What a way to go out … one of the classic bebop players, and the first tenor player of note in the genre, Dexter Gordon was also nominated for an Academy Award as an actor for the 1986 movie ‘Round Midnight’ that told a semi-fictitious tale of a jazz musician based on the lives of Lester Young and Bud Powell (and to an extent Gordon himself!). He died a few years later, riding out his deteriorating health on a wave of fan support and a feeling of being beloved by the entire jazz community.
Yet for much of his career, Dexter Gordon’s life echoed that of Dale Turner from Round Midnight. Brilliantly talented and highly regarded, he struggled financially and fell into drug use which caused a downward spiral right when he and his music were most popular. As pop and rock music squeezed out jazz in America, he moved to Paris to live out most of the 60’s and 70’s, yet still produced gorgeous and stirring music.
When Gordon finally returned to the U.S. in 1976 it was as a beloved elder statesman playing to sell-out audiences, which came as a total surprise to him. He rode that wave of success until his death, but failing health from years of torturing his body forced a modest touring and recording schedule, and had him out of the public eye for much of the mid-80s. I remember thinking he had died and therefore being shocked and thrilled to see him headlining the cast of Round Midnight.
Gordon wasn’t alone, with Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin and others acting and playing parts in the movie. The soundtrack is populated with great songs and a great cast of musicians who really help bring the music to life in the movie.
I love this video of Gordon playing ‘Body and Soul’, because it features Gordon as someone so intimately aware of the song that he is making alterations from the opening bars – sometimes more than his frail technique can manage, the band is reworking the harmonies, and yet it remains one of the most beautiful songs from ‘the Great American Songbook’.