Dexter Gordon - The King of Quoters

I sit at this moment eight feet from a select library of CDs that comprises my current favorite listening. The discs are rotated from time to time to reflect my changes in mood, or fortune, or caprice. By this method I have lived for most of my listening life as a music lover. I like to have my nourishment at hand.
During my teen years, the favored selection featured a foot-long shelf of vinyl LPs, heavily larded with rock 'n' roll, Motown and rhythm 'n' blues. Later it became a 2-foot-high stack of audio cassettes with an ever-increasing smattering of jazz and blues and, still later, I find that jazz almost has become the sole occupant of my row of compact discs.

I suppose most music fans use this method of keeping their flavor of the week within easy reach, but recently it occurred to me that I -- and those who do what I do -- perform this ritual in an effort to compile an ever-changing playlist. What we do is make anthologies on the run.

But, then, another revelation arrived, to wit: in the hands of a master, any tune can become an anthology. Every jazz fan knows this, and every one of us has benefited from the fact. Many musical quoters come to mind: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins (in spades), Miles Davis -- choose an adventurer from the era immediately preceding bop and later and you'll find an anthology of popular music wherever you find a jam session.

I was dancing around this notion a couple of New Year's Eves ago in a small club in Toledo, Ohio, where I unintentionally offended the front man of the very fine quartet that blew us into 2001. After the midnight set, I caught the tenor player on break at the bar, and expressed my appreciation for the music we'd had all evening.
"I especially liked that Dexter Gordon thing you did with the interpolations on 'All The Things You Are,'" I innocently said, thinking I was paying a compliment.
The sax player, let's call him Jamknuckles Jerome, bristled like a jumpy cat, put a long index finger against my sternum and said, "Dexter Gordon thing? That was no Dexter Gordon thing. That was a Jamknuckles Jerome thing." Then he headed for the men's room.

Touchy. But I still think I paid him a compliment, and I'll bet you'd think so, too, if you could hear how well Jamknuckles Jerome emulates the vast knowledge Dex wielded when it came to weaving familiar tune after familiar tune through his solos.

The jazz scholar Gary Giddens writes admiringly of Gordon's penchant for the musical quotation. In a chapter of his fine book, "Visions Of Jazz: The First Century" [Oxford University Press, 1998], Giddens has this to say of the hippest tenor man ever, "The King of Quoters, Dexter Gordon, was himself eminently quotable. In a day not unlike our own, when purists issue fiats about what is or isn't valid in jazz, Gordon declared flatly, 'jazz is an octopus' -- it will assimilate anything it can use."

That's as accurate an assessment of our music as any, and Dex was in a position to know. His 50-year career was peppered with re-emergences from a variety of setbacks, some of them, in the jazz way, self-inflicted, but his sound never has been imitated. The musician who is able successfully to emulate his approach and his style of playing, however, as my example Jamknuckles Jerome is so very able to do, has something of which to be very, very proud. That bespeaks an influence pervasive enough to qualify as a standard to which the serious player should aspire.

Some of Gordon's critics grouse about his extended use of musical quotations, but, to such fans of the popular song as I, that characteristic is a treat every time we hear his great breath vibrate that reed. There is a smorgasbord of music ahead, we just know it. And, suddenly, that place at the base of the spine that always tingles in the anticipatory moment starts to work its influence and I, at least, begin counting the names of tunes I can identify.

That the popular song is such a staple of Gordon's repertoire should be no surprise. He started his career in 1940 with Lionel Hampton and played alongside Illinois Jacquet. When he died a half-century later at the age of 67, he'd been in the big leagues for a long time, and his teammates had included such gems as Nat King Cole, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine, Gene Ammons, Dizzy Gillespie, Wardell Gray and Teddy Edwards.

A 14-year exile in Europe beginning in 1962 caused his reputation to fade in his native land, but Dex continued to absorb popular tunes and, like that octopus he mentioned, he showed how any one of them might appear in an unexpected context.

After his return from Europe, he displayed a mature set of chops, the finest form of his career and for five years or so continued to turn out some of his finest work. But the early 1980s brought a decline in health and he cut back on his gigging and recording.

Neverthless, he was tapped for the lead role in "'Round Midnight," a 1986 film that brought him an Oscar nomination, a feat I can't recall having been accomplished by any other major jazz figure. The music for the film, by the way, was scored and supervised by none other than Herbie Hancock, who also appeared. Other familiar musical faces from the film included Bobby Hutcherson, Ron Carter, Billy Higgins, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Cedar Walton, Tony Williams and John McLaughlin. Dex's character was a composite, based on several jazz musicians, most significantly Bud Powell and Lester Young. It is a solid portrayal of the junkie musician in exile. Gordon's Dale Turner is much more authentic than Frankie Machine, portrayed 31 years earlier by Frank Sinatra in "The Man With The Golden Arm."

Many of Gordon's myriad recordings, made both in the United States and on the Continent, are still in print. Because his style is so consistently pleasing, I have no particular recording to recommend. Any cut of his that ever penetrated my ear has carried a musical surprise and a dependability that, paradoxically, resides in the unexpected. That's a lively legacy.

His canon, from beginning to end, is, in my experience, an uninterrupted pleasure. It's an immense collection of smaller musical anthologies built over a very interesting lifetime. Listen in to the Gordon body of work and begin counting the untitled quotations from almost any cut you choose. You'll be surprised by what you find there.