack. That completely ruined my chance of a happy Christmas celebration.
Shortly after his father’s premature death, Gordon switched to alto sax and then to tenor two years later. Already six foot five and towering over his friends, he was embedded in a rich musical culture at Thomas Jefferson High School. In Dexter Gordon: A Musical Biography (1989) author Stan Britt quotes the drummer Chico Hamilton, who grew up with Gordon, recalling how it was mandatory in the California education system “to take some form of music at school … either music appreciation or an instrument or something. It was very hip at that time. I guess that’s why all of us [jazzmen] got into music.” Hamilton and Gordon first played together when they were “about thirteen to fourteen years old! […] Our band, man, was so heavy that when [Count] Basie […] and those bands would come to town, they’d come over to our rehearsals! They flipped over us.” Hamilton recounted that even “Charles [Mingus] used to come by and play.” In her liner notes for Black California (1976)—an album of tracks by local figures such as Gordon, Slim Gaillard, Art Pepper, and Eric Dolphy—Patricia Willard lists the many jazz outlets clustered around Los Angeles’s Central Avenue, which Britt paraphrases in his biography of Gordon:
Club Alabam […], the Down Beat (at the junction of Central and 41st Street), Lovejoy’s […], Jack’s Basket, the Elk’s Club, Backstage & Brothers, the Hi-de-Ho, the Swing Club, the Brown Bomber (named after Joe Louis, the most respected of all the US heavyweight boxing champions), the Club Finale, the Black Flamingo and the 331 Club [featuring Nat King Cole on piano].
Gordon would spend all his school lunch money on 78s and play at “sailor joints … for a dollar and a half a night and the kitty.” Music historian Gary Giddins quotes Gordon on the burgeoning scene in Visions of Jazz: The First Century (1998): “Only the biggest bands came out [to Los Angeles], like [Tommy] Dorsey, [Earl] Hines, Duke [Ellington], Louis [Armstrong],” Gordon recalled, “but there were some good locals, like Hampton and Marshal Royal.”
Bandleader Lionel Hampton, an old friend of Gordon’s father, gave the teenager his entry into the wider jazz world. Gordon was still at school when he joined Hampton’s band, climbing aboard the tour bus with his horn in a paper bag and deviled eggs for the trip. His tearful mother and aunties, wearing white gloves, hats, and pearls, waved goodbye. His first visit to the jazz center of the world in New York was “heaven on earth.” He recalls:
It was everything I’d dreamed and visualized. And there I was, seventeen years old, standing on the corner with the cats. All these cats walking around: Ben [Webster], Lester [Young], Billie [Holiday], […] Milt Hinton, [Sid] Catlett—you name ’em. All right there. I couldn’t believe it. Aaaand … the brown-skinned beauties too. Ha.
Lester Young, nicknamed Pres, is the most important early influence on Gordon’s playing. Gordon first saw him appear with the Count Basie Band in 1939, a memory historian Ira Gitler captures in Swing to Bop: An Oral History of the Transition in Jazz in the 1940s (1985). As Gordon recounts:
I ditched school that day to catch the first show, which I think was at eleven in the morning. They opened with “Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie,” and Lester came out soloing—and he was just fantastic. I really loved the man. He was melodic, rhythmic, had that bittersweet approach. And of course, in his pre-Army days he had such a zest for living. It felt so good to hear him play.
Pres was Gordon’s number one man, his musical father. Gordon tried to play and act like him, holding his horn at a Lester Young tilt. From Pres, Gordon learned the art of improvisation—that you needed to develop ideas of substance, finish a thought, and know the lyrics of any ballad you play. One scene in Round Midnight, developed by Gordon, depicts Dale listening to records in his French friend’s apartment. Lester Young can be heard playing on “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”; Gordon, as Dale, is acknowledging his debts:
Listen to that, Francis. The swing bands used to be all straight tonics, seventh chords […] And then […] I heard Lester Young, and he sounded like he came out of the blue, because he was playing all the color tones, the sixths and the ninths […]You know, like Debussy and Ravel. Then Charlie Parker came on [and he went into] elevenths and thirteenths […] Luckily, I was going in the same direction already. You just don’t go out and pick a style off of a tree one day—the tree’s inside you, growing naturally.
The key to the evolution of Gordon’s style, as Giddins underlines in Visions of Jazz, is the way he integrated “Lester Young’s laconic melodies with the progressive harmonies and asymmetrical rhythms of Charlie Parker, and he made the results lucid, persuasive, mesmerizing.”
