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Sons of Miles
DEXTER GORDON: PART ONE - Dexter and Les Flics
by Mike Zwerin
1 October 1998

When Dexter Gordon's name appeared on the immigration control computer at Charles de Gaulle Airport, he was wearing the hat he wore playing Dale Turner in "Round Midnight," a role that won him an Academy Award nomination.

"Long Tall Dexter" is an imposing figure and the film did well. Several arriving passengers recognized him waiting on a bench and said hello. But as he leaned on his tenor saxophone case, jet-lagged at 8.30 A.M., his wife, Maxine, thought he looked as fragile as the doomed Turner in the film.

He was feeling more like Jean Valjean. On Monday night, Dexter and Maxine were in a Right Bank hotel suite. They had flown first class from New York. He recently told a friend that he had never believed a saxophone player could make so much money. This is one plot that thickens after the happy ending.

"Remember that guy in 'Les Misérables'?" Gordon asked. "They chased Jean Valjean for 20 years for a loaf of bread."

So there he was, about to start his first major tour since becoming a household name, sitting in the holding area of Charles de Gaulle Airport, being rejected by the country that had provided his big break; being held by the French police for five hours because of an old drugs charge.

In 1967, Gordon had been working the cellars of the Saint-Germain-des-Pres, living the expatriate lifestyle that "Round Midnight" made a pop-culture myth - the wounded African American jazz hero ignored at home, scraping by but accepted as an artist in Europe.

Dexter Gordon is an important figure in the history of what is called America's native art form. He played a concerto for saxophone with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan. Like others of his alienated generation he was once addicted to heroin, and in 1967 in Paris he had been arrested for it.

"It wasn't possession," he recalled, "but they observed me buying and I was obviously a user. I wasn't hurting anybody but myself. It was a misdemeanor." He spent two months in prison ("which was just as well because I cleaned up") before being able to arrange bail. A few months later he received a three-month suspended sentence.

He had to sign in at the police prefecture once a week, which took a good part of the day. He read Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy while waiting on a bench. Finally he was told to leave the country.

In 1971 Gordon received a letter on Interior Ministry stationery (he still carries it) that said he could enter France to work for three month periods. He has toured France many times since. The letter straightened out occasional problems at the frontier.

Although he was tired right then after his adventure with the douane, you could see that in general he was glowing at the age of 64. His eyes had a survivor's twinkle and constantly slow-motion hands added twists of irony to his husky voice.

While "Round Midnight" was in production, the Socialist minister of culture, Jack Lang, gave Gordon one of France's most sought-after cultural awards, proclaiming him aChevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

The film's producer, Irwin Winkler, had reminded French consular officials in New York about the award when they checked the records and held up formalities before Gordon's current tour.

They gave him a three-year visa, but "when I showed it at the airport, Le chef said: 'This doesn't mean anything. The consulate people in New York don't know what they're doing.' That's a quote. And he didn't want to know anything about any old letter."

Dexter Gordon

Gordon said he was led into a series of rooms - "You know like the police do, so your lawyer can't get to you" - while Maxine his wife, who is also his manager, tried to get out of the transit area and telephone for help.

"I went nuts on them," she recalled. "I said they were a bunch of fascists and we were going home on the next plane and we'll never play France again."

Gordon said a sympathetic officer told him they would have let him go sooner if his wife had not been so rude. "He told me, 'This chef, he's a racist, and he hates Americans. He'll keep you as long as he can.'"

Waiting in a locker room around noon, Gordon watched officers "come in and dig into their beer stash - not one of them offered me a taste." This was said with a raised eyebrow and a wink, followed by the observation: "I think it's pretty weird that Klaus Barbie benefits from a 20-year statute of limitations and not me."

He lost his temper only once, when an officer picked up his hat, Dale Turner's hat. Gordon rose, pointed and growled: "Touche pas le chapeau" - don't touch the hat.

After five hours, the chief issued a nine-day visa that covered the French portion of Gordon's European tour. Before the Dexter Gordon Quartet played for 5,000 people in the Grande Halle de la Villette, Jack Lang visited the dressing room and said, "Dexter, please don't blame the French people for this."

An Interior Ministry official invited Gordon to his office and, without apologizing, extended the nine days to one month. Gordon did not consider it a victory. He likes France; he had been considering coming back for a vacation in Biarritz. That was now, let's say, postponed.

Gordon said he thought about "all the people this sort of thing happens to every day - people who don't get any attention." And he added:

"Actually, it probably wouldn't have happened to me if I was wearing my chevalier medal. Next time I come to France I'm going to wear my medal."

Photo: Dexter Gordon.
Credit: Christian Rose

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