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.

Story Of A Song: Chaka Khan’s ‘And The Melody Still Lingers On’

Jazz regained some ground in the ’80s.

After a chastening period in the late-’60s and ’70s when rock pretty much swept all before it, major labels took a renewed interest in established jazz acts and underground movements flourished (no wave, acid jazz, harmolodic funk, neo-bop). Wynton Marsalis, Miles, Courtney Pine and Loose Tubes even put jazz back on primetime TV.

But when Chaka Khan recorded ‘And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia)’, the dramatic centrepiece of her What Cha’Gonna Do For Me album, she arguably set the whole revival in motion.

Dizzy Gillespie, Arif Mardin and Chaka Khan

Dizzy Gillespie, Arif Mardin and Chaka Khan, Atlantic Studios 1981

It was producer Arif Mardin’s idea, his mind wandering during a flight between New York and LA. The album was one song short – so how about a tribute to the bebop masters of the ’40s using the crème de la crème of the early ’80s soul/R’n’B/jazz session players? They could use Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli’s 1942 bebop classic ‘A Night In Tunisia’ as a template.

Chaka loved the idea. Mardin hoped to find a lyricist but deadlines were pending so he tackled it himself with Chaka adding the final touches. Mardin made a demo of the arrangement which cheekily inserted Charlie Parker’s famous 1946 alto break.

Charlie Parker in 1946, photo by Ted Giola

Charlie Parker in 1946, photo by Ted Giola

A lengthy chart was quickly made up (resembling a ‘Chinese laundry list written in cuneiform’, according to Mardin) which included eight spare bars for the insertion of the Parker lick.

The musicians – Casey Scheuerell on drums, David Foster and Ronnie Foster (no relation) on keys, Abe Laboriel on bass – were booked and smashed the tune in one take.

Herbie Hancock later contributed a brilliant synth solo. Chaka then added her sublime vocals. Her four-part big-band harmonies and spine-tingling ad-libs bring the song right up to date.

But there was still space for an opening head melody and a solo in the final verse. Dizzy had been sent the demo by Mardin with a note asking him to contribute.

But the bebop legend replied that he would be on tour and so couldn’t make the recording session – but he suddenly arrived two days before the album’s mastering date at New York’s Atlantic Studios to add his part. The track was complete.

Chaka and Mardin attempted to repeat the trick a few years later with ‘Bebop Medley’ but it lacked the finesse of this timeless classic.