Dexter on DVD

I’m making my way, too slowly, through the latest set of Naxos’ “Jazz Icons” DVDs, taken from TV broadcasts of great American jazz musicians on European tours in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Some time ago, I wrote about Charles Mingus: Live in ’64 (a terrific companion piece to his CD, Cornell 1964, recorded just before and released just last year). Tonight I watched Dexter Gordon: Live in ’63 & ’64, and recommend it highly, too.

Gordon was a pivotal tenor saxophone player who combined the lithe phrasing of Lester Young with the husky tone of Coleman Hawkins and thus laid the foundation for the next new sounds from Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Through those storms, Gordon stuck to songs; even his elaborate improvisations were built on melodies, often stringing quotes from other tunes as witty commentary. He was a supreme showman, too, introducing songs in his deep, throaty voice, quoting whole verses of their lyrics. I’ve known a few essayists whose writing style matched the way they spoke. Dexter Gordon, who died in 1990 (and whom I saw live a few times), was one of the only musicians I ever heard whose voice on the horn matched his speaking voice.

He may best be remembered now for his star turn in the movie Round Midnight, in which he played a jazzman in exile in Paris. The first set of the Naxos DVD, shot in a small jazz club in Holland, gives a taste of the real thing. Gordon was in exile, mainly in Denmark, all through the ‘60s and the first half of the ‘70s. He spent the time polishing his own style rather than seeking a new one, and there’s a bracing, burnished quality to his playing, like a fine port or brandy.

He was also very, very cool—tall, ambling, insouciant—and one of the best parts of the disc comes at the beginning, as we see him walking at night toward the Dutch jazz club, decked in a trench coat and hat. He walks into the club; his pick-up band is already playing; he smiles at the bartender, hands him his coat and his hat, strolls to the bandstand, bows to the applause of the crowd, picks up his horn, and plays.

Those were the days.

nunh's picture

I'll have to start checking out those dvds - love Mr. Gordon's playing!