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

Jazz books written by ‘jazz widows’ are pretty rare. Only a few come to mind: Laurie Pepper’s ‘Art: Why I Stuck With A Junkie Jazzman’, Sue Mingus’s ‘Tonight At Noon’ and Jo Gelbart’s ‘Miles And Jo: Love Story In Blue’.

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.

The Cult Movie Club: Round Midnight (1986)

round_midnight_xlg‘Round Midnight’ turns 30 today, and its status as one of the great jazz movies was confirmed at a birthday screening last night at the Cine Lumiere in South Kensington.

Whilst the recent ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Miles Ahead’ were moderate commercial successes, they were subject to withering criticism in some quarters – I was with the naysayers regarding the former but, after watching the trailer, couldn’t even drag myself to the latter.

So until Woody Allen makes his long-promised big-budget ‘birth of jazz’ film, ‘Round Midnight’ is probably the best we’re gonna get. Its success even ushered in a short-lived Hollywood jazz revival – Clint Eastwood produced the wonderful ‘Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser’ (1987) and directed the Charlie Parker biopic ‘Bird’ (1988), followed by Bruce Weber’s acclaimed Chet Baker documentary ‘Let’s Get Lost’ (1988) and Spike Lee’s ‘Mo Better Blues’ (1990).

‘Round Midnight’ is loosely based on the memoir/biography ‘Dance Of The Infidels’ by Francis Paudras, a Parisian graphic designer who befriended legendary bebop pianist Bud Powell – and became his carer, business manager and confidante – during Bud’s expat period.

The film focuses mainly on the relationship between Francis and Dale Turner, a fictional mash-up of Powell and saxophonist Lester Young. My dad and I loved ‘Round Midnight’ from first viewing and, at a guess, very much related to Francis’s passion for jazz and desire to see his hero ‘living well’, rather than scuffling from gig to gig, drink to drink (Dad visited Paudras in France in the late ’80s in his capacity as a TV producer, but the proposed documentary never got made).

Put simply, the film ‘gets’ jazz; it’s immediately obvious that almost everyone involved loves the music and its players. Despite an incredibly slow, dark (as in: you can’t really see what’s going on) opening 20 minutes, ‘Round Midnight’ finally delivers the grandeur, romance and tragedy of America’s classical music.

Dexter Gordon’s Oscar-nominated lead performance still thrills, 30 years on. Though his character mainly spends the first half of the film trying to get wasted, we can forgive him anything, especially when we hear of the beatings and racist abuse regularly doled out during his time in the army (this dialogue, according to director/co-writer Bertrand Tavernier, was pure autobiography on Gordon’s part).

Elsewhere, Martin Scorsese has some fun with his portrayal of the fairly sleazy New York booking agent Goodley, while Francois Cluzet gives a strong, touching performance as the quick-tempered though loyal Francis.

Tavernier has finally found a way to represent jazz on screen, and it couldn’t be simpler – just round up the best players available (including Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard, most of whom also have speaking parts), get them to play live and capture a performance in one take if possible.

It’s no great surprise that Herbie’s soundtrack won the Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1987, though the film’s original music arguably never quite evokes the high-energy rush of prime late-’50s bebop-tinged jazz. No matter: both ‘Round Midnight’ and its score have aged pretty damn well.