When I was discovering jazz, one of the tenor players I liked most was Dexter Gordon. There were many others but Dexter was special… something about his tone, his lyrical lines and phrasing drew me in. I didn’t know enough about what he did to identify what it was, it just felt right. I picked up his Blue Note LPs in bargain bins; incredible discs he cut over a period of about a week before moving to Europe, where he felt more “accepted.”
He continued to live and work in England, France, Sweden and Denmark, performing/recording with friends/ jazz luminaries-where he was appreciated as the artist he was.
Rumor had him exiled abroad for American drug arrests, which he did suffer but it was by choice that he lived and worked abroad, not due to an evasion of domestic drug charges. Friends considered Gordon an occasional user, one that preferred to drink but not get sloppy. Later in life, alcohol was his intoxicant of choice, always second to his music.
I was fortunate to see Dexter in a tiny club shortly after his return to America, fronting a sextet. They were a wonderfully fluid, emotive yet precise group whose styles provided the perfect canvas upon which Dexter painted sonic images that sent chills through the room. Everyone soloed and all were virtuosos. Together, they were sublime. They were hot and so were we. Seemed like it was 90 degrees in there. Drinks flowed freely.
Late in the evening, after a most gracious, warm, fun performance rendering both the band and audience drenched in sweat, he humbly held up his sax in front of himself, raising it the smoky club, seemingly offering it to us as he paid it homage. This had been a trademark of his for some time but seeing him do it was a thrill. He was so appreciative, engaging, endearing and freaking fantastic–at six foot six, an imposing but gentle genius of a man.
Dexter’s health suffered late in his life but he continued to perform, even on the silver screen, in dramatic roles– with Robin Williams in “Awakenings” and “Round Midnight,” for which he was nominated for an Oscar in the “Best Actor” category.
We lost Dexter in 1990. He was 67. Unlike the “King of Pop’s” demise, it was nearly a week before I heard of Dexter’s passing. But to this day, every time I hear his distinctive work, I remember how he wooed the room that magic night as he shared his gift, celebrated his art and displayed his kind, gentle spirit.