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Music to calm election jitters — remembering jazz man Dexter Gordon

The Hill logo The Hill 10/31/2020 Roger House, opinion contributor
a close up of a video game remote control: Music to calm election jitters — remembering jazz man Dexter Gordon © Getty Images Music to calm election jitters — remembering jazz man Dexter Gordon

As election day nears, many people are looking for ways to relieve the stress of political uncertainty. Some may find the recordings of the late jazz master Dexter Gordon - who excelled in turning chaos into beauty - helpful in coping with the anxiety of the final stretch.

Thirty years after his passing - as the country grapples the challenges of pandemic and politics - it may be time to revisit the recording legacy of this jazz giant. I first learned about Gordon in the 1970s when the country was torn by war, racial strife, urban decay, and the aftermath of Richard Nixon politics.

Like many Black teenagers growing up in Queens, N.Y., we had to navigate a city and school system under bankruptcy - and a police force that seemed to target people like me for sport. To get away, I applied to a New York state college as far from the city as possible, sight unseen.

I ended up at the State University College in Oswego. For a city kid, the small campus on Lake Ontario was an experience in isolation and adaptation. Discovering the bebop recordings of Dexter Gordon is what helped me and a buddy - a white kid from Buffalo - to keep it together.

The memories of those difficult days returned as I revisited Gordon's music in these unsettled times. The 6-CD box set, "Dexter Gordon: 12 Classic Albums, 1947-1962," is a repository of over 400 minutes of formative West Coast bebop.

Born in 1923, Gordon was raised in Los Angeles and became a student of the jazz tradition. His father, reportedly the only Black doctor around, was friends with Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. In the early 1940s, Gordon joined Hampton's band and recorded with Nat Cole and Harry "Sweets" Edison.


Gallery: Legendary Bay Area musician dead at age 69 (SF Gate)

He was schooled in the bands of Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Billy Eckstine. He developed a big, spacious tenor sound under the influence of Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and other bebop innovators. His sound, which introduced honking statements, reflected an optimism common among those Blacks who had migrated to the western territories. In turn, his clear, strong tones influenced younger musicians like John Coltrane.

The collection has a meditative track of "Autumn in New York," a 1934 jazz standard by Vernon Duke. The ballad was featured in the 1986 jazz film "Round Midnight" by Bertrand Tavernier. The 6'6" Gordon was cast as the leader of a group of expatriate jazz musicians in Paris. The story reflected aspects of his experiences during a 15-year exile in Paris and Copenhagen. It delved into struggles with heroin addiction, prison, and racism, as well as a vision to create a song as beautiful as an impressionistic painting. The performance earned Gordon an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

The rediscovery of Gordon's recordings brought me a sense of calm in these unsettling days. The songs eased worries over the divisive election politics that consumes the news cycle. One particular song that lifted my spirits was "Three O'Clock in the Morning."

There is much to love in this rendition of a 1919 waltz by Argentinian composer Julián Robledo. The imagined setting is a dance party in the jazz age. The song begins with Westminster chimes indicating that it is three o'clock and the party's over.

Gordon interpreted the ballad in the jazz tradition of hard swing and blue notes. It was featured on the 1962 Blue Note album "Go" - selected by the Library of Congress for preservation as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Gordon returned to the U.S. in December 1976, an event noteworthy for the "Homecoming" concert at the Village Vanguard in New York City. Back in Oswego, I made plans with my buddy to attend a performance, but we only had enough cash for tickets, not bus fare. So... we hitch-hiked the 310 miles from Oswego, starting in the morning and arriving in time for the midnight set.

The concert was unforgettable as Gordon blew the night away. Then, in a type of pagan jazz rite, he raised the golden sax high and horizontal for the audience to honor.

Dexter Gordon passed away in April 1990. His wife, Maxine, wrote a biography based on memories, his records, and his writings toward the end of life, "Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon."

Roger House, Ph.D., is an associate professor of American studies at Emerson College in Boston, and the author of "Blue Smoke: The Recorded Journey of Big Bill Broonzy." Since 2014, he has published VictoryStride.com, a curated website on African American history and culture.

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