During the mid 1940s, when the swing era was drawing to a close, a new style of jazz was in the making. Swapping the big bands for quartets, the dancing shoes for a tasteful suit and glasses combo and the largely diatonic, homophonic melodies for quick moving, chromatic lines; jazz music had evolved again, into bebop. Amongst Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, often credited as the two sole founders of the sub-genre, was tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon; armed with a unique approach to playing and a powerful sound.
Gaining popularity and a reputation as the first tenor player in bebop, Gordon was a major influence on some of the biggest names in jazz and arguably was essential in the development of the genre. In this essay I will explain the ways in which his prodigious and unique musicianship contributed to jazz history and continues to influence my own artistic development.
Arguably, one of the most recognisable elements of Gordon’s playing was his tone.
Mirrored by his huge, 6ft 6 frame, his sound was muscular and large.
‘I was playing like Ben Webster, but then I heard Dexter. He had his own sound, which all great musicians have. Dexter had a way of articulating that was his own. There were few musicians who had such a big sound.”
This quote from saxophonist Johnny Griffin backs up the argument that Gordon’s sound was different and marked the beginning of a new era in jazz. Unlike the saxophonists who came before him, such as Ben Webster, Gordon’s sound often lacked a lot of vibrato which simultaneously enhanced the individuality of his style and exhibited the transition of jazz into a new period of more modern playing.
However, Griffin wasn’t the only saxophonist influenced by Gordon. He was also an early influence on many post-bebop saxophonists, especially John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Jazz writer Scott Yanow states that ‘Coltrane came out of Gordon” , solidifying this argument.
Gordon’s influence on Coltrane is displayed here as this Dexter Gordon lick is also played by Coltrane on his solo on ‘Moment’s Notice’ from the album ‘Blue Trane’ (shown in fig. 1 )
Gordon himself was inspired by the playing of Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, so much so, that Johnny Griffin stated that Young was Gordon’s ‘god” . Gordon’s style of playing was partly his development of Young’s style which he built on; playing with a reflection of Young’s laid-back approach and clarity and adding well-structured bebop lines, a tendency to play very far behind the beat and his own iconic tone, thus creating his own style. There was a notable difference between Gordon’s new style of playing and the style of the saxophonists that came before him. This idea is explored in in Ted Gioia’s book ‘The History of Jazz’ in which he states ‘Hawkins never really mastered the characteristic rebalancing and subdivisions of the beat that set apart true bop tenorists such as Dexter Gordon.’ Other inspirations were Herschel Evans and Illinois Jacquet who influenced his large tone and energetic playing. Gordon’s tone is one of my favourite things about his playing as it is so impactful and makes his music recognisable. It has inspired me to work harder developing my tone so it sounds bigger and fuller like his does, in the hopes that it gives my playing a unique edge like it did his.
Gordon was, according to Johnny Griffin, an articulate, intelligent and witty character with a good sense of humour. This was reflected by Gordon’s tendency to quote from well known tunes as comic relief; a party trick that radiated uninventiveness when attempted by less competent musicians, however, always pulled off by Gordon. His repertoire of quotes ranged from nursery rhymes to themes from classical music. The following example is from ‘Our Love is Here To Stay’ from the 1963 album ‘Our Man In Paris’ where he quotes the nursery rhyme ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ (see fig. 2) .
His ability to interact with an audience came naturally to him; a well-known custom of his being reciting the lyrics of ballads before performing them, making his playing all the more melodic and allowing his listeners to connect with him. Karin Krog, a Norwegian vocalist who performed with Gordon during his time spent in Europe stated that he was ‘playing the words more than the melody’ . Personally, I find Gordon’s ballad playing incomparable. Simple and refined yet just as engaging as his playing on up-tempo tunes, it does not take long for emotion to be invoked in the listener. Jazz journalist Stan Britt as he states, ‘it is with ballads that much of the soul of Dexter is in manifest “. His ballad playing was important as it allowed Gordon to be viewed and listened to from a different perspective; one that juxtaposed with the loud, energetic persona implied when he was playing harsh, fast-paced bebop tunes. Playing beautiful, poignant ballads was integral to Gordon’s reputation as it showed a more tender side to him, possibly making him appear more human and therefore, likeable as a person. I one day hope to achieve the ability to invoke such feelings in my audiences with my playing, however far down the line that may be.
Along with his warm, husky voice, which immediately captivated the audience, and the visual element which was mainly the novelty of seeing a man of such a great stature, his concerts were like nothing the audience had ever attended before. Gordon’s vast amounts of energy allowed him to play lengthy solos, often over twenty minutes long and the atmosphere created by his mighty tone, unrelenting stamina and visual impact delivered for a true assault on the senses. These performances would go down in jazz history.