After years of touring, Gordon returned to his Californian roots in 1944. When working again in Club Alabam on Los Angeles’s Central Avenue, with Art Pepper and Charles Mingus, he recalls, “[S]omeone came over to me and said, ‘Son, say son, I really liked that sound you get.’ I looked up and it was Louis [Armstrong]. I said, ‘Thank you, thank you very much.’” The next night, Armstrong’s band manager hired him. Although Gordon wasn’t enamored with the outdated arrangements, he adored Armstrong. “He was a born ambassador and he really was a beautiful, warm human being, just the way you hear him and see him on stage and on film. That was Louis. He was always the same.” Before he could play with Armstrong’s band, Gordon was called up for the draft. When he was told to move into the colored section, Gordon pointed out to the sergeant that they didn’t have segregation in Los Angeles, and he refused to move. After a psychiatric evaluation, he was deemed unqualified for service. (Dizzy Gillespie also managed to avoid service by challenging his draft board: “In this stage of my life here in the United States, whose foot has been in my ass?”)
Gordon often reflected on how jazz’s radical new music was created by Black musicians who refused to serve in the segregated services. Instead of joining the army, he joined forces with Gillespie and Parker in Billy Eckstine’s band, the crucible of bebop. “It was a whole new world for me because here was the exact opposite—crazy arrangements, wild young musicians, the esprit de corps—I was just thrilled. This was the kind of band that I think every musician dreams of playing in.” In his 1979 memoir To Be or Not to Bop, Gillespie recalled how “there was no band that sounded like Billy Eckstine’s. Our attack was strong, and we were playing bebop, the modern style. No other band like this one existed in the world.” Playing in the hippest jazz band completed Gordon’s transformation from naive California teenager into “Society Red,” a hard-swinging musician and streetwise habitué of “after-hours sessions in sultry, mysterious, dark, and exciting places.” He was inducted into a New York opium den by Billie Holiday.
By 1948, when Gordon returned to Los Angeles again, he had become a jazz “star,” recognized for his Promethean sound and ceaseless invention, his impregnable authority and steady, knowing wit. The young West Coast musicians tried to emulate him: “[A]ll the guys wanted to play like Dexter, and everybody was a Little Dex. […] [W]hen we met Dexter and he took us under his wing like we were disciples, we were hooked.” His spirit had been forged in all-night jam sessions, flare-ups where saxophonists would spar and duel. For his adoring fans and followers, Gordon was the most formidable of battlers. His legendary contests with his friend and fellow tenor-man Wardell Gray were captured on a bestselling live recording and cited by Jack Kerouac in On the Road (1957): “Dean, sandwich in hand, stood bowed and jumping before the big phonograph, listening to a wild bop record I had just bought called ‘The Hunt,’ with Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray blowing their tops before a screaming audience that gave the record fantastic frenzied volume.”
Formed by the same jazz lineage, Gordon and Wardell also shared a heroin habit. The warm, sustaining culture of the Los Angeles prewar jazz scene had, by the 1950s, become a recurring nightmare of crime and punishment. It was a lost decade for Gordon and many jazz musicians, who were often targeted by the authorities: he was busted for drugs in 1952, paroled in 1954, rearrested in 1956, and paroled again in 1960. Like jazzmen Lee Morgan, Elvin Jones, and Tadd Dameron, Gordon had to undergo the dire detox treatment at the US Narcotic Farm (detailed by William Burroughs in his 1953 novel Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict ). LAPD could jail and hold musicians for nothing more than needle marks on their arms or “signs of the presence of drugs” via a dubious test. As saxophonist Hadley Caliman estimated,
[s]eventy-five percent of the musicians in L.A. were trapped there because of drugs. […] They were on parole and because of the law that allowed them to be busted for tracks and internal possession, they could never get out. It was a crime. Their careers were ruined. Their lives were stopped. For nothing.
Gordon spent his incarceration in Chino prison in San Bernardino, California, reading all day and trying to clean himself up. “[W]hen you see the same shit happening over and over again to your life, you finally say, Wow, man, this gotta stop. Bird and Fats and the other guys, it was continuously downhill. But jail saved my life.”
