Often good fortune just bubbles up when you’re least expecting it. This happened to my good friend and co-author Graham Marsh and I recently when, delayed in New York City following Superstorm Sandy, we went on a mission to finally track down the cunningly well hidden Jazz Record Center at 236 West 26th St in Chelsea, NYC. I had once before attempted to find this place but rather than encountering a conventional retail premise I had instead found myself facing a large, anonymous apartment block. This time the penny finally dropped - the Jazz Center was tucked away somewhere inside this building. Hey - whoever said the jazz world made it easy for you? Feeling like we were about to be arrested by security we entered the building, took a lift to what I think was the 10th floor, pushed the steel door open and entered just as Gerry Mulligan launched into a typically languid solo. The owner was charming and friendly and genuinely thrilled to meet Graham. His private stash of Graham’s many jazz album cover books came out of the back for Graham to sign. Somebody else was in there - a smart, friendly woman selling jazz ephemera to the owner, clearing out her apartment she said. She got interested in our conversation about Blue Note Records. Little wonder - turned out she was Dexter Gordon’s widow, Maxine. This was some person to have the luck to meet. Dexter Gordon! His album ‘Go!’ was one of the first jazz records I ever bought and ‘Love For Sale’ from that record has, for me, the best sound and groove of any modern jazz I’ve ever heard. There was always something about Dexter - that big sound he had, not as broody as Coltrane, warmer and more charismatic. He exuded charm - look at his face on all those Blue Note records, and then there was that great picture of him in Piccadilly Circus in ‘62 and that great performance in ‘Round Midnight’. So many questions about the great Dexter Gordon and Maxine Gordon has been kind enough to answer some of the more pressing ones -
The Syllabus : Dexter Gordon - you met the legend in 1975. What was he like as a person? Were you ever intimidated by his celebrity, by his stature?
Maxine Gordon : I first met Dexter when I was the tour manager for jazz groups traveling in Europe. His band was stranded in Nancy, France, and the agent sent me to escort them by train around a train strike. Dexter was a very daunting figure with all that height but he was kind and never critical of anyone and humorous with an ironic twist. We became fast friends immediately and worked together and then I was lucky enough to marry him and life the rest of his life with him. He said I met him at the best possible moment in his life and I agree.
Syllabus : In the UK, and no doubt elsewhere, there is a great affection in particular for his albums on Blue Note Records. How did Dexter himself feel about his work on the label? Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff treated their musicians well didn’t they?
MG : When Dexter went back and listened to all his recordings after being asked many times “Which is your favorite recording?” he decided that Go! on Blue Note was his favorite. He said the rhythm section of Sonny Clark, Butch Warren, and Billy Higgins allowed him to play anything he wanted and they were four as one. He was very fond of Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff and there are letters between them that are very convivial and warm. It was a very agreeable relationship and the recordings stand up to this day.
Syllabus : Is there one piece of his music that you treasure in particular and why?
MG : Of course I am particularly close to the Columbia Records recordings because I was in the studio when they were recorded and can remember all the details of the days. I am especially fond of Sophisticated Giant with Benny Bailey and Woody Shaw and George Cables. Before that period, the tune I’m a Fool to Want You from Clubhouse is my favorite with Freddie Hubbard entering after Dexter’s solo. I love that one.
Syllabus : How naturalistic was his performance in ‘Round Midnight’? - he seemed so effortlessly himself in that role, was he?
MG : Dexter always wanted to be in film since he was a small boy in Los Angeles. He loved acting and actors—Marlon Brando was his favorite. He was “acting” but he was also thinking about Lester Young in the role and he seemed to be playing himself but that was not the case. Acting is hard work. He said it was easier to be on the road with Lionel Hampton than to go to the studio every day and be in a film. Martin Scorsese compared him to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. He said Dexter “embodied the part.”
Syllabus : How did you first enter the jazz world? Were you always in the great New York City clubs as a youngster?
