2016 marks the thirtieth anniversary of French director Bertrand Tavernier’s jazz movie, Round Midnight – now regarded as a classic – which starred the great tenor saxophonist, DEXTER GORDON, in his debut acting role portraying fictional expatriate American musician, Dale Turner. Dexter’s mesmerising performance understandably garnered him an Oscar nomination and succeeded in transforming the genial, 6′ 6” bebop icon, who was then 63, into a veritable movie star. Though jazz was still undoubtedly his raison d’être, Dexter went on to star alongside heavyweight actors Robert Di Niro and Robin Williams in the acclaimed 1990 film, Awakenings, based on the work of British neurologist, Oliver Sacks (though sadly, Dexter passed away before the film was released).
Fast forward to 2016, and Dexter Gordon is back in the news. He features in a new movie, a Danish documentary called Cool Cats that chronicles both his and fellow tenor titan Ben Webster’s stay in Denmark in the 1960s (Dexter lived in Europe between 1962 and 1976, eventually settling in Copenhagen). In addition to this, there have been selected showings of Round Midnight – to celebrate its ‘birthday’ – at various places around the globe.
But interest in Dexter Gordon doesn’t end there. There’s also a new album out. It’s called ‘Fried Bananas’ – named after one of Dexter’s signature pieces – and features a superb live performance recorded in Holland in 1972. The album’s released on vinyl LP by the British audiophile label, Gearbox, which is renowned for the excellent sound quality of its releases. The album’s liner notes were written by Dexter’s widow, Maxine Gordon (pictured above with the saxophonist) who was also his manager and is currently putting the finishing touches to a long-awaited biography of her husband. She also supervises her husband’s estate – alongside her son Woody Shaw III – and runs the Dexter Gordon Society, whose aim is both to preserve and extend the saxophone giant’s legacy.
In an exclusive interview with SJF’s Charles Waring, Maxine Gordon discusses the new Gearbox album and tells us about her work with the Dexter Gordon Society…
What’s the story behind the new Gearbox album, ‘Fried Bananas,’ which you and your son, Woody Shaw III, approved for release?
Darrel Sheinman of Gearbox approached me. He’s a very lovely guy, an audiophile, and I love the label. I love the quality of the LPs. It’s a small label, but everything he does – including the covers – is very high quality. I met him and went to their place in London and saw how they worked. Then he came to New York. He’d bought some tapes of Dexter from somewhere and they put out ‘Soy Califa’ (in 2014, live recordings of Dexter in Denmark during 1967). ‘Fried Bananas’ came about after I went over to Amsterdam to do research for the Dexter Gordon biography. I was interviewing the guys on the record, the Dutch rhythm section, who played with Dexter in the ’70s. I did some interviews and looked at some photos and the drummer, Eric Ineke, said they did this concert and there was a tape of it. I heard it and Dexter and the rhythm section sounded so good. I think I told Darrel …or he was looking in the archives of may be Dutch radio, but anyway, we both came across the recording. Darrel said, I’d like to put it out and I said go ahead, put it out. We’ve had offers from some other companies on Dexter but I don’t agree to them because there’s really no reason for me to go back in the record business (laughs). My son (Woody Shaw III) runs our company, Dex Music, and he said that eventually we would put it out ourselves for streaming or download only, but not bother to manufacture the thing. But anyway, because of the label and recording and the guys on it, we decided to let Gearbox put it out.
It’s a fabulous recording and unlike some of his recordings in Europe Dexter didn’t use a pickup band, did he? They sound a cohesive unit…
Right, and it was unusual. I think Dexter wrote about it, what was happening, in a letter he wrote back to friends in Denmark, saying ‘I have a very good band in Holland and we’re on tour.’ They got to be very close and stayed in Eric’s house. But Holland is a very small country, as you know, and they played in all these little towns and travelled together. He really liked that rhythm section. It wasn’t a pickup band, as you said.
One of the album’s standouts is Dexter’s version of ‘Body & Soul.’ He brought an emotional depth to ballads that few could match. Do you think the fact that he knew the words to all the songs was a key factor in making his interpretations so compelling?
