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.

Milford Graves (1941-2021)

One of the most memorable music documentaries broadcast in Britain during the late 1980s was ‘Speaking In Tongues’, directed by Doug Harris for German TV and originally shown in 1982.

It began with John Coltrane’s funeral on 21 July 1967, featuring music from drummer Milford Graves, trumpeter Donald Ayler and saxophonists Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, then mused on the mysterious death of the latter before opening up to focus on Graves’ extraordinary life and some coruscating duets with saxophonist David Murray.

Born 20 August 1941 in South Jamaica, Queens, New York, Milford Graves was a ‘drummer’, but, equally importantly, a truly evolved human being, a strict vegetarian, herbologist, acupuncturist, teacher and trained martial artist. He was famous locally for his backyard dojo and basement laboratory.

He began his career playing bongos and timbales, including a short-lived Latin-jazz band with a very young Chick Corea. At the urging of superstar percussionist Don Alias, he moved over to the drum kit in 1963 and found his true metier.

Alongside Sunny Murray, Andrew Cyrille, Ronald Shannon Jackson and a few others, he freed the drummer from purely a timekeeping role, introducing new melodic and tonal textures for the kit. But this wasn’t a po-faced, technical endeavour – it led to some of the most intense, high-volume work of the last 50 years. He described each of his limbs as playing ‘a different feeling’ (see below).

Legendary jazz writer Nat Hentoff apparently made a prediction in the late 1960s that the greats of the avant-garde jazz movement would eventually get lecturing jobs in universities, such was the importance and rigour of their conceptual flow.

It was true. Since 1973, Graves had been teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, a variety of courses including those touching on the healing aspect of music. He performed regularly across the world, including at a school for autistic children in Japan. From the late 1960s on, he eschewed nightclub and club gigs, restricting his live performances to festivals, community centres and outdoor shows.

He recorded astonishing duets with pianist Don Pullen, Andrew Cyrille (Dialogue Of The Drums) and David Murray on the classic 1991 album The Real Deal. He worked with Albert Ayler on various albums including Love Cry. He toured extensively during the 1980s, producing a sound as heavy as anything Black Flag or Metallica came up with.

Tragically, though he had studied the heartbeat as a source of rhythm since the 1970s, Milford died of congestive heart failure on 12 February. ‘It turns out, I was studying the heart to prepare for treating myself,’ he told The New York Times last year.

Last autumn, his life and work had just been subject to a residency at the ICA in Philadelphia, including a screening of ‘Speaking Of Tongues’ and a wide-ranging interview with Jason Moran.

RIP to a true one-off. To paraphrase Art Blakey, if jazz was about washing away the dust of everyday life, Milford Graves did it.

Milford Graves (20 August 1941 – 12 February 2021)

Further reading: ‘As Serious As Your Life’ by Val Wilmer

 

Book Review: A Message To Our Folks (The Art Ensemble Of Chicago) by Paul Steinbeck

If the 1980s saw the full flowering of PR and image’s influence on the music world, it’s sometimes forgotten that jazz was an unlikely beneficiary of this trend too.

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago, that important unit whose line-up went unchanged for almost 30 years until trumpeter/co-founder Lester Bowie’s death in 1999, were a massive live draw during the early ’80s, particularly in France, where they were welcomed more like rock stars than avant-garde jazzers. Image and stage presentation were undoubtedly big factors.

Paul Steinbeck fine new biography of the band ‘A Message To Our Folks’ is a scholarly, forensic study, tracing their origins from the South Side of Chicago through their controversial move to Paris in 1969, return to the States in 1971 and commercial peak in the early 1980s.

He analyses key albums, talks to living members and dissects the Ensemble’s cultural importance. Despite the sometimes frivolous onstage ‘antics’, musically the collective was as serious as your life, to borrow the title of Val Wilmer’s groundbreaking book.

Drummer Don Moye remembers Bowie taking him aside after his successful audition and saying: ‘Don’t even mess with us or get any more involved if you can’t commit to playing Great Black Music at a very high level, becoming famous and taking our place in the history of jazz.’ The stakes were high.

They were ahead of their time with the use of slogans, labelling their sound Great Black Music to distinguish it from jazz; according to Bowie, ‘Never before were we even allowed the dignity of selecting a name for our own music.’ They also described their music as ‘Ancient To The Future’.

The band would pick up various celebrity fans: in 1975, Bowie took a trip to Nigeria and became Fela Kuti’s ‘guest of honour’ when he wowed him with an impromptu trumpet solo: ‘I played this blues… After I played a couple of choruses, Fela said, “Stop. Somebody go get this guy’s bags. He’s moving in with me…”‘

David Bowie also famously employed his namesake for the Black Tie White Noise album as did Danny Wilson for their acclaimed debut Meet Danny Wilson.

Don Moye in 2017

The Art Ensemble Of Chicago would also open doors for other instrumental groups with their onstage presentation, verging on dramatic performance – face paint and stage personas were the norm at a time when ‘jazz’ was becoming extremely bland.

‘Message To Our Folks’ is a fairly brief, fairly serious but highly effective biography, a must for general fans and a good companion piece to other key books on Free Jazz: ‘As Serious As Your Life’, Graham Lock’s ‘Forces In Motion’ and Ben Watson’s ‘Derek Bailey’.

‘A Message To Our Folks: The Art Ensemble Of Chicago’ is published now by The University Of Chicago Press.