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The Sophisticated Giant: Dexter Gordon

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The Sophisticated Giant: Dexter Gordon

02.05.2019

Text: Leyla Aksu
Illustration: Saydan Akşit

From Miles Davis’ shocking tales to the pain and blues of Billie Holiday, the jazz autobiography has become essential to our understanding of the genre and its artists, offering honest representations of the jazz life from those who have lived it. The iconic Dexter Gordon, one of the earliest bebop tenors, was also set to be among those storytellers before his passing in 1990. However, aware of the fact that he would not be able to finish his book in time due to his health, the legendary musician asked his wife and manager, Maxine Gordon, to complete it for him. Released by the University of California Press last November and an intricate retelling and contextualization of the life of an unforgettable jazz great, Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon is the final result of that years-old promise.

The overview of Gordon’s career includes arcs that we often associate with a life in jazz: prodigious beginnings, struggles with drug addiction and incarceration, a productive European sojourn, and a triumphant return to his home shores. Yet the long-awaited Sophisticated Giant doesn’t only chronicle this storied life, but it also treats its readers to elements of biography, memoir, and cultural history, offering detailed research into sociocultural conditions and race relations, Gordon’s family history, public records, first-hand accounts and interviews, the artist’s own hand-written personal notes, letters, and poetry.

Expounding on her late-husband’s initial motivation for beginning the project, Maxine Gordon said, “His book was not about telling his story. It was more about telling what the life of a jazz musician was like, what it was like for the people around him, and how this world of jazz made a life for him that he loved.” In this regard, the book utilizes its author’s personal experiences and expertise, not only through her relationship with Dexter Gordon, but as a scholar and long-term jazz insider in her own right. Contextualizing Gordon’s life against the sociopolitical history of mid-century America, here jazz is represented as a supportive community. As she says herself, other books “weren’t talking about what it was like to be black if you were born in 1923... I knew that was the kind of book I wanted to write.”

As such, Sophisticated Giant features of the artist’s own observations and writings on what it means to be a jazz musician, interviews with the likes of Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Heath, and producers Bruce Ludvall and Michael Cucsuna, while simultaneously tracing the impact of racial segregation on touring musicians, the devastating effect of California’s severe drug laws, and a period in the artist’s life which he chose never to speak about while alive. Relying on archival and public records to fill in the blanks of this dark period during the 1950’s, the book also uncovers the artists often overlooked intellectual curiosity, from growing up in an “uncommon family” to his literary knowledge, friendship with James Baldwin, linguistic abilities, and the love of cinema.

One of the highlights of Dexter Gordon’s career, leading to his Oscar nomination and Grammy win, had been the 1986 production of Round Midnight that re-launched his career. With a specific focus on this chapter of Gordon’s life, here we learn more of his passion for film, cultivated while growing up as a young man in Los Angeles, and also the extent of his contributions to the film’s script and production, creating a true representation of the jazz experience. One additional surprise the book gives its readers is also the beginnings of a screenplay Gordon was working on himself, based on his time in the Billy Eckstine band and the radical birth of bebop. In the treatment, he surmises, “A life that improvises music cannot run by another’s rules. This may bring problems if based on an ordinary observer’s rules for behavior in a society that does not always understand what art is, or what an artist is or why there is nothing without music.”

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