Yeah, I think that is the main factor. That is what he learned from Lester Young. He repeated that story that Lester Young said: “you can’t play the songs if you don’t know the lyrics.” Sometimes Dexter used to recite the lyrics before the performance. That was very important. He always told the younger musicians who first of all avoided playing a ballad, “don’t be afraid to play a ballad.” I know one time after he made Round Midnight he had a conversation on the phone with Miles Davis. He said to Miles, “why don’t you play a ballad? I don’t hear you playing ballads anymore.” He was kind of joking with Miles about his rock ‘n’ roll, as he called it, what we call the electric Miles, and Miles said “it’s too hard. You will have to do it because I can’t do it anymore.” So Dexter said he had never really thought about it being difficult before: difficult in terms of what it takes out of a person playing a ballad.
He never recorded an album dedicated to ballads, though, did he?
Dexter said, he couldn’t do that. He was approached when he was on Columbia (in the late ’70s and early ’80s) to do a ballads album by Bruce Lundvall and he said “I can’t do and a whole album of ballads, I’d have to take two a day and then recover.” So after he died, (producer) Michael Cuscuna and I compiled this ballads album for Blue Note in 1991. Michael and I fought over which tunes to put on there. We put it together ourselves, our favourite ballads because people asked for it. There’s one tune on there that’s not exactly a ballad, it’s maybe medium tempo song, and I remember we had this argument about what’s a ballad: is a ballad only a song with lyrics or is it the tempo that makes it a ballad?
That’s a good question.
Isn’t it. We never really resolved that but Michael won, he got that tune on there. He said “I love that tune and Dexter sounds so good on there,” so I said “okay, go ahead, Michael (laughs).”
You run the Dexter Gordon Society, of course. Perhaps could tell us more about the nature of your work and what it entails.
In 2013 when Dexter would have been ninety, we founded the Dexter Gordon Society for non-profit to affirm his legacy and make sure we continue his work. Our aim is that we do it properly and that we organise his fans and people who want to support his ideas, so they can come together for his legacy with scholarships, with performances, and archival work. So, we’ve put his archive in the Library of Congress. There are three collections but we continue to collect research. It’s separate from Dex Music. There are two institutes. There’s a non-profit one that does public work (the Dexter Gordon Society) and then we have his recordings and publishing and we have e-commerce because we have products and that’s in Dex Music. So the idea is that the funds from the recordings and the product that we sell for Dex Music will go into support the non-profit part so then we can continue to give scholarships and do programs in education in his name. I’m the president but the hard work is done by my son, that’s Woody Shaw III. It was really his concept and I try to do what I’m told (laughs), because it’s a new era and we have social media.
Yes, Dexter’s on Facebook and there are 80,000 fans and it’s not just people who go there and click ‘like’ – it’s people that want to know what’s happening with Dexter. I’ve been travelling the world to deal with the thirtieth anniversary of Round Midnight. Just last night I did a talk (in Pittsburgh) and all these people came out and said, “oh, I saw it on Facebook so I’m here.” They’re big Dexter fans and they have their Blue Note LPs and they follow him. And they asked me, “how was it when you went to Madagascar?” And I was like, “how do people know I’ve been to Madagascar?” And of course I know that they know because they saw it on Facebook and that’s the beauty of having my son run it because I come from a different era. But I’m learning (Laughs).
What circumstances brought you and Dexter together in the first place – where, when and how did you meet?
I was a road manager and working for an agent, the same agent in Holland who booked Dexter with the band on the album ‘Fried Bananas.’ He was in Holland and booked a lot of jazz, all over Europe, all the big acts and the festivals. I went to work for him and he sent me to Nancy, France, in 1975, to help get Dexter’s band from France to Copenhagen, because there was a threat of a train strike in France. The band used to travel by train. They had a Eurail pass which Americans could use to travel all over Europe for a flat fee. It was very economical for the band. I’d never met Dexter before because he left the US in ’62 and he returned in ’76. I went and I heard him and I was like, “oh my goodness, this is unbelievable,” and he sounded so great. He was charismatic and so fabulous, so that was where I met him in ’75 and because we travelled so far by train – it’s a very long trip – we started talking. I was saying to him, “you should come back to the States, people should hear you. This is incredible. There’s no tenor player playing like this.” He said “I want to come back but everybody is discouraging me and saying, they don’t like jazz anymore, there’s no bebop and there’s no work.”
And you became his manager?
There was a joke between us that neither one of us knew exactly what we were doing but if we did we probably would have said “oh let’s not even try.” But because we didn’t know we forged ahead. So I phoned Max Gordon, who owned the Village Vanguard (a legendary jazz club in Greenwich Village). I knew him since I was 15 years old because we were little jazz kids and sat in the listening area in both the Vanguard and Birdland. He got so sick of us that he didn’t charge us. He’d say: “just sit down and be quiet!” So I knew him very well so I called him up. I waited till it was 10 o’clock in the club because I knew he’d be there and told him: “Max, I heard Dexter Gordon and he sounds great. He wants to come back. I told him that you would give him a gig and let him come back to the States and try it out.” He said “no, I’m not giving him a gig, he’s been gone too long and everybody’s forgotten him and no one will come.”
