Author: Bruce Jenkins  Date Posted:3 May 2024 


Having paid his dues in the big band of Lionel Hampton during the early 1940s, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon recorded with be-bop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie and joined many of the major players of the era as a valued sideman. A genial giant—he was 6’6" tall—Gordon loved interacting with audiences, throwing quotes from sources as diverse as Wagner and 'Happy Birthday' into his solos and often introducing a well-known number by reciting a verse or two of the song. Unfortunately he also loved drugs, leading to his career in the 1950s being patchy. To put not too fine a point on it, Gordon’s heroin addiction had him chilling in gaol on several occasions. Thankfully, his release from Folsom Prison in 1959 marked a turning point. For a time, at least.

Signing to the famous Blue Note label in 1961, he moved from the West Coast to New York and recorded a series of excellent and highly regarded albums. Go and A Swingin’ Affair were recorded in August 1962, with the former—our focus today—being regarded as perhaps his best album of the period.

The rhythm section on Go comprises Blue Note stalwarts who were both talented and versatile. Pianist Sonny Clark was known as a hard bop practitioner, while Butch Warren (bass) and Billy Higgins (drums) were highly respected veterans.

The set leaps into life with Gordon’s tune "Cheese Cake". Nothing cheesy about this; after Gordons opening statement, which manages to be both focused and flowing, Sonny Clark takes a turn that demonstrates his sympathy with be-bop as well as the modal style pioneered by Miles Davis in the late 50s.

The ballad "I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry" has deep emotion that never strays lapses into sentimentality. It is easy to imagine Gordon sharing the opening lyrics with a New York audience who would have lapped up lyricist Sammy Cahn’s local reference.

The torch I carry is handsome / It’s worth its heartache in ransom

And when the twilight steals / I know how the lady in the harbour feels

"Second Balcony Jump", by Billy Eckstine (with whom Gordon played) is lively, jaunty even. The tenor opening is punctuated by Clark’s staccato chords, before Dexter settles into the groove. His flowing, inventive solo reveals both the influence of Lester Young and moments where you can detect traces of Coltrane and Jackie McLean, who Gordon himself influenced. Close your eyes and you can almost hear the clink of glasses and smell the cigarette smoke in a sweaty downtown jazz club.

The jazz life permeated Dexter Gordon’s career in unexpected ways. He was jazz magazine Downbeat’s musician of the year in both 1978 and 1980, the latter year being also marked by his induction into the Jazz Hall of Fame. Being named a member and officer of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture might seem a little left field until it is recalled that Gordon starred in Bernard Tavernier’s film Round Midnight. The tenor player even received and Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

The film spinoff album The Other Side of Round Midnight is another jazz classic. Its arrival twenty-four years after Go demonstrates just what an imposing figure Dexter Gordon was. Go is a brilliant way to make his acquaintance.


© Bruce Jenkins—May 2024

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