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.

Mose Allison: Middle Class White Boy

You’d be hard pressed to find a musician less likely to thrive in the 1980s, but hey – it’s a great pleasure to feature Mose Allison on this site.

A big influence on artists as varied as The Who, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman and Frank Black, the Tennessee-born pianist and songsmith, who died in 2016, wrote witty, brilliant standards such as ‘Parchman Farm’, ‘Your Mind’s On Vacation’, ‘Feel So Good’ and ‘Everybody’s Cryin’ Mercy’.

His speciality was the medium-fast blues/jazz groove, with an extra bar or two thrown in and/or an unexpected modulation. He found endless interesting variations on this theme and his self-mocking, occasionally profound lyrics made one chuckle or think – sometimes both.

Mose toured relentlessly, mostly eschewing festivals in favour of nightclubs (the first time I saw him was during a long run at Pizza On The Park in Knightsbridge – don’t look for it, it’s not there any more…), and had a cadre of pick-up bassists and drummers all over the world who had to adhere to some pretty exacting rules – no egos, backbeats, cymbal crashes or excessive use of the kick drum.

1982’s Middle Class White Boy was Mose’s comeback album, his first for six years and debut for legendary jazz impresario Bruce Lundvall’s burgeoning Elektra Musician jazz label.

But it’s probably fair to say that neither Mose nor Lundvall got an album they were happy with. The terrible cover doesn’t bode well. It was recorded in just two days and sounds like it. Then there’s the fact that for some reason Mose mainly opted to use a tinny, badly-recorded electric piano on the date.

Also he arguably didn’t have enough decent original material – there are five cover versions, only Muddy Waters’ ‘Rolling Stone’ emerging with much distinction.

But on the plus side he’s helped by two formidable sidemen – Chess/George Benson legend Phil Upchurch on guitar and ex-Return To Forever man Joe Farrell on saxes and flute, both of whom get a lot of solo space and play excellently.

And the album benefits from not one but two absolute Mose classics: the title track and a new version of ‘Hello There Universe’. But otherwise it’s not a comfortable listen. It’s a big relief when he breaks out the acoustic piano on ‘When My Dreamboat Comes Home’, even if the song isn’t anything to write home about.

The Middle Class White Boy experience didn’t exactly make Mose rush back into a studio; he released one further album for Elektra, a live record from the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival featuring none other than Billy Cobham on drums (they had occasionally recorded together on Mose’s Atlantic sides).

Then there was another five-year hiatus before his 1987 Blue Note Records (where he rejoined Lundvall) debut Ever Since The World Ended (with its remarkably prescient title track, given these current times), a return to form.

Perhaps predictably, the 1980s were not particularly kind to Mose but there are still some gems to seek out.