Awhile back I got an email from Don Lucoff of PDX Jazz, asking me if I would present a program in celebration of Dexter Gordon, “Dex at 90.” Don had seen my successful program honoring the memory of Stan Getz, and my Two Tenors band that pays tribute to the great Al Cohn/Zoot Sims partnership, so I’m sure he knew the enthusiasm, respect and diligence I would bring to this project. I was happy to say yes. Shortly after this, Lynn Darroch invited me to write about my preparation for this event.
Dexter is certainly a figure worthy of celebration. Everybody has a memory of the first jazz music that really grabbed them—maybe it was Desmond with Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Miles, Lady Day—I’m sure Dexter was that guy, the way in, for many jazz fans.
He was a charismatic presence: tall, movie-star good looks, a sharp dresser; on the microphone, a friendly and ultra-cool interlocutor. And when he played, it was the same voice—friendly and ultra-cool; warm, like a welcome ray of sunshine on an otherwise gray winter day. You’d want to squint and stretch like a housecat, and linger in it. Playing or speaking, Dexter’s voice was never in a hurry—always reaching patiently, languidly out to the very end of the phrase, to the least, last trailing end of each note or syllable, like he never wanted to let go—every idea carried along as if in the warm embrace of a long, contented sigh.
Dexter is important to musicians, too. You can hear his early infatuation with Lester Young’s light lyricism, intermingled with the more extroverted, Coleman-Hawkins-esque approach he heard from early bandmates like Illinois Jacquet. You can hear an approach to timefeel and harmony informed by his time at Minton’s and in Billy Eckstine’s band in the early days of bebop. All together, this led to a new sound on the tenor. John Coltrane praises him as his main man, his biggest influence, and we certainly can find snippets where you would be hard pressed to say which one is playing. Many of Dexter’s sidemen speak with gratitude and admiration for lessons they learned on his band.
I had to wait before I got too involved in working on Dex @ 90. In September, we were in the studio to record a new CD for Chuck Israels. Of course there was a tall stack of challenging music to shed, but most importantly I wanted to be prepared to play to the subtle stylistic needs of it. Whatever I am listening to has a way of coming out in my own playing, so for awhile it was all about players Chuck digs, and getting deep into the source material for that project (lots of Horace Silver with Hank Mobley). If I had been listening to Dexter in the run-up to Chuck’s project, I would have inescapably been playing more of that languid, broad time approach of Dexter’s, which would not have fit Chuck’s (or Horace’s) vibe.
With Chuck’s recording in the rear-view mirror, it was now wall-to-wall Dexter at my house: listening again to my Dexter records and imagining how different tunes might sound in the hands of the musicians, Dexter CDs playing while I drove to gigs, Dexter performance clips and documentaries online, Dexter’s bio on top of the stack of books on the nightstand. For several days, I listened and made lists, picking tunes, rejecting tunes. I got it down to about forty great numbers, which would have made a four or five hour concert. That seemed a little bit long. Time to cut something. I put together potential set lists and imagined the arc of the program.
Dave Frishberg said it well—the job of the jazz soloist, like the songwriter, is to create an expectation in the listener and then to satisfy it, ideally with some element of surprise. I wanted to bring that idea to this program, too—to resonate with Dexter fans, but also to blow up their skirts here and there. Friendly renditions of standards, playful quoting, his singular way with a ballad, certainly—but also the way he stretched into material from his younger collaborators like Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard. Maybe a cool song nobody remembers Dexter playing, maybe a twist in a familiar tune’s arrangement. And I wanted to avoid the linear “and then he did this, and then he did that” jazz history lecture.
Finally I got my list down to sixteen tunes that would make an interesting and varied program. The next step was to grab a pencil and some manuscript paper, hit Play and start transcribing. This takes time, but it’s worthwhile. For Dexter’s original tunes, I wanted to base my work on the iconic performances. For standards, it’s expedient to have a unified approach to material that has evolved variability in common practice.
Now that the transcriptions are done, it’s time to enter them into a music notation program so I can prepare legible sheet music for all the musicians. The time I spend on music preparation now is well worth it if it saves us from wasting time later, trying to figure out what to do at the last minute. And finally, I will email the music to everybody, along with notes calling out details that might be easy to miss and performance ideas that might be impossible to notate. I’ll include links to the source materials I based my transcriptions on. This way, the musicians can look, listen, and be well prepared before we ever convene to play this music together. My aim is to help everybody to be comfortable with the plan, relax, and play great for the crowd, and for Dexter!
By the end of the gig, I will have made pennies per hour on this project. But I still relish it. If a member of the audience already knows and loves Dexter Gordon, then we will share something special—a little bit of communion, of community, that is nourishing to us both. If our program serves to introduce somebody new to Dexter, or to Jazz Music, then we will have done a little something good for the cause of music, and paid a little installment on our debt to the masters who came before us.
We all have our own ways of experiencing music, from total passivity to intense analysis. As a saxophonist and life-long student of music I think I am a fairly detailed listener. Even so, whenever I prepare a program like this it’s like putting a droplet of water under a microscope lens. New worlds are revealed. I discover things I never imagined were there, and I come away with greater respect and understanding for my subject, even for players I already thought I knew well. And so it has been with Long Tall Dexter.