Jazz at 100 Hour 54: The Return of Dexter Gordon

Dexter Gordon

After spending most of the 1950s in jail for two different drug busts, Dexter Gordon was paroled in 1960 and preceded to record a legendary series of records for Blue Note Records. Several of these records included rhythm sections led by the light-fingered but short-lived pianist, Sonny Clark. Dexter Gordon and Sonny Clark in this hour of Jazz at 100.

“The Dexter Gordon Blue Notes, seven albums recorded over four years (May 1961–May 1965), represent the apogee of his art… Gordon enjoyed numerous triumphs before (the ’40s Dials and Savoys, and the recorded concerts) and after … but on Blue Note he achieved transcendence—in Joyce’s phrase, ‘ear-piercing dulcitude.’ Splendidly conceived and recorded, they are insuperable examples of the streamlined elegance of which jazz quartets and quintets are capable.” – Gary Giddins

Dexter Gordon’s Return.
The LP Doin’ Allright, “Gordon’s first recording after a long and painful break is one of his best. Critics divide on whether Gordon was influenced by Coltrane at this period or whether it was simply a case of the original being obscured by his followers. Gordon’s phrasing on Doin’ Allright certainly suggests a connection of some sort, but the opening statement of ‘I Was Doin’ Alright’ is completely individual and quite distinct, and Gordon’s solo development is nothing like the younger man’s. For all his later attempts to downplay his absences from the music, Gordon clearly regarded this recording as something of a breakthrough. ‘You’ve Changed’ never left his basic set-list and many times in years to come he alluded to the original May 1961 solo statement, never repeating himself, but somehow conjuring up the spirit of that first occasion… It’s a terrific record, intriguingly unplaceable as to time or style. Hubbard does his usual buoyant job and the rhythm section is sure-footed.” – Brian Morton & Richard Cook

“Each of the seven original albums is savory. Doin’ Allright (an important showcase for the young trumpet whiz, Freddie Hubbard) set the stage for a comeback of major proportions, beginning with the rigorous transformation of the Gershwin title tune, followed by a shining example of what was soon recognized as Gordon’s distinctive approach to ballads, ‘You’ve Changed.’” – Gary Giddins

I Was Doing All Right. Dexter Gordon Quintet
(Freddie Hubbard-tp, Dexter Gordon-ts, Horace Parlan-p, George Tucker-b, Al Harewood-d). From Doin’ Allright. 5/6/1961

You’ve Changed. Dexter Gordon Quintet
(Freddie Hubbard-tp, Dexter Gordon-ts, Horace Parlan-p, George Tucker-b, Al Harewood-d). From Doin’ Allright. 5/6/1961

Dexter Gordon and Sonny Clark.
“The two albums with the [Sonny] Clark-led rhythm section are a veritable catalogue of Dexter’s styles and moods. They include a look back to his roots in swing in the effervescent ‘Second Balcony Jump‘… , gorgeous examples of his lyrical ballad voice…, a minor blues outing…, an example of alternating 4/4 swing and Latin rhythms in ‘You Stepped Out of a Dream’, and a whole library full of quotations. The quartet sound entirely comfortable in each other’s company, and delivered two fine, enduring dates.” – Kenny Mathieson

“Clark, who died at thirty-one and is remembered chiefly for his work with Gordon as well as his own sessions, was a pensive but limpid pianist who took Bud Powell’s dazzling rhythms but not his sturm und drang; his light-fingered solos are crafty and deliberated, economical and measured, frequently surprising, often underpinned by minor-key melancholy, even when played in a major key—“You Stepped Out of a Dream” [from A Swingin’ Affair] is a sterling example.” – Gary Giddins

Second Balcony Jump. Dexter Gordon Quartet
(Dexter Gordon-ts, Sonny Clark-p, Butch Warren-b, Billy Higgins-d). From Go. 8/27/1962

You Stepped Out Of A Dream. Dexter Gordon Quartet
(Dexter Gordon-ts, Sonny Clark-p, Butch Warren-b, Billy Higgins-d). From A Swingin’ Affair. 8/27/1962