Los Angeles, the place first of Gordon’s discovery and then of his disintegration as an artist, became the site for his rebirth. On parole from Chino prison and back in Los Angeles, he recorded the aptly titled album The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon (1960). He composed the music for—and was chosen to appear in—the West Coast production of a 1959 drama about heroin addicts, The Connection. Gordon played a “soft-spoken, talented, lost, attractive” musician. Foreshadowing Round Midnight, Gordon’s ability to embody a fictional persona close to his own was a turning point; the waste of his lost years was channeled into a new depth of performance. As a result of these efforts, Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records, gave him a contract. The seven original Blue Note albums, recorded from 1961 to 1965, are his finest works; Giddins calls them “insuperable examples of the streamlined elegance of which jazz quartets and quintets are capable.” Gordon would record for the first time with Billy Higgins and Bobby Hutcherson, friends who had grown up with him in Los Angeles (he later chose them for screen roles in Round Midnight).
Doin’ Allright (1961), his first album for Blue Note, announces his comeback, the title track transforming Gershwin’s classic song “I Was Doing All Right.” A Billie Holiday ballad, “You’ve Changed,” echoes the theme of transformation and bears the weight of Gordon’s lived experience. The second album, Dexter Calling …, recorded three days later, is even better, featuring tracks he had composed for The Connection. The next year, Gordon completed Go (his favorite record) and A Swingin’ Affair, which opens with “Soy Califa,” the most joyous of his compositions. Translating as “I’m Caliph” (i.e., “I’m the King”), the phrase can also be understood as “I’m from California.” Gordon shouts out the title over the samba rhythm by Billy Higgins on drums; it’s an avowed declaration of love for the Golden State and a tongue-in-cheek statement of his regal status—the most dominant, definitive saxophonist Los Angeles had produced.
His engagement at the London club Ronnie Scott’s in 1962 was so warmly received that Gordon decided to exploit his renewed popularity and explore the European jazz scene. He ended up staying for 14 years, basing himself in Paris and Denmark. “I have played for months on end at the Montmartre in Copenhagen,” he reflected in an interview. “I’ve never in my life played three or four months continuously at a place in the U.S. The opportunity to work regularly in the same spot gives you the kind of feeling you need to stretch out, relax, and at the same time develop musically.” Gordon, like Parker, Holiday, and other Black American musicians with a criminal record for drug use, had been refused a cabaret card, which was compulsory for entertainers in US clubs with a liquor license. Police constantly enforced this requirement as an act of overt control and discrimination. The systemic racism that African American artists faced on a daily basis determined the trajectories of their entire careers. Black jazz figures were drawn to Europe in the postwar period precisely to avoid such prejudice: “Since I’ve been over here, I felt that I could breathe, and just be more or less a human being, without being white or black,” Gordon told Down Beat magazine in 1964.
On his 1963 album Our Man in Paris, Gordon was able to play with two other exiled musicians: Bud Powell, the great pianist, and drummer Kenny Clarke, who had been a resident of Paris since the 1950s. The album is a set of standards and jazz classics, since the fading Powell couldn’t play any new compositions. As a result, it’s a perfect time capsule, one of the last great authentic bebop sessions, and inspiration for the soundtrack of Round Midnight. Gordon gallops headlong into Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” and reveals his lyrical depth in “Willow Weep for Me,” which showcases his fluid borrowings, the way he lets other musicians’ musical ideas flow into his playing. Gordon’s trademark musical quotations, in Giddins’s words, “fold into his solos like spectral glimpses of an alternative universe in which all of Tin Pan Alley is one infinite song.” Gordon’s years of European exile and his classic Blue Note recordings were seen by critics as an extraordinary transformation. In the words of British music critic David Halperin, “[U]sually, on the jazz scene, when they fade away they hardly ever come back. And there was a time when … Dexter Gordon was definitely near vanishing point.” But the gangly 17-year-old Angeleno from Jefferson Boulevard had managed to reinvent himself once again.
Throughout his 50-year career, Gordon experienced a series of renaissances, and he grew grander with each successive wave. When Gordon returned to the United States, he was welcomed back by the jazz community as a prodigal son: “Love, man, I never felt so much love in one room,” one veteran musician was heard to say. It was to be followed by his final triumph in Round Midnight. During the movie shoot, Gordon was asked how he was feeling. He replied that he’d been preparing for this movie all his life, channeling the experiences and stories of an entire generation of African American musicians. His improvised performance as Dale Turner employs the emotional transparency that Gordon had always brought to his live performances to profound effect. After he had finished playing at his very last concert, Gordon held his saxophone horizontally aloft, proffering it to the audience as an open gift.
 The quotations throughout this essay come from Maxine Gordon’s Sophisticated Giant, unless otherwise noted.
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