“Since I've been over here [Denmark], I've felt that I could breathe, and just be more or less a human being, without being white or black…I’ve played for months on end at the Montmartre in Copenhagen…now I've never in my life played three or four months continually at a place in the U.S. The opportunity to work regularly in the same spot gives you the kind of feeling you need to stretch out, relax, and at the same time develop musically without having those job-to-job worries hanging over your head.”—Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, from an interview in Downbeat, quoted in Dan Morgenstern, Living With Jazz: A Reader, edited by Sheldon Meyer (2004)
Today would have been the 90th birthday of Dexter Gordon. Even by osmosis, he seemed linked to the world of jazz, as his father was a Los Angeles-based physician to the likes of Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington. He was known first as a pioneer translator of the bebop style to the tenor sax, then, in his 60s, as ill health began to overcome him, as an actor, with an Oscar-nominated turn as musician Dale Turner in Round Midnight (1986).
The character might have been an amalgam of real-life prototypes Lester Young and Bud Powell, but Gordon, to an extraordinary degree, infused his own soulfulness and magnificent battered presence into the part. It wasn’t only that Turner’s struggle with substance abuse mirrored his own, but also that the tenor saxman identified with the character. After all, as the above quote makes clear, Gordon, like Turner, felt a dignity abroad that, as an African-American and working jazz musician, he could not achieve for years on his native ground.
(Photo of Dexter Gordon in Amsterdam in 1980, taken by Albert Kok.)