Legendary modern jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon was one of the major innovators of modern jazz, well-known as the first musician to translate the language of mid-20th-century modern jazz – the explosive sound known as “bebop” – to the tenor saxophone.
After his death in 1990, his wife and longtime manager, Maxine Gordon, has kept his memories and his legacy alive and strong through numerous lectures and guest appearances and now her new book “Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon.”
“Dexter was the first tenor saxophonist to play bee-bop and a bee-bop innovator. He had a unique sound,” Maxine Gordon tells Madison365 in a phone interview from Penn Station in Manhattan. “You hear two or three notes and you know it’s him. He became the model for so many saxophone players.”
Maxine Gordon is a scholar, researcher, and archivist who has done pioneering research on jazz in Harlem in the 1930s and the history of jazz in the Bronx. She is in the midst of a global tour that is making a stop in Madison this week, starting today, for a four-day residency where she will meet with Madison-area jazz lovers and talk about her critically acclaimed book “Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon.”
“Dexter began writing his autobiography in Cuernavaca, Mexico after he made [the movie] ‘Round Midnight’ which was 1986. One day, he said, ‘If I don’t finish this, promise me you will finish the book.’ And I said, ‘No, problem,’” Gordon remembers.
“Well, be careful what you promise,” she adds, laughing. “It was very hard. It takes a lot of work. We were covering a very long period – he was born in 1923. Dexter wasn’t just writing a book about his gigs and recordings, he wanted to talk about what it takes, and name all of the musicians he ever played with and get a little deeper.”
“Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon” has gotten some great reviews including this one in The New York Times. It has also earned the 2019 “Book of the Year” award this past May from the national Jazz Journalists Association and, earlier this month, the ASCAP Foundation announced that “Sophisticated Giant” was one of the winners of its 51st annual Deems Taylor/Virgil Thomson Awards for outstanding print, broadcast, liner notes, and new-media coverage of music.
In the book, Maxine Gordon incorporated some of her late husband’s poetry and letters into the narrative, in addition to her own research, interviews, and reminiscences.
Beyond being a revolutionary jazz artist, Dexter Gordon, who died on April 25, 1990, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was also a fine actor, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Leading Actor in 1986 for his portrayal of Dale Turner, the lead role in Bernard Tavernier’s 1986 film, “Round Midnight.”
“It was really cool when Dexter was nominated for an Oscar for ‘Round Midnight.’ He was only the fifth African American to be nominated in that category. Sidney Poitier had been nominated twice,” Maxine Gordon remembers. “That was very big for Dexter. It changed a lot of things for jazz and for him.”
Gordon says that she’s been to Madison a couple of times before and is looking forward to the mini-residency this week. “Madison has a great jazz following … the people are very knowledgable,” she says. “I have been here a couple times before and have always enjoyed myself.”
While she is in town, Gordon will host private sessions with students from the UW-Madison’s Odyssey Project, Madison East and Memorial High Schools, Sun Prairie High School, UW Continuing Education Division’s PLATO program, and the UW Afro-American Studies Department.
She will also be appearing in four programs that are open to the public including:
◉ The New Breed Jam’s “Dexter Gordon Night,” with special guests Jonathan Hoel on tenor saxophone and Paul Dietrich on trumpet, performing music from Dexter’s repertoire, on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 8:30-11 p.m., at North Street Cabaret, 610 North Street. $5 cover.
◉ “An Evening with Author Maxine Gordon & The UW Blue Note Ensemble,” a Wisconsin Book Festival event with Ms. Gordon reading excerpts from her book, an on-stage interview with her conducted by UW Afro-American Studies Professor Ethelene Whitmire, and musical interludes by the UW student ensemble that is exploring Dexter’s music this semester, on Thursday, Oct. 31, 7:30-9 p.m., at Collins Recital Hall in the UW’s new Hamel Music Center, 740 University Ave. Free admission;
◉ UW Mead Witter School of Music Jazz Area Masterclass, with Guest Speaker Maxine Gordon, led by Professor and UW Jazz Studies Director Johannes Wallmann, on Friday, Nov. 1, noon-1:30 p.m., 1321 Humanities Building, 455 North Park Street, Free admission; and
◉ “Dexter Gordon Tribute Concert,” with music from Dexter’s repertoire performed by three outstanding saxophonists – Hanah Jon Taylor, Sharel Cassity, and Eric Koppa – accompanied by pianist and UW Jazz Studies Director Johannes Wallmann with fellow UW faculty members Nick Moran on bass and Matt Endres at the drums, on Friday, Nov. 1, 8-11 p.m., at Café CODA, 1224 Williamson Street. Tickets: $15 in advance and $20 at the door.
Maxine Gordon says that she enjoys traveling throughout the country to have conversations about her famous late husband and to talk about the book.
“I’ve been on the road a long time with my career as a road manager and a tour manager,” she says. “It’s fun to go to these places where people like jazz and they like Dexter.
“I went to St. Louis recently and they have a book club called ‘Jazz St. Louis’ so everybody had already bought the book and read the book so when they came with questions they had little post-its all over the book and notes. I thought that was just great,” she continues. “The people were really well-informed and asked great questions about the book they had read. They made me think about things I hadn’t thought of in years.”
While she was in East St. Louis, she stopped to see jazz legend Miles Davis’s childhood home. “That was thrilling,” she says. “When I was in Monterey [for the Monterey Jazz Festival, part of the Sophisticated Giant Book Tour,] I had a good talk with [writer and activist] Angela Davis. That was pretty remarkable.”
The next stop will be Madison where her book will be on sale at the North Street Cabaret, Café CODA concerts and at the Wisconsin Book Festival event. She will be on hand at these concerts and at the Book Festival event to greet fans and sign her book.
“It will be fun to be around people who love jazz for all of these Madison events. I really love their [UW-Madison] Odyssey project program. I gave a talk in Madison before and they showed the film ‘Jazz in Exile’ by [Madison filmmaker] Chuck France. The Odyssey people were so cool,” she says. “I’m hoping to see [world-famous jazz musician] Richard Davis while I’m in Madison. I haven’t seen him in a while. I heard that they name a street after him in Madison.”