When Dexter Gordon first arrived on the New York jazz scene in 1945, Charlie Parker was steadily gaining popularity as bebop was developing. An impression was made on older player such as Ben Webster, Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins as they expressed interest however the emerging style was disliked by traditionalists who took part in a mostly New Orleans centred revival including lesser known, early figures in jazz. Two popular hangouts, Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s Playhouse often hosted late night jam sessions where many musicians developed, experimented with and exchanged bebop ideas, making these places crucial in the advancement of the style. It was during the early days of bebop that Gordon first met Charlie Parker and was exposed to the genius of his playing. Gordon was intrigued by Parker’s progressive approach to harmony and rhythm. During his time in New York, Gordon thrived. He made recordings under his own name for the Savoy label including iconic tunes such as ‘Blow Mr. Dexter’ and ‘Long Tall Dexter’. In my opinion, these recordings, are prime examples of Gordon’s development as a musician during the bebop era.
His solo on ‘Blow Mr. Dexter’ starts with a chorus that’s almost entirely diatonic to the key of C (talking in B flat pitch). He also implies the pentatonic scale by emphasising the 9th and 13th (fig. 3).
I enjoy his use of tensions over the dominant seventh chords and inspires me to do the same. I am not a frequent user of the pentatonic scale in my improvisations so Gordon’s use of it showed me that I could use in in something as simple as a 12-bar blues.
The second and third choruses continue to be largely diatonic to the home key but are ever-so-slightly peppered with chromatic passing notes (see notes in blue), displaying his development of the bebop style (figures 4 and 5).
Sadly, the solo ends prematurely after three choruses and appears to be underdeveloped. His continuous string of quaver notes however, reflects the bebop style but I personally think his solo lacks the chromaticism needed for an improvisation to sound authentically bebop. This shows the development in Gordon’s playing as, although he seems to have somewhat incorporated bebop language into his solo, there is more in his improvisations on later recordings, for example, ‘Daddy Plays The Horn’ which appears on the 1955 album of the same name.
There are some aspects of Gordon’s playing that feature on both ‘Blow Mr. Dexter’ and on various tracks on ‘Daddy Plays The Horn’. His playing is clear and simple, allowing him to build on ideas. This is an aspect of Gordon’s playing that I would like to incorporate into my own as I often find my improvisation too cluttered with different ideas and it becomes difficult to chose one to focus on and develop. Another aspect of his playing, apparent throughout his career, is his tendency to start solos extremely simply, sometimes just playing chord tones and nothing else. Thus multiplying the effect his playing has when he dramatically builds to the final chorus. The following is a quote from the start of his solo on ‘Confirmation’ where he unashamedly plays the simple triad of the home key (fig. 6 ).
A notable part of Gordon’s career was his friendship and collaborations with fellow tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. The two first met when Gordon was touring with Lionel Hampton’s band and the two immediately bonded and possessed admiration for each other. After Gordon moved back to his home state of California in 1946, they became even closer. There was an obvious compatibility between them as both musician’s styles were derived from Lester Young’s and highly influenced by Charlie Parker’s bebop language. However, their performances together were made interesting by their contrast in tone and phrasing, Gray’s light, smooth sound and phrasing opposing Gordon’s harsh playing. This argument is backed up by the opinions of jazz writer Michael James, he states
‘His (Gordon’s) strident tone and incisive swing make an intriguing contrast with the soother texture of Gray’s solos, as they do elsewhere on the record.’
One of their most famous recordings was ‘The Chase’ (1947) where the two tenors start to trade 32 bars then gradually decreasing it to 16 bars, then, 8 then 4. These tenor ‘duels’ became a regular occurrence in their performances over the years. ‘The Chase’ was recorded for Dial Records and the goal of producer Ross Russell was to recreate the energy the musicians produced during their incredibly popular live performances of ‘The Chase’ at the Bird and Basket Club. This recording became Dial’s biggest selling disk, becoming even more successful than Charlie Parker’s recordings for the label, proving it to be an important recording in jazz history.
Gordon thought that Gray was a ‘beautiful player’ and was partly influenced by his style. Michael James noticed that Gordon was playing more like Gray as he picked up on his use of a quote Gray often made use of.
‘The figure with which Gordon follows his quotation from ‘I Hear Music’ at the start of his solo in ‘The Rubaiyat’ was also one of Gray’s favourite phrases. This is not the only occasion on which Gordon borrows from his partner’s vocabulary, but there is no doubt that he plays very well. ‘
Gordon’s incorporation of Gray’s style of playing into his own was important as it showed that he was still developing as a player. This reflected how jazz was still developing around this time.
Recordings of Gordon made after the mid 1950’s showed his playing gradually change into a west coast style. The mainly white west coast movement threatened the relevancy of beboppers and Charlie Parkers tragic death in 1955 was symbolic of the bebop era ending. Jazz was changing again. During his years on the West Coast, Gordon developed hard bop and modal styles of playing, influenced by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, whom he had influenced all those years before. These new styles are explored on his 1962 album ‘Go!’. This proves Gordon was an important influence in the evolution of jazz as if he hadn’t initially inspired Rollins and Coltrane, they wouldn’t have developed their own styles of playing which helped jazz evolve into something new.
To conclude, in my opinion, Dexter Gordon has had a huge impact on the evolution of jazz. He was partly responsible for the popularisation of bebop which brought jazz into a new era and influencing some of the biggest names in jazz history. He now also acts as a huge inspiration for me, especially in terms of developing my tone, using bebop language and thematic development in my improvisations and expressing emotion through my playing.