Sonny Clark.
Sonny Clark’s Leapin’ and Lopin’ “includes three compositions by Clark, but one in particular, ‘Voodoo’, focuses attention on him as a writer, rather than simply a player. In an interesting parallel with Herbie Nichols, Clark’s music attracted the interest of a later generation of New York avant-gardists, led by pianist Wayne Horowitz, who had been playing some of his tunes in his live sets… The strange, compelling theme of ‘Voodoo’ certainly falls into that category. It opens with [Butch] Warren’s eerie walking bass figure, quickly overlaid with Clark’s chordal splashes, an introduction which establishes the slightly menacing mood of the music. The horns take up the figure on the opening measure of the theme proper (the piece is in standard 32-bar, AABA form), building the tension over the pianist’s continuing bold comping into the first solo, taken by (tenor saxophonist Charlie] Rouse. Clark follows [trumpeter Tommy] Turrentine, developing his ideas over two choruses of percussive, unusually choppy improvisation that stands slightly to the side of his usual flowing approach, but is ideally tailored to the atmosphere of the tune.” – Kenny Mathieson

Voodoo. Sonny Clark Quintet
(Tommy Turrentine-tp, Charlie Rouse-ts, Sonny Clark-p, Butch Warren-b, Billy Higgins-d). From Leapin’ and Lopin’. 11/13/1961

Our Man in Paris.
“…Gordon, more than anyone else, had learned the lessons of Lester Young (behind-the-beat melodic phrasing) and Charlie Parker (the bebop harmonic language) and collated them into his own rawboned saxophone voice, which pointed the way to the future. His was the voice that John Coltrane came from, and thus the voice that most tenor players of the past fifty years had come from – Jimmy Heath, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson and on and on. Recorded with Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke – which is to say, the man who invented bebop piano and the man who invented bebop drums – [in Our Man In Paris] Gordon makes what might be the last of the real thing, nonnostalgic bebop records… It closed an era nicely.” – Ben Ratliff

“For the Paris session, these veterans of the original bebop scene chose a nostalgic but fresh sounding programme of standards from that era, as well as a storming take on Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘A Night in Tunisia’ (which included one the saxophonist’s most memorable recorded solos)” – Kenny Mathieson

A Night In Tunisia. Dexter Gordon with the Three Bosses
(Dexter Gordon-ts, Bud Powell-p, Pierre Michelot-b, Kenny Clarke-d). From Our Man In Paris. 5/23/1963

This was not the last time that Dexter Gordon’s return would be an important moment in the history of jazz.  In 1978, his return to recording and preforming in the US would catalyze a resurgence of acoustic jazz.

Dexter Gordon was not the only jazz artist from the 1940s who continued as a vital contributor in the 1960s. The Modern Jazz Quartet, members of which were once Dizzy Gillespie’s rhythm section, continued to swing in their own quiet way, even as their music director, John Lewis, explored the third stream, a synthesis of jazz and classical music.

Recordings.
Dexter Gordon. Doin’ Allright. Blue Note BLP 4077
Dexter Gordon. Go. Blue Note BLP 4112
Dexter Gordon. A Swingin’ Affair. Blue Note BLP 4133
Sonny Clark. Leapin’ and Lopin’. Blue Note BLP 4091
Dexter Gordon. Our Man in Paris. Blue Note BLP 4146

Resources.
Giddins, Gary. 1998. Visions of Jazz: The First Century. New York. Oxford University Press.
Chapter 37 – Dexter Gordon (Resurgence)
Mathieson, Kenny. 2012. Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, 1954-65. Edinburgh. Canongate Books.
Dexter Gordon / Wardell Gray
Sonny Clark / Elmo Hope / Wynton Kelly
Morton, Brian & Cook, Richard. 2011. Penguin Jazz Guide, the History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums. New York, NY. Penguin Books.
Dexter Gordon. Doin’ Allright
Ratliff, Ben. 2002. The New York Times Essential Library of Jazz. New York. Times Books.
Chapter 65. Dexter Gordon, Our Man in Paris (1963)

Annotated playlists and streaming links for all the Jazz at 100 broadcasts: Jazz at 100

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