It was exactly thirty years ago that jazz tenor saxophone legend, DEXTER GORDON, made his on-screen acting debut at the age of 63 portraying Dale Turner (a fictional musician whose life was loosely based on that of itinerant US pianist, Bud Powell) in Bertrand Tavernier’s acclaimed movie, Round Midnight. Dexter died four years afterwards but the film – which has been revived with special showings around the globe to celebrate its anniversary – remains an important part of his legacy.
In the second and concluding part of Charles Waring’s recent interview with Dexter’s wife, Maxine Gordon, the saxophonist’s manager-turned-music historian, record producer and author, talks about Round Midnight and also gives us her opinion of a new film called Cool Cats, which focuses on her husband’s (and fellow tenorist Ben Webster’s) years living in Denmark. She also tells us about the Dexter Gordon biography she’s writing, which is due to be published sometime next year…
Round Midnight made Dexter a movie star. How did he come to be offered the role in the first place and did he have to take a screen test?
Oh yeah, he did. It’s so funny because last night I gave a lecture on the making of Round Midnight so that’s very clear to me. What happened was the first call came from Henri Renaud, in Paris, who was a pianist and was working at CBS Records, in Paris, and he knew Bertrand Tavernier wanted to make a jazz film based on the story he had heard from Francis Paudras about his relationship to (pianist) Bud Powell. He loved the idea for a movie and he wanted a jazz musician to play the major role, but not a piano player. He was looking for a saxophone player. Henri Renaud called Bruce Lundvall who was president of Columbia. Dexter was on the label, and he said “this French director wants to make a movie” and Bruce Lundvall immediately thought of Dexter. Henri said “perfect, that was what I was thinking.” Bertrand then came from Paris and the first meeting was with Bertrand and the producer, Irwin Winkler. When Bertrand met Dexter, he was like “oh my God, this is him, he’s perfect, I want him.” A couple of days later, he did a screen test. We have a copy of it, it’s very good. They gave him a script, he read it and then he put it aside as he had memorised it, totally. I asked him about that: I was like I didn’t know you had a photographic memory and he was like, “it’s a lot easier than memorising a tune.” (Laughs). So I think it’s something that musicians develop. I remember Art Blakey one time in Belgium, when I was a road manager. We went to this man’s house who said “Art, is there anything you want to hear?” This man had ceiling to floor recordings on the walls. He was a serious collector. Art said, “do you have me with Lucky Millinder?” So that’s like the 1930s. Maybe 39, I’ll look it up. Anyway, it was definitely in the thirties, and he said yes I do, and he went and pulled out a 78 and put it on and Art Blakey remembered the arrangement and was playing along with it. I said to him, how is it possible that you would remember something like that? And he said “once you’ve played it, you never forget it.” And I never forgot that because then if you think about jazz musicians, imagine how many tunes they know, I mean the chord changes and the melody, and it’s stored there in their memory. They didn’t bring music on the stand like they do now. Dexter was like come to the gig, know the tune. Don’t bring music to the stand. Anyway, he did that same thing with what he was reading and then thought about it and then did his dramatic reading. The next day they said, can we talk about a contract? It took a little while because there were problems with the script. Dexter made changes to the script. He also worked with Bertrand on the casting. He wanted Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton and he basically got everything he wanted because Bertrand wanted Dexter be involved in every aspect of the film. He wanted it to be realistic, he wasn’t trying to do what other jazz films do …
Many have sensationalised the lives of jazz musicians…
Yes, and also all the music on Round Midnight was recorded live. They screened the movie the night before I gave my talk. I’ve seen it so many times but I was struck when I was listening to the music by the fact that all the tunes are played all the way through. The action might be on top of the music but Bertrand Tavernier never cuts the tunes. He doesn’t do what most films of music do, which might play the melody but they don’t play the solos or the whole tune, right? If you see the movie again but just listen; he plays the entire tune and then there’s action without dialogue on top of it. The film really holds up. 30 years is a long time.
It does. It’s a film that you can keep going back to.
I know and I asked Bertrand about that. We were together when they showed it in Paris and we were on a panel discussion together. I asked him if he knew at the time that it would turn into some kind of classic film and he said “you never know. I’ve made a lot of movies and I hope some of them would resound with the public and still be interesting in 30 years, but you don’t know. You do the best you can.”
What did Dexter think of the film?
He was very happy about the film. When he first got the script he said to Bertrand, “my life has a happy ending, do you think we have to have a tragic ending in the movie?” And Bertrand said, “Dexter, you must die – it’s French.” (Laughs). So Dexter said “okay, but I’m not dying on screen. I’m not doing a death scene.” In the original script he dies on camera but Bertrand agreed to Dexter’s request. Dexter made this joke, “just send them a telegram that I died,” which of course they used in the movie. So they agreed to that but he was very happy with the film. He said it would take a long time for him to get out of the film because he became his character, Dale Turner. After Round Midnight he made another movie called Awakenings. Robert De Niro and Robin Williams were in ti, and he asked De Niro “after you make a movie do you ever come out of the character?” and he said, “I never come out of the character.” Dexter said to me, “if you think about De Niro, he’s always bringing that character to the next part. Like in Raging Bull, that guy becomes a part of whatever he does next.” So Dexter said, “I guess I’ll always have Dale Turner with me.”
