Book Review: Sophisticated Giant (The Life And Legacy Of Dexter Gordon) by Maxine Gordon

Jazz books written by ‘jazz widows’ are pretty rare. Only Laurie Pepper’s ‘Art: Why I Stuck With A Junkie Jazzman’ comes to mind.

But, as Val Wilmer’s ‘As Serious As Your Life’ demonstrated some 50 years ago, behind a great jazzman is often a great jazzwoman, and usually one equally worthy of a tome.

And so it proves with Maxine Gordon’s excellent ‘Sophisticated Giant’. She was the wife and tour manager of Dexter Gordon – bebop pioneer, Blue Note saxophone great and Oscar-nominated actor – in the years leading up to his death in 1990.

The book serves as a gripping biography and much more besides. It came about as a direct result of Dexter’s unfulfilled ambition to publish his autobiography. He wrote periodically throughout his life, and many illuminating excerpts are included here.

The early pages portray an oft-neglected Los Angeles-centred survey of how the swing scene developed into the bebop revolution; we get an inside story of Dexter’s work with the Louis Armstrong Orchestra and famous Billy Eckstine Band, hothouse for future stars Art Blakey, Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.

We move onto Dexter’s productive spell with fellow bebop pioneer and close friend Dizzy Gillespie, and then his famous Savoy and Dial sessions (though there are sobering details of the contracts he signed throughout his life).

We get the story of Dexter’s dark years from 1955 to 1960, when he had frequent struggles with addiction and crime. He considered them ‘un’ years and planned to leave them out of his autobiography completely.

But things very much look up with his signing for Blue Note Records on 7 November 1960. This is the most gripping section of the book and the one that will hook most jazz fans. We learn about the recording of classic albums Our Man In Jazz and Go, and read many touching letters that Dexter sent label owners Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff while on tour.

We learn about Dexter’s move to Paris and subsequent settlement in Copenhagen, Denmark, where he was resident for 12 years and became a much-loved local face, frequently visible riding his bicycle around the city.

Maxine then explores Dexter’s triumphant return to New York in 1977, when he was welcomed back like a hero with a shiny new Columbia record deal and a host of memorable albums and gigs.

Finally there’s a long, arresting section on the making of classic 1987 jazz film ‘Round Midnight’, which almost gave Dexter a Best Actor Oscar and earned him plaudits from none other than Marlon Brando.

‘Sophisticated Giant’ slots right into the canon of great jazz books, a must for the general fan and anyone who loves Dexter’s Blue Note sides or performance in ‘Round Midnight’. It’s also notable for featuring some previously unseen photos, including a beautiful shot of Dexter, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, taken by Rudy Van Gelder.

‘Sophisticated Giant’ by Maxine Gordon is published by the University Of California Press.

Peter Gabriel: ‘Lead A Normal Life’

Peter Gabriel’s brilliant 1980 self-titled album is probably best known for its much-discussed ‘gated reverb’ drum sound, the ‘no cymbals’ rule and the tracks ‘Games Without Frontiers’ and ‘Biko’.

The record portrayed various characters on the fringes of society, whether due to war, intolerance, mental illness, crime or racism.

But its penultimate track, the somewhat forgotten ‘Lead A Normal Life, is a chilling, minimalist classic whose power grows with each passing year. It’s set in an unnamed, uncharacterised institution – a borstal, high-security prison, crisis centre or mental asylum? The latter seems most likely.

It’s fair to say mental illness was a taboo in late-1970s Britain, even while the borstals were subject to Thatcher’s ‘short, sharp shock’ doctrine (in the era of Alan Clarke’s devastating film ‘Scum’), unemployment and institutional racism were rife, crime was on the increase, the Yorkshire Ripper rampant and The Troubles in Northern Ireland very much on the agenda.

In short, it sometimes felt like this song WAS normal life in 1979. And many aspects of life in 2021 may lead one to a similar conclusion.

Legendary Atlantic A&R man Ahmet Ertegun, upon hearing Peter Gabriel III, reportedly asked if Peter had recently spent any time in an asylum. This may have hit closer to home than is often reported.

Gabriel elaborated a little on ‘Lead A Normal Life’ in September 2013’s MOJO magazine: ‘I think the assumption was that you couldn’t write about something like that unless you had experience of it. I later discovered I had depression around the time of my marriage breaking up (in early 1987). But maybe there was something more there.’

The lyric is very brief, but its power comes from colloquial, off-hand phrases, as if spoken by a (somewhat blithe) visitor of an inmate (or an ‘official’ visitor – ‘A Clockwork Orange’ came to mind while listening again recently). Despite the calming view of the trees, surely the institution is anything but ‘nice’.

Musically, the track is built around Morris Pert’s minimalist marimba (and slung mugs or child’s xylophone?), Peter’s haunting Yamaha CP-70 piano figure/ominous chords and Fritched, primal-scream vocals (with treatments courtesy of Larry Fast), Jerry Marotta’s tribal toms, David Rhodes’ guitar loop (or feedback?) and Dick Morrissey’s brief, stacked tenor saxes.

Producer Steve Lillywhite expertly uses muting/fading-in and deep reverb to create big black holes in the track, crafting a cogent arrangement in the process which easily holds the attention for four-plus minutes. It’s an object lesson in how to use silence to enhance a mix.

‘Lead A Normal Life’ is a masterpiece on a subject rarely touched in ‘rock’, evoking loneliness and disturbance in equal measure, shot through with Peter’s trademark compassion. He’s even played it live a few times, to chilling effect.

Further listening:

The Police: ‘Invisible Sun’

XTC: ‘Fly On The Wall’

David Bowie: ‘Scream Like A Baby’