(Photo by Herman Leonard, 1948)
Tenor genius, Oscar-nominated actor and cigarette fetishist Dexter Gordon had an incredible sound that inspired Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Jack Kerouac. Out of Los Angeles, he started on the clarinet as a teen before moving to alto. He finally switched to tenor around 1940. He was greatly influenced by Lester Young, whom he encountered in '43 in a jam session with Ben Webster.
He received training from Illinois Jacquet as he toured early with the Lionel Hampton band. They made some recordings in Chicago in '41, Gordon's first. He worked in the bands of Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong (who profoundly inspired him) and Nat King Cole. He played in that important Billy Eckstine orchestra, a group whose kinetic energy spawned bebop with bandmates Dizzy, Bird and the rest of them. Back in the West, he battled it out on the bandstand with Wardell Gray (see "The Chase") and Teddy Edwards, during those epic cuts that helped make L.A. such a thriving spot for jazz in the '40s & '50s. However, he spent a lot of the '50s locked up for dope.
Being released from Folsom County Jail in '59, he was back on the jazz scene, eventually relocating to the Big Apple. After an early '60s run in NYC with Blue Note he went to Europe in the mid-'60s and stayed for a long time (he is godfather to Metallica's Lars Ulrich!). He continued to record post-bop and modal material for Prestige and SteepleChase before returning to the States. His star turn in Clint Eastwood's Bird garnered him an Academy Award nomination. He was a fan favorite to be sure. Indeed, Swingin' Dex remains a popular jazz seller long after his death.
Go! (Blue Note, '62) was Dexter's personal favorite recording: “I would have to say it is Go! The perfect rhythm section which made it possible for me to play whatever I wanted to play.”