NPR for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New Biography Reveals The Life And Legacy Of Saxophonist Dexter Gordon


This is FRESH AIR. The late saxophonist Dexter Gordon is the subject of a new biography written by his wife Maxine Gordon. Dexter Gordon was a bebop prodigy in the 1940s, was sidelined by drugs in the '50s. He moved to Europe in the '60s, came home in triumph in the '70s and starred in the film "Round Midnight" in 1986. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of the new book. And we'll hear selections from a recently discovered 1977 live recording of Dexter Gordon in Paris.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: In 1985, Dexter Gordon was in Paris to shoot the movie that would make him an overnight star at age 63 - "Round Midnight." At dinner one night, he talked about a pianist he'd worked with in Paris ages ago who turned out to be playing around the corner. Dexter hung out there till dawn. Walking home, he told his companions, I'm glad you're here or I might think I was only dreaming I was in Paris making a movie about a jazz musician in Paris. He said to his wife, don't ever forget this moment. It goes in the book. Do you promise? Maxine Gordon's book "Sophisticated Giant: The Life And Legacy Of Dexter Gordon" shows how seriously she took a promise to finish the biography they'd been working on when he died in 1990.


WHITEHEAD: To do justice to her subject, Maxine Gordon literally went back to school and became a distinguished jazz scholar. The biographer started with Dexter Gordon's papers and written and spoken reminiscences and started filling in the blanks, including dark years he wouldn't discuss. She talked to his old buddies in Los Angeles, where he grew up, and Copenhagen, where he settled in the 1960s. She went to Madagascar, looking for information about a great-grandmother. Maxine Gordon looks at the harsh economics of the jazz business and reminds us Dexter was godfather to Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.

A few glimpses of her dogged research aside, Maxine Gordon doesn't make this biography of her husband about herself. She really enters the story only in Chapter 16 of 20. But she gives herself proper credit. As soon as they'd met in 1975, when she was a European tour manager for jazz bands - and heard how special he sounded and saw the presence he had - she began plotting Dexter's hugely successful so-called homecoming.

In 1976, he returned to the U.S. with much fanfare - as if he hadn't been coming back to play and record throughout his 14 years away. It was smart marketing. Maxine Gordon tells us not to confuse the sad-sack hero Dexter played in "Round Midnight" with the man himself, who'd happily retired on a career high even before the movies came calling.


WHITEHEAD: There is plenty about Dexter Gordon's music in the biography "Sophisticated Giant." He always valued a striking sound on saxophone. It's what caught the ear of Louis Armstrong, who hired the 21-year-old in 1944 - although Pops didn't dig bebop. That hectic new style was Dexter's lifeblood. A few Gordon live recordings have come out lately, including the one we've been listening to, the CD "Espace Cardin 1977" - made in Paris with top Parisians Pierre Michelot and Kenny Clarke on bass and drums, plus bebop original Al Haig on piano. This was after Dexter's nominal homecoming. After that coup, he still played a lot in Europe, but now he got better billing and treatment. He was no longer local talent.


WHITEHEAD: Dexter Gordon's deep tone, relaxed delivery - even the frequent witty musical quotations - seemed like extensions of his gravely playful speaking voice. That voice carries over on the page too. You can hear it when you read his written testimony and extracts from letters included in Maxine Gordon's illuminating biography. Her next book deals with four jazz women, including singer Velma Middleton and organist Shirley Scott. I am already looking forward to reading that.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed the new biography "Sophisticated Giant: The Life And Legacy Of Dexter Gordon" by Maxine Gordon. We also heard music from the CD "Dexter Gordon Espace Cardin 1977." If you're looking for a new book for yourself or to give as a gift for this holiday season, NPR has compiled more than 300 titles recommended by NPR staff and critics, including FRESH AIR's book critic Maureen Corrigan and a few of the FRESH AIR producers. You can find the 2018 Book Concierge at

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Dr. Joseph Sakran, director of emergency general surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital. After the NRA tweeted that self-important anti-gun doctors should stay in their lane, Sakran started the Twitter handle #ThisIsOurLane, which has mobilized doctors around the issue of gun safety. Sakran decided to become a trauma surgeon after being shot in the neck when he was 17. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEXTER GORDON'S "BODY AND SOUL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.