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John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

I have linked a decent Dexter Gordon Biography I found on the web. I have written an article describing some of my remeberances of Dexter Gordon

Dexter Gordon, 1976 
People were saying jazz was dead.  In 1973 there was only one full time jazz club in New York City, the jazz capital of the world.  The Village Vanguard survived.  It still survives but in 1973 it stood alone.  Slugs was closed. Slugs, New York’s alternative club where hardcore jazz fans went to see the best hard bop musicians of that era perform had closed, not long after one of the greatest hard bop practitioners of the day, Lee Morgan, was murdered in that very same club by his jealous common law wife.  Jazz was in trouble.
The larger jazz scene was killed, in part, by the music’s avant garde wing who drove off audiences by engaging in instrumental screaming sessions on the band stand.  After the death of John Coltrane in 1967 many of his less talented followers sought to continue on the avant garde trail he blazed at the end of his lie. Long, seemingly endless, boring solos containing honks, squeals and every sort of noise with little or no harmonic variety were the norm for many of these musicians who played the “new thing”. The excesses of this period left an indelible imprint on the music of that time and on many music listeners. Jazz had changed. Nihilism ruled. The fun was gone. 
Veteran hard bop trumpeter Woody Shaw returned to New York from California and was signed by the Columbia Record Company circa 1973-1974. Shaw had experimented with the avant garde but he had returned to his hard bop roots. His first record for the Columbia label, Rosewood, won a Grammy award. Then in 1976 Dexter Gordon moved from Copenhagen Denmark to New York City and in the jazz world everything old became new.
Dexter Gordon opened the Village Vanguard fronting Woody Shaw’s band featuring Ronnie Matthews on piano, Stafford James on bass, Victor Lewis on drums, Woody Shaw on trumpet and Dexter Gordon on tenor saxophone.  This band played two engagements at the Village Vanguard in 1976.  Recordings from the first 1976 engagement were released on Columbia Records as the Dexter Gordon album “Homecoming”.  For those of us who attended those engagements this album does not capture the excitement, joy or pure fire of seeing that band live. No recording could capture that exciting and exuberant live  music. There were long lines at the Vanguard each night of the engagement with eager jazz fans waiting to hear Dexter Gordon. They wanted to find out what the buzz was about.   Most of these listeners were far to young to have seen Mr. Gordon before he had moved to Europe at the beginning of the previous decade. 
The back of the club near the kitchen door was where the muscians held court, both old and young, all wanting to be there, to see what Dexter had to say with his horn.  Dexter’s new and old audiences were not disappointed. 
Gordon had been a mainstay of the jazz mainstream jazz scene since the nineteen forties when he played tenor saxophone sitting next to tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons in the wonderful though short lived Billy Eckstine big band which also featured Sarah Vaughn as the female singer. Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons recorded a famous duet of dueling saxophones, “Blowing the Blues Away” with that band.
Dexter Gordon is credited as the first tenor saxophone player to utilize Charlie Parker’s stylistic innovations, which Parker developed on the alto saxophone, on the tenor.
Now Dexter Gordon was playing in an even more modern style.  The man who had been a major influence on the young John Coltrane of the nineteen forties and fifties had now assimilated Coltrane’s nineteen sixties contributions to the development of playing the tenor saxophone and jazz itself.  The teacher had learned some important lessons from the student.
To put it simply, Dexter Gordon at the Vanguard in 1976 was the definition of what was and is hip. He was world wise, sophisticated, humorously not taking himself to seriously, and he made music making seem like fun. He was current.  He was a classic.  In 1976, Dexter Gordon was now.
Gordon played jazz standards and his own compositions which were familiar to jazz fans who knew his Blue Note record dates from the previous decade.  Dexter quoted from standards, popular tunes and novelty numbers in almost every song he performed.  Even the jazz novice would hear something familiar during each set.  One might hear references to “Here Comes the Bride” or Santa’s coming to town” during a single performance.  The amazing thing was no matter how corny the musical reference might seem, Dexter Gordon would make it work and make us smile and in the process.  At the end of each song Dexter wound lay the tenor saxopone across his outstretched arms as he bowed towards the audience in supplication. This simple act of humility brought Dexter and the audience together in an intimate ritual of social, musical, communion.  Dexter subtlely made his audiences part of his performances.  Dexter Gordon was a master showman, tall and handsome with a boyish grin which  belied his sixty plus years spent on his planet.  
Over the succeeding seven years Dexter Gordon became a fixture on the New York jazz scene.  He soon formed a new quartet with George Cables on piano followed by Kirk Lightsey, Eddie Gladen quickly became his drummer who was joined by a changing cast of bass players including David Eubanks, Rufus Reid and Lonnie Plaxico. His bands breathed fire and humor.  I remember many memorable Dexter Gordon performances.  They include  his regular, yearly Christmas two week engagement at the Vanguard, a performance on the observation deck on top of New York’s Empire State Building and an inspiring, exhilerating performance of his quartet at Grant’s Tomb with trumpeter Woody Shaw.  Grant's Tomb and the surrounding park are on New York's Riverside Drive  across the street from Riverside Church in Harlem.  On wednesday evenings in July and August Jazzmobile Inc., hosted concerts there which were a part of their free, summer jazz series which was presented in Harlem and other New York City inner city environs.  The band was on fire that evening.  The music was so hot that you could feel waves of energy pulsating through the crowd as the band wailed.
Dexter Gordon’s return to New York in 1976 made hard bop hip again.  New jazz clubs soon opened and the music flourished. Dexter Gordon grew in popularity, appearing in films and staring in the movie "Round Midnight" for which he was nominated for an Oscar.  Dexter Gordon made what was then old seem new.

© 2004 John H. Armwood

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