What was your response?
I told him, “No, it’s packed over here.” This was before people in New York knew what was happening in Europe with Dexter so I said “Max, if you don’t give him a gig I’ll never speak to you again.” This is me trying to sound tough. So that was my threat and he said “I don’t care if you never speak to me again” and hung up on me. (Laughs). I told Dexter, “well, that didn’t go too well!” and then asked him, “do you have any money saved up?” He said, “I do have some money I’ve saved.” I said, “can you pay the band to rehearse out of your money?” He said “yes, I could do that.” So I called Max back the next night and said “he’ll come for a week and he’ll cover the expenses. If he does well you’ll pay him and if he doesn’t, he’ll cover it.” Max said: “That’s a really bad deal. What kind of deal is that for a musician? You call yourself a manager?” I was like “no, I don’t, I’m just trying to get him a gig.” So he said “okay, I’ll give him a week. When does he want to come?” I said give me six months to put everything together and get ready. So we worked on it together and it’s a jazz myth that he came back and it was a huge success and he stayed. So I became his manager and then later I married the boss (laughs).
Why do you think Dexter settled in Copenhagen and what in particular attracted him to Denmark?
I’ve been thinking about that because I’m writing about it in the book and I was just in Copenhagen because the Danish Film Institute had the screening of the thirtieth anniversary of Round Midnight. I talked to a lot of people there, his friends, and there was a tribute at the Montmartre (the jazz club where Dexter played) and what I think was the main reason that he settled there was that club. When he left the States in ’62 his first booking was Ronnie Scotts. He went from there to the Montmartre in Copenhagen. There’s a book about the history of the Montmartre so it lists all Dexter’s bookings. When he started working there he would have all of July and all of August and then he’d have all of December. He wouldn’t go in for just a week, he’d go in for a whole month. I think that opportunity for him to play every night made him feel secure. Also, there were times when other people came – like Cat Anderson, Kenny Dorham, Bud Powell – and he would be a guest, so we did get to play with his peers. He got to work in that club so often that he became very popular and people treated him very well. He got a bicycle, he got a house and he eventually got a wife (laughs). But the other thing, the second thing besides the club, is that it was very convenient to travel from there in Europe. He went to all the countries in Europe – Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France – and he could either go by train or plane easily and economically. He also worked in all of Scandinavia – Finland, Sweden, Norway. I want to put a map in the book and show that period ’62 to ’76 and how many places he actually went.
Europe was very alluring to several American jazz musicians during that period…
Yes, that period in the ’60s, there was quite a few. He didn’t feel comfortable in France. Sometimes people asked him, “why didn’t you stay in Paris?” But there was the Algerian war and he felt in Paris that you were okay if you had a gig and were in a band but if you’re just a regular black man walking around he said there were so many issues – like where are you from and who are you? So he said it’s not for me. I’ve also wondered about the fact that people in Copenhagen are tall. Being tall, he was surrounded by other tall people in Denmark, which was not unusual and probably good. I remember when we travelled to Norway and Sweden, I said to him, “these people are really tall, like you” (laughs). But when we went to Japan, he was very uncomfortable because everything was small. We never think about this as normal-sized people but doorways were really low and things like the bathroom were very small and physically cramped.
Which made it diffuclt for him?
We don’t think about that but it’s an issue for really tall people and Dexter was six-foot six. I know when he made Round Midnight, that he always had to have king-size beds and find a hotel that would be suitable. (The director) Bertrand Tavernier had a crew who handled travel and when they did the scenes in Normandy, they found hotels that was suitable that had been set up for basketball players, because you know when basketball became popular in Italy and France they brought over some American players. The guys couldn’t fit into a normal European hotel room but some places were really smart and set up king-size beds and room specifically for basketball players, which we also used when Dexter was doing Round Midnight.
DEXTER GORDON’S ‘Fried Bananas’ is out now via Gearbox Records.
Read the second and final part of SJF’s interview with MAXINE GORDON, covering the movie Round Midnight and the forthcoming Dexter Gordon biography:
Find Out more about Dexter Gordon: http://www.dextergordon.org/