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A New Life of the Bebop Legend Dexter Gordon, Written by His Wife

Category: Art & Culture,Books

The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon
By Maxine Gordon
Illustrated. 279 pp. University of California Press. $29.95.

Dexter Gordon, the lusty virtuoso of bebop saxophone probably best known now for his Oscar-nominated, starring performance in the movie “Round Midnight,” embodied no fewer than four jazz clichés. He made his reputation as the very image of the big, bold, tenor-sax man, blaring rattling solos from the depths of his 6-foot-5 frame. He seemed for years to be a stereotype of the jazz musician as self-destructive hedonist, arrested and imprisoned on narcotics charges and crimes related to drug use. He became a symbol of the black expat demimonde in mid-20th-century Europe, where musicians joined writers, painters and other African-American artists seeking refuge from maltreatment and underappreciation in their homeland. And he ended up an emblem of survival and redemption, weathered but still standing and still blowing, a veteran of a lifetime of battle with the world and himself.

That Gordon embodied those clichés because he invented or crystallized them in the public imagination is largely forgotten today, nearly 30 years after his death, at 67, in 1990, from kidney failure following treatment for cancer of the larynx. In his final years, Gordon set out to tell his own story, hoping to correct some misconceptions and complicate some simplifications about his life and music. He wrote notes and drafts of biographical vignettes in longhand on yellow legal pads, and for a time tried to collaborate with the novelist Wesley Brown, before deciding to work largely on his own with help from his wife and former manager, Maxine Gordon. When his health began to fail precipitately, he asked her to promise to complete the book if he died before finishing it. “Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon” is the fulfillment of that promise.

Although fairly short passages from Dexter Gordon’s notepads appear here and there, the book is mainly Maxine Gordon’s, and that’s to its benefit. She learned about jazz from the inside herself, working in various back-room roles for the composer Gil Evans, the organist Shirley Scott and others before she met her future husband in France in 1975. She worked with him, overseeing his much ballyhooed return to America in 1976, with chief responsibility for the ballyhoo, and she was with him, living quietly (half the time in Mexico), during his late period of reflection, retired from music. It helps, too, that she went back to school after Dexter Gordon’s death, studied oral history for a summer at Columbia and got a master’s degree in Africana studies at N.Y.U. “Sophisticated Giant” is a work of considerable sophistication, the first-person testimony of its subject employed with affectionate discipline, smartly contextualized and augmented by material from interviews Maxine Gordon conducted with the tenor saxophone masters Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Heath, the record producers Bruce Lundvall and Michael Cucsuna, and others.

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