PARIS - A letter from the Romanian Jazz Federation. President
Johnny Raducanu, whom I have never heard of, was asking me for advice
and archival material to help build a jazz scene in his country, which
he said, with admirable understatement, had "not been possible
under the Communist terror."
I was in the process of
answering the letter when I heard of Dexter Gordon's death. I wondered
if Johnny had heard. As far as I know, Dexter never played in Romania
but I was nevertheless sure it would be as sad and important an event
in Raducanu's life as it was in mine. His letter ended: "Jazz
represents a great family without any political frontiers."
is no other art form, perhaps no other form of human endeavor, with
such a large and closely knit international family. Dexter was my big
brother, which makes Johnny Raducanu a cousin. I imagined my family
grieving everywhere on the planet.
Let's not get too corny
about it. "Long Tall Dexter" Gordon was a musical as well as
a physical (6-foot-3) giant. His playing changed both the form of jazz
and the sound of his instrument. He was the first to bring Charlie
Parker's sound and conception to the tenor saxophone, the first real
bebop tenorman. But he was, after all, only a saxophone player. His
strength was that he knew exactly who and what he was.
almost see him raise a gray eyebrow and wink a twinkling eye telling a
Ceausescu joke. As a saxophonist, the last years of his life were not
his most productive. One young drummer who worked with him in the '80s
called the experience " a crash course in playing slow."
at the same time he became a household name as an actor. He was
nominated for an Academy Award for basically playing himself in "Round
Midnight." In 1985, the film's director Bertrand Tavernier said: "I
am very content because I think the role has given Dexter a reason to
live. He was very weak when I first talked to him about the film -
weak and skeptical and without motivation. I had a lot of trouble
reaching him because he had not paid his telephone bill."
his terminal retreat from the working world, Thelonious Monk
reportedly said: "I'm tired of trying to convince them."
There was a strong suicidal streak in the first generation of black
bebop musicians. Dexter was one of the rare survivors. Was. Until
Dexter had kidney problems and diabetes and cancer
of the larynx and there were plenty of good reasons to explain his
increasing slowness. There were also bad reasons, but Dexter was
mainly "bad" in the hip hop and Michael Jackson sense of the
word. "A baaad cat." He liked to laugh and to party and had
he been "reasonable" and cautious he would not have been the
unique creative adventurer he was for so many years.
He was kind and gentle with enough self-awareness to know just
where he stood. He had done his share, there was no obligation to do
more. With the possible exception of a customs agent or two, I never
knew anyone who could be called his enemy.
Tavernier, the Director of "Round Midnight," heard the news,
he put on Dexter's recording of "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to
Dry." Reached by telephone, Tavernier said: "For me, he
embodied the tenor saxophone. He had such a voice. I adored him. He
was so intelligent. He had such a sense of humor. I'll miss him very
much. I called the technicians who worked on the film, the sound
engineer cried on the phone. Once Dexter entered your life, he never
"He was so civilized, so educated. He hated the
Hollywood cliché image of the untutored cotton-picker jazz
musician. A reporter was once surprised when he named Ravel as one of
his favorite musicians? 'Why are you surprised?' Dexter said. 'I also
like Duke Ellington. Do you know who Duke Ellington was?'"
he was nominated for the Oscar, he was asked at a press conference if
he'd like to do another film. "Yes, but something easier,"
he said, "something lighter. How about 'Hamlet'?" Marlon
Brando called him to say that his performance in "Round Midnight"
was the first one in 10 years that had taught him something about film
acting. "After that from Lady Marlon" Dexter said, "who
needs an Oscar?"
"His sense of humor was incredible," Tavernier
recalled. "He wanted to play an apostle in 'The Last Temptation
of Christ.' He called Martin Scorsese and said "Lady Martin [Like
Lester Young, he prefaced all names male and female with Lady], don't
you think it's a good idea, a black apostle?'
"After dying about four times in 'Round Midnight,'"
Tavernier continued, "he made a commercial in Japan for a life
insurance company. I'll bet he had a good laugh about that one? We
were working on a scenario together when he died. It was about the
birth of bebop. It was droll droll droll."
The recording company executive Bruce Lundvall called Tavernier
and asked him to arrange a memorial service for Dexter in Paris. Maybe
in a club where he had played. Tavernier said: "Of course I'll do
it. But most of those clubs don't exist any more. It was such a long
Dexter Gordon died at 12:50 in the morning.