Dexter Gordon is among the last of the 40s hipsters. The way he tilts his tenor saxophone at a 45-degree angle, strolls in a studied slouch or talks in deep, smoke-cured tones marks him as a man who's taken cool to its highest level.
But for Gordon, cool doesn't mean icy detachment. In his case, it's warm composure.
Gordon puts fire into old jazz terms like "mellow," "dig" and "soul." He blows a hot horn in a cool style.
And he doesn't just play ballads in a rich, rhapsodic manner -- he recites, no, intones the song's lyrics before performing it. He doesn't simply take a bow after a piece -- he raises his horn like a scepter and gestures as if offering it to the audience.
His theme song is "L.T.D.," which he likes to say stands for "Long Tall Dexter," a reminder of his rangy 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame.
Dexter Keith Gordon, 57, could have been a model for the hipster hero that Norman Mailer and Caroline Bird wrote about in the '50s as they tried to explain the beatnik movement. Only they made the hipster an exotic primitive and that's not what the fathers of the cool school -- Lester Young, Miles Davis, Gordon -- were about.
Now that Young is dead and Davis is off the scene, Gordon is the unchallenged king of the cool, with his own special following. When the saxophonist opened a six-day engagement at Blues Alley the other night, the Gordon faithful were three, reciting the lyrics to "Lover Man" right along with him or shouting "Blow, Mr. Dexter" whenever he ripped off a torrid set of blues choruses.
The tenor saxophone is called a natural extension of the human voice, and that's exactly what Gordon made it when he cut into the rich melody of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." He crooned the ballad in deep-throated style, breaking up the original melody occasionally and adding lyrical fragments of his own.
It's hard to resist the Gordon musical charm. For 15 years, while he lived in Europe (mostly Copenhagen), Gordon built a cult following. He used to return occasionally to tumultuous jazz welcomes. He moved back to the States two years ago, and the legion of admirers is just as large.
Why did he return? "Popular demand," he says in deadpan fashion. Then he rears back and lets out a growling laugh.
"No, the commuting was starting to bother me," he explains. "Coming over here for three months and then going back to Copenhagen. And we decided to keep a regular band, something I hadn't done before. And things have changed here in the last 20 years -- socially, politically and musically. There's not as much racism as there used to be.
"I guess the thing that influenced me were the young people, who grew up in the '60s and '70s. Three-fourths of my audience is under 30. Very often we're playing at colleges and universities and holding clinics for students in the music program. They know my music. That's surprising because in the last 20 years there has been little opportunity for young people to hear jazz.Suddenly everything is happening!" o
Other jazzmen, who expatriated themselves to Europe in the '50s and '60s, are following Gordon back to the U.S. Recently, trumpeter Benny Bailey moved back. Trumpeter Art Farmer is splitting his time between America and Austria. Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin is back from Holland frequently.
Says Gordon: "People here seem to understand the difference between somebody who's dedicated to his life pursuit and somebody in the rock and pop field."
The tenor saxophonist will celebrate 40 years as a professional musician in December. And he still remembers clearly the time shortly before Christmas in 1940 when he was plucked out of high school in Los Angeles by Lionel Hampton and taken out on the road. (Gordon's father was physician to many musicians, including Hampton and Duke Ellington.)
"I got this call from Marshall Royal," Gordon recalls, "and I thought somebody was playing a trick on me, maybe one of my friends lowering his voice and trying to sound official. But after a few minutes I believed him.
"This was a giant leap forward. In high school I'd only played Basie, Miller and Frankie Carle stock arrangements. We'd play those things for three months before we got things right. But with Hamp I just got thrown into it -- full blast.
"We rode from L.A. to Fort Worth, about 1,500 miles, in a broken down bus and played a dance the night I didn't play one right note. Everything just went whoosh. Fortunately, we had a rehearsal the next day.
"Evidently they heard something -- because I expected them to send me home every night. But eventually I became one of the cats."
Indeed, he did. Gordon later played with Louis Armstrong and in Billy Eckstine's Orchestra, the first bebop big band in the mid-'40s, he was a fixture on 52nd Street, the mid-Manhattan behive of jazz clubs, appearing with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Tadd Dameron, creating modern jazz.
"We were aware that we were doing something new, creating something different," he explains. "We were living and breathing what we were playing. Music is a philosophy. It's a way of life. I learned this form Lester [Young].
"You know, I ran into [Thelonious] Monk in the mid-'60s. He was talking about his son playing drums and practicing 24 hours a day. Monk said he told him he didn't have to practice all day. Sometimes you should just think about what you want to do.
"That's what I tell people. Jazz is life. It's the heading."