MG : When we were teenagers, we started listening to jazz albums on Fridays at a friend’s house and went to clubs that had listening sections—Birdland and the Vanguard—and matinees on Sundays. I like to say that when I heard Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers for the first time, that was it! I loved the music and I thought the musicians were so interesting and so different. Well, I was right about that. I am a very lucky jazz fan who grew up to marry one of the most beloved and influential jazz musicians of all times. Dexter said it was fate.
Syllabus : How did Dexter, and yourself, feel about the growing domination of pop/rock culture during the 1960s and the slow decline of jazz as a prominent element in Western culture?
MG : We did not worry about the future of jazz and did not consider commercial music as the enemy. Dexter often said: Just stay on the path. It will all work out. He kept practicing and was able to work in Europe and develop and then when it was the right time, he came back to the States and brought bebop with him. Jazz will always be an important part of the culture.
Syllabus : What sort of health is the NYC jazz scene in these days? It’s all in Brooklyn I hear.
MG : I was in Brooklyn last night to hear Aaron Neville. The venue was Brooklyn Bowl, a concert space and a bowling alley! The jazz scene is smaller than it was but there are so many good young players. They struggle but they play and they have late night sessions and I am an optimist about the future. There’s something about jazz musicians that has always been there—they will improvise their lives the way they improvise in the music. Never underestimate their ingenuity. We go out at least once a week (twice last week for Monty Alexander at Dizzy’s Club) and there is always something good happening. Tonight I am going to hear Geri Allen at the Jazz Standard with a tap dancer, Maurice Chestnut, in her group.
Syllabus : You’re been working on Dexter’s biography - how’s it going? When can we expect to see it published?
MG : The biography is nearing the end, finally. I have an agent who is very good and very positive. I will keep you informed when we have the publisher and date of publication. The working title is: Dexter Calling…The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon. Dexter began this book as an autobiography and I promised to finish it for him and it looks as if I am finally keeping that promise.
Syllabus : Indulge me on the clothes’ front here please Maxine. DG’s clothes - he was very sharp indeed in the 60s in tab and pin-through collars and slim jim tie yet you mentioned to me his mocking of Miles Davis’ wilder sartorial experiments. Did he care about clothes? Do you have opinions on the relationship between jazz and image? Is it just coincidental that the music was at its creative peak, say 1955 to 1965, when the clothes were also rather wonderful?
MG : Didn’t you like the clothes in the 40s? How about the “zoot suit”? I love that period too. Yes, Dexter was very concerned with fashion. His tailor, the designer Arthur McGee would have long conversations about what was in style and how badly they were made and how people didn’t know how to dress any more. He chided Miles on his rock n’roll outfits and platform shoes. Dexter liked great fabrics and cashmere socks and cravats. He had his jackets made so that when he played, they didn’t pull at the arms and shoulders. I wonder if there is a relationship between the music in the mid 50s and the clothes. I think it has to do with more confidence in change and style in all areas at that time. I also think musicians may have been able to afford custom clothes then but later is became too expensive.
Syllabus : Beyond the biography you work very hard on Dexter’s legacy. Why does it matter to you so much?
MG : My son, Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, is really the one who does the hard work on the legacies. He did the websites for his father Woody Shaw and his stepfather, Dexter. He is CEO of Dex Music LLC and is director of the forthcoming Dexter Gordon Foundation. He assisted in the three collections of Dexter’s legacy in the Library of Congress. He is also on the Board of the Mary Lou Williams Foundation and is a MA Candidate at Columbia University in Business and Arts Administration. With that kind of leadership for the future, I am not worried at all. We are committed to continue the work that Dexter did in his lifetime. We cannot let him be forgotten or obscured by time and fads. His music matters to so many. Check out his Facebook page as an example. Dexter fans are worldwide and we respect them and thank them.
Photo details - top left - DG in Piccadilly Circus, London in 1962 (picture taken either by Val Wilmer or Francis Wolff - can anybody conclusively advise me on this?), top right - DG at the original Ronnie Scott’s on Gerrard Street in 1962, bottom - Dexter and Maxine Gordon, 1970s.