By Steve Provizer
Sophisticated Giant paints a convincing picture of an extremely charming, intelligent, resilient, and talented man.
Sophisticated Giant, The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon by Maxine Gordon. University of California Press, 296 pages, $29.95.
Maxine Gordon was the last of Dexter Gordon’s several wives and she has written a biography of Gordon, a task with which he charged her before he died in 1990. The saxophonist had actually done some writing on an autobiography before he died and Maxine Gordon was able to use this material in her book. But, while he had written about most of his life, he wrote nothing about the ’50s, a period that he refused to talk or write about. Her extensive research illuminates that decade, as well as most of the other episodes in this well-known jazz musician’s life.
Gordon’s was both a charmed and a difficult life. He was born into an accomplished family and was a gifted musician — competent enough to join Lionel Hampton’s band on the road when he was 17 years old. He was also drawn to drugs early on and addiction remained a part of his life until the ’70s. At least, I think that marked the end of his use, but I’m not positive. The book makes clear the chronology of his drug use, his incarcerations, being “clean,” and family life in some phases of his life but, at other times, less so. The author seems to have set herself up in a bit of a cleft stick. On one hand, she insists that her intent is not to soft-peddle the rougher details of her husband’s life. On the other hand, Maxine Gordon is very invested in presenting Dexter’s optimistic nature and the fact that several times he arose, phoenix-like, from events that others would not have been able to transcend.
The author’s approach towards Dexter’s battle with drugs is presented in as low-key a way as possible; the intent is to eschew moral condemnation. Her analysis of the draconian drug laws of California in the ’40s and ’50s shows what a trap these were for any addict, particularly so for the black jazz community of Los Angeles.
Maxine Gordon’s approach to the difficult relationships in Dexter’s life is similarly low-key — almost off-handed. She has a child by trumpeter Woody Shaw, who often played with Dexter. She and Shaw parted company and she began a relationship with Gordon. (I would have liked to hear more about the emotional side of these shifting relationships.) She wraps up their decision to marry in two sentences: “Looking back, it seems so simple, but this was not an easy decision. It was fraught with drama, anger and jazz gossip.” It’s the author’s responsibility to give the reader a fuller sense of the human dimension of the process.
The same might be said about her approach to Dexter’s relationship with his previous wives and children. No doubt it might have been tricky for Maxine Gordon to win the cooperation of the families with whom he spent so little time. But some attempt at outreach — and recording the results of those attempts — is a biographer’s job. If nothing else, it would have helped create a more multi-dimensional portrait of a superb musician. The search for complexity was sacrificed in the name of “uplift.”
This reluctance to probe is the book’s major flaw. Aside from that, the writing is clear and we move swiftly and more or less chronologically through the phases of an eventful life.
There is no attempt at musical analysis, per se, but Maxine Gordon provides some insightful analysis into the relationship among the jazz musician, the musician’s union, and the recording companies. One section illustrates how the settlements of the two recording bans instituted by the musician’s union during the ’40s did not redound to the financial benefit of jazz musicians. The tenacity of jazz musicians, despite tenuous financial prospects, is given its rightful due here. This shared experience — of continuing to advance the music in the face of adversity — built a tremendous sense of unity among the musicians. Maxine Gordon makes a point of showing how important it was for Dexter to be a member of this tight-knit community. He was a beloved comrade: always generous in acknowledging the help of other musicians and in providing gigs for others when he could.
The details concerning Dexter’s life in Europe are a solid contribution to the literature concerning expatriate American artists. In his case, there seems to have been no single revelatory moment when Dexter said, “I’m sick of this country, I’m gonna get away.” In fact, a chance encounter with Ronnie Scott in NYC led to an invitation to play in Scott’s London jazz club. Then, one overseas gig — and one romance — simply led to another, until about fourteen years passed. In fact, Dexter came back a number of times to play in the U.S. during this period, but the return that people remember is that of 1976. The splash he made during that successful series of gigs was not only the result of his own hard practice regimen, but of a year’s worth of planning by a number of people, including Maxine Gordon, Bruce Lundvall of Columbia records, record producer Michael Cuscuna and others. It was a triumphant return, but the groundwork had been skillfully laid.
The other major artistic event covered here is Dexter’s appearance in the film Round Midnight and his eventual Academy Award nomination in his role as Dale Turner. He had grown up a movie fan in L.A., had acted, written music, and played sax in the West Coast production of the play The Connection in 1960. He was very confident about his ability to act. Writes the author: “He felt that most jazz musicians could act if need be. They had to act their way out of a lot of situations in their lives on the road, and they had to act in front of an audience most nights.”
Dexter’s participation in the film was initially conceived to be much more limited, but his prowess as an actor was so obvious that his role was eventually increased until he became the lead player. I was very impressed with his performance and, generally, with the film itself, which did not fall into most of the usual cliché traps. Reading this account, I can see that Gordon had a lot to do with that; he had no hesitation in telling director Bertrand Tavernier when he thought the dialogue or setups were phony. To Tavernier’s credit, he listened. I am slightly disappointed in the music chosen for the film — almost all ballads or slow blues. It was in keeping with the “romantic” look and feel of the film, but not in keeping with the way Dexter can burn on up-tempo tunes.
It was interesting to read the change in how Dexter Gordon was treated following his Oscar nomination. He had always been jazz royalty, if you will, but that had yielded only minor financial rewards — being able to buy a modest home. But, now that he had been touched by the magic fairy dust of Hollywood, he received the deluxe treatment of a movie star.
Maxine Gordon has not given us a complete portrait of Dexter because she stays away from some of the more difficult areas of his personal life. But Sophisticated Giant paints a convincing picture of an extremely charming, intelligent, resilient, and talented man. In the end, Dizzy Gillespie’s sentiment seems apposite: “Dexter should leave his karma to science.”
Steve Provizer is a brass player and bandleader who has been blogging about jazz for 15 years and written about the music for many publications.