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Dexter Gordon Biography

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In February 27th, 1923, a Jazz giant in both the figurative and literal sense, Dexter Keith Gordon is born in Los Angeles, California. He is the only son of a Dr. Frank Alexander Gordon and Gwendolyn Gordon. Through his father's cultural upbringing, and his informal education in the Lionel Hampton, and Billy Eckstine Orchestras, Gordon leaves his mark on the jazz world and it's history at a young age. Being a legacy of Lester Young in youth to an adaptation of Charlie Parker's bebop and harmonic awareness, Dexter Gordon weaved himself into the tenor legacy. Even more notable then his sophisticated and humorous language lies his distinctive large wall-to-wall sound and tone. Along with all these artistic qualities, Gordon's huge six feet six inch frame, and charismatic approach of cool compliment his friendly humor and behind the beat rhythm. Living and prospering in an era of racial and artist-hostile society, being discovered, lost, and rediscovered, and establishing himself as one of the most influential saxophonists of the bop era, Long Tall Dexter Gordon lived an fascinating musical life, both recognized and honored.

Since his days in medical school, Dr. Frank Alexander Gordon loved and admired jazz and it's musicians. He even taught himself how to play the clarinet, and surround himself in the Jazz world, having Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Marshall Royal as patients. It is no doubt that Dexter Gordon responded very eagerly and spontaneously to his father's music since Dr. Frank Gordon was one of a few respected African American doctors during the twenties and thirties. Observing his son's liking to music, Dr. Gordon immediately placed him at age seven under the supervision of a young clarinet player named John Sturdevant. For the next five to eight years Dexter Gordon studies the clarinet, personally meets established musicians through his father's practice, and is taken to jazz performances including backstage access occasionally. Dexter Gordon claimed that this was his cultural upbringing before his father's dramatic death at the tender age of twelve, which he never would fully recover from. Dexter Gordon didn't play the saxophone until the age of fifteen where his mother, Gwendolyn Gordon, bought him a conn alto with a hard reed and a rubber mouth piece. Dexter began to study the saxophone under the supervision of Lloyd Reese. His first exposure to a performance setting was in a instrumental group called the "Harlem Collegians" which mostly performed in neighborhood amateur shows; the instrumentation included: kazoo, washtub, pie pans, snare drums, and a jug. Gordon also played in the Jefferson High School band, which included Buddy Collette, Ernie Royal, Jackie Kelso, Chico Hamilton, and James Nelson with friendly visits by Charles Minghus.

By the age of seventeen, Gordon grew to his full height of six feet six inches and unofficially attended late night jam sessions and performances in the club and bar scene in L.A. The Joe Louis look-alike, Gordon, found himself invited by Marshall Royal to play in the Lionel Hampton Big Band, along with Ernie Royal and Lee Young. This is an imperative time in Dexter Gordon's development, specifically in his musicianship and technical facility. The Lionel Hampton Orchestra was Gordon's musical education, where Marshall Royal and Illinois Jacquet were like his mentor/professors. During this period, Gordon was strongly influenced by the legacy of Lester Young, which is one of the three qualities in his artistry. Like Lester Young, Gordon had a behind the beat rhythmic quality in his playing, but, as Illinois Jacquet claimed, he did not understand how to play the saxophone properly. His tone and sound were underdeveloped, his posture with his instrument was off, and his language was still immature, but he did have a innate ability to connect with his audience. "All of a sudden the break came. This guy - Dexter Gordon, of course - a giant even from the seat up - he started to rise as he played the break... and the break was Lester Young's break from 'Miss Thing'... And the people screamed.(pg. 41, Britt)" While Dexter played in the Lionel Hamption Band, he quickly determined there needed to be a change with his instrument, thus he spent three to four-hundred dollars on a new Conn tenor saxophone, with Illinois Jacquet's metal mouthpiece. This change plays a huge role in Gordon's legacy as being one of the tenor greats with the distinguishable huge sound. His sound is an important quality in his personal identity as a jazz soloist, in which followers like Sonny Rollins aspire from. Large tone and wall-to-wall sound is the second of three artistic Dexter Gordon qualities, last is his bebop and hard pop language, which is also introduced in his Hampton Orchestra years. In a performance at the Savoy ballroom in New York, Gordon witnessed a undeveloped but innovative alto player in the Jay Mcshann band named, Charlie Parker. The Jay Mcshann and Lionel Hampton band played right across from each other in the Savoy ball room that night. Not until 1945 does Charlie Parker truly establish the bebop language, but this moment was Dexter's first real exposure to these new harmonic and melodic ideas.

In 1943, Dexter Gordon left the Lionel Hampton Orchestra to take a break from the non-stop touring for the past two and a half years. During this short period, Gordon plays local L.A. gigs with Jesse Price, Lee Young, Fletcher Henderson, Nat King Cole, and Charles Minghus. This is a significant point in Gordon's career, because he was able to record the first album under his own name, "Nat King Cole Meets the Master Saxes", partly due to Nat King Cole's popularity. This recording session had only been Gordon's second time in any studio. Shortly after in 1944 during a gig with Jesse Price, Gordon accepted an invitation to play in the Louis Armstrong Band. Gordon was becoming somewhat of a local hero, which seems to be a common trend for him considering his later years. At this point with his association with Cole and with Armstrong, he indirectly received a lot of media attention. Gordon claimed that playing with Armstrong's band wasn't artistically satisfying, but Armstrong was all about "love, love, love...(pg. 50, Britt)" and this golden opportunity swayed any disappointment. During the Armstrong months, Gordon had already developed a comprehensive sound, an aspired Lester Young sound, despite the lack of solo's in comparison to the Hampton Orchestra. After the six month period, Gordon returned to Central Avenue in L.A. to play local gigs, which proved to be short-lived after an invitation to the Billy Eckstine Orchestra. Gordon was to replace an Eli "Lucky' Thompson who was invited into the Count Basie Orchestra at the time. Turns out



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