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Sons of Miles
DEXTER GORDON PART TWO: Hanging Out the Tears
by Mike Zwerin
15 October 1998

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."

There 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.

I can 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."

Ironically, 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."

Before 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 yesterday.

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.

When Bertrand 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 left.

"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?'"

When 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."

Dexter Gordon

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 time ago."

Dexter Gordon died at 12:50 in the morning. Round Midnight.

Photo: Dexter Gordon.
Credit: Christian Rose

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