I recently chanced upon a short YouTube video of Dexter Gordon-the great tenor saxophonist -playing live at an unnamed club In Holland in 1964. This was and is prime Dexter.

Four thoughts hit me straight away.

The Walk. Observe Dexter nattily attired in his trench coat and thin lapelled suit walking down the street. He is walking in his own time- jazz time. Watch it again -nobody walks like that! I recall attending a jazz workshop in the 70’s led by the legendary South African bassist Harry Miller where, in exasperation, he tried and mainly failed to teach us how-to walk-in time to township jazz. Dexter’s walk and of course his playing is an ode to the distinctive nature of jazz time. Immediately recognisable. So hard to replicate.

The announcement. I caught Dexter a couple of times at Ronnie Scott’s in the mid-70’s – so 10 years and many thousand gigs later. Here’s a picture I took.

Dexter Gordon – Danny Silverstone

Dexter was seriously the worse for wear-his drinking by that stage had become epic. He swayed noticeably. Most of the tunes he chose to play were ballads; before each of them he recited the full lyrics in his trademark mellifluous growl. He went on to play each tune majestically. Dexter was insistent on appreciating the lyrics to the tunes he played, and I think you can hear his deep commitment to the lyrics as much as the harmonic possibilities in his playing.

The Sound. The truly great saxophonists have a sound that is instantly recognisable. In Dexter’s case it is deep verging on cavernous, matured, unhurried with every note, every sound full of meaning, sometimes multiple meanings. Dexter’s sound has been often copied but never replicated. To my mind, more than anything, it is the key to his genius.

Telling a story.  In the 70’s I listened to Dexter repeatedly, particularly his classic Blue Note recordings. Then I found myself listening to him more rarely, I’m not entirely sure why. Now that I have returned playing the saxophone, I listen to him all the time. Why? Because every Dexter improvisation tells a story. As an example, listen to his solo on Dizzy Gillespie’s Night in Tunisia in the video, each note each idea, the transition between ideas, the subtle return to the tune at the end are all carefully weighted, yet all played with an effortless impression. Believe behind Dexter’s supremely hip public face would have been thousands of hours of practice, playing, listening, and jamming. Dexter’s ability as a jazz storyteller is one of the qualities that marks him out as true jazz original.

I’ll return to Dexter Gordon again, not least through reference to the excellent biography The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon written by his widow Maxine Gordon.

Here’s a brief selection of Dexter Gordon cuts from an early two tenor recording with Wardell Grey and examples of his playing in the early 1960’s. It is worth noting that towards the end of his life, in 1986 Dexter was, to his astonishment nominated for an Oscar for his acting role in Bertrand Tavernier’s film Round Midnight. One of the best jazz movies.

The YouTube playlist…

The Chase 1952

Dexter Gordon: Tenor Sax
Wardell Grey: Tenor Sax


Cheesecake Go! 1962

Dexter Gordon: Tenor Sax
Sonny Clark: Piano
Butch Warren: Bass
Billy Higgins: Drums


Stairway To the Stars Our Man in Paris 1963

Dexter Gordon: Tenor Sax
Bud Powell: Piano
Pierre Michelot: Bass
Kenny Clarke: Drums


Scrapple from the Apple Go!

Personnel as 3

You’ve Changed Doin Allright! 1961

Dexter Gordon: Tenor Sax
Freddie Hubbard: Trumpet
Horace Parlan: Piano
Georde Tucker: Bass
Al Harewood: Drums


Watermelon Man Takin Off 1962

Herbie Hancock: Piano
Freddie Hubbard: Trumpet
Dexter Gordon: Tenor Sax
Butch Warren: Bass
Billy Higgins: Drums


Body and Soul King Neptune 1964

Dexter Gordon: Tenor Sax
