Maxine Gordon will have a full schedule when she comes to Footnote Coffee & Cocktails on Sept. 12 to talk about her book on her late husband, bebop pioneer Dexter Gordon.
But upon learning that Gordon’s protege, legendary saxophonist John Coltrane, grew up in High Point, she was ready to adjust her schedule.
“How far is that?” she asked, her excitement building. “I’ll have to go.”
Gordon’s interest in High Point goes beyond seeing the boyhood home of her husband’s friend. She’s also a jazz historian, whose book, “Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon,” was named Book of the Year in 2018 by the Jazz Journalists Association. Critic David Hadju called it a work of “considerable sophistication” in a New York Times review.
It’s a fascinating look into the early bebop and hard bop eras of jazz and includes appearances from Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Dexter Gordon was a tenor saxophonist whose albums “Doin’ Allright” and “Go” are some of the most influential recordings in the jazz canon. He died in 1990 at the age of 67.
Gordon has spent the last year promoting her book, giving her husband yet another resurgence. Dexter Gordon enjoyed several comebacks through his 50-year career. For various reasons, including a few stints in jail for drug-related offenses or a long residence in Europe, Gordon occasionally faded from the American jazz scene, only to resurface in spectacular fashion, the most prominent being his head-turning performance as Dale Turner in the 1985 film, “Round Midnight,” for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.
“He’s been referred to as a phoenix rising,” Maxine Gordon said.
A lifelong jazz fan who spent her teen years listening to Miles Davis, Coltrane and Art Blakey in New York City clubs, Gordon met Dexter while working as a tour manager in Europe. They formed a friendship that later blossomed into a romance.
She began working in jazz circles in the 1970s, and although she was something of an anomaly in the male-dominated music industry, Gordon said the musicians never had an issue working with her.
“Jazz musicians don’t notice stuff in a regular way,” she said. “If they like you, they like you. And they liked me, and I liked them. In this era now, with Me, Too, I look back and think, ‘Did I ever have a problem and maybe I wasn’t paying attention?’ And I’ve reflected and I never had one.”
She spent six months planning his U.S. comeback in 1976 after 14 years in Europe, a triumphant return captured in the album “Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard.” The album renewed interest in Gordon, and in 1985, French director Bertrand Tavernier asked him to play the lead in “Round Midnight,” based loosely on the life of jazz pianist Bud Powell. Like many jazz men of the era, Powell’s brilliant career was cut short by hard living, and he died of liver disease at the age of 41.
Though he had only acted once before, Gordon was confident in his ability to nail the role.
“When he got nominated for the Oscar, he said, ‘I told you I would,’” she recalled. “You thought he was kidding. I was like, ‘You’re black. You’re a sax player. These people never get nominated for an Oscar.’ He was so sure, he had already talked to a designer and had his outfit all ready.”
The success of the film gave Dexter new-found fame. He toured until 1988 and died two years later of kidney failure.
Dexter Gordon was adamant that he did not want his life viewed as “tragic,” a word that gets attached to jazz musicians who had troubled personal lives.
“People want to talk about the tragic death. When people study Charlie Parker, they have to say, ‘tragic.’ And I think we need to get away from that,” Maxine Gordon said.
A few years before his death, he started an autobiography, writing his memories in longhand on yellow legal-size paper. When it became clear he would not be able to finish, he passed the baton to his wife. Maxine Gordon returned to college to study African American culture, knowledge that she used to better tell the story of Gordon, digging into his family history.
She interviewed a group of older men who knew Dexter Gordon from his childhood in Los Angeles and talked to jazz musicians including Jimmy Heath, who is now 92.
“I started this book a long time ago, and there are many people I talked to who are no longer living,” said Gordon, mentioning Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Edwards.
She told a story of Heath announcing at his birthday gig that the only reason he stayed alive was to read Maxine Gordon’s book.
“I kept telling her, ‘You better get it right,’” Heath told the crowd. “And she got it right.”