There’s a new film called Cool Cats that features Dexter with Ben Webster. A Danish film…
It’s a documentary. To my mind, there are a lot of problems with it. There is footage of he and Ben (Webster). It’s all good and comes from Danish TV. It’s a Danish director’s idea of these two guys living in Denmark. The concept of the documentary is how happy they were in Denmark and how bad life was in the United States, but I don’t agree with it. The footage, which is in colour, is great, the music is great, and especially to me, the Ben Webster part, because they have his home movies. He had an 8mm camera. His last girlfriend had the camera and he took films out the window and walking down the street and at the zoo. It’s great and it comes from an early period in Denmark
You can set the record straight with your forthcoming biography of Dexter.
Well, I hope so. It’s not a standard jazz biography, it’s more of a cultural history. It’s Dexter’s story but in the context of the period and shows what else is happening around him. We don’t live in isolation.
Is it going to be on the scale of Robin Kelly’s Thelonious Monk biography?
Oh well, that’s so interesting because Robin Kelly was my Ph.D. advisor at NYU. (Laughs). He and I did the research in the Monk book, the research when he lives in San Juan Hill in New York. That section is my research. So he had his graduate students help with the book. When I first met Robin Kelly, he said he was having trouble meeting people to talk about Monk. He was just beginning the book and people weren’t forthcoming because he doesn’t come from the jazz world, he’s a historian. I went with him to the Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark and I introduced him to Dan Morgenstern, and I said ‘Dan, I hope you’re help him with the research here because he’s going to write a biography of Monk,’ and Dan said, ‘oh, really? Well, I don’t know, he never met Monk. He’s young, right?’ I said he didn’t meet Marie Antoinette either and if he was writing a book about her you wouldn’t say he never met. He’s a historian, the guy’s a brilliant guy and he loves Monk and we have to help him. And he was like ‘okay, yeah, yeah, you’re right.’ (Laughs). And then I introduced him to Randy Weston and other people and then they didn’t need me. I just told people: ‘talk this guy.’ But yeah, my book’s not as long as Robin Kelly’s. When I can’t get myself writing what I’m supposed to write, I go back to my acknowledgements and introduction because when that happens you go back to writing something you already know. So I’ve got 80 pages of acknowledgements but anyway, I have started the introduction by saying “this is not Robin Kelly’s book on Thelonious Monk” (laughs) but then I took it out because only people like us would know that it was only a joke.
Many people know about Dexter Gordon the musician but what was Dexter Gordon the man like? What was he like as a person – what interests did he have?
It’s perfect timing because we have the baseball World Series. Dexter loved baseball. We had a house in Mexico for five years and spent half the year there, in the winter, and we had to put a satellite on the roof of the house because Dexter said he wouldn’t stay in Mexico in the baseball season if he couldn’t watch it. He liked to watch from the beginning, spring training it’s called, and he was a very big baseball fan and I learned to watch baseball from him. He said if the team played the way a big band played, together, if they really start playing together like a big band, like Billy Eckstein’s band, then they can’t help but win. But the minute that there’s somebody in there that thinks it’s their team or they’re the star or they’re more important, it falls apart. So he related baseball to a big band. He was also a big reader. He loved spy thrillers and loved John LeCarre’s books but he also lvoed the classics. He read Victor Hugo and he could read in French. Of the fiction, his favourite book with The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy. He always had a copy of that with him:, a worn paperback copy of it and had an original, first edition also. He loved that character in there, how bad he was and how badly behaved he was. He said I can relate to him. When we travelled to Mexico, we had these duffel bags – his was red, a big one, and mine was turquoise – and we’d buy books but not read them and put them in our bags to take to Mexico because at the time you couldn’t get English language books there. So he was a big reader and liked baseball.
After being on the road so long did he find it hard to settle after leaving the jazz life?
No, he was very happy about that. He was very quiet. His professional persona was very different from him at home. He like to have breakfast at a certain time and have his meals on time and have his rest and have his nap. He said his life was extended by the afternoon nap. He really was not one for hanging out or having big parties. He liked the quiet life, to be off the road. It takes a lot out of a person to be on stage and to socialise and can be quite exhausting. It wasn’t his natural self to be outgoing like he was on stage. Not that he wasn’t good at it or didn’t love it but he said that’s acting. When they approached him to do Round Midnight they asked him, have you ever done acting before? He said I’m acting every night. Jazz musicians who try to relate to their audience – not all of them can – are the ones who are acting, right?
True. When is your Dexter autobiography coming out?
They won’t give me the publishing date until I submit the final manuscript (laughs). They’ve already extended the deadline. It’s the University of California Press. They’ve been very nice. My goal is the end of the year, so I have another month or two and then they’ll give me the release date.
Have you got a title yet for it?
Yes, it’s called Dexter Calling and I’m using the photo from the album (of the same name on Blue Note, pictured above) with him in a phone booth in New York.
Dexter Calling is published next year by the University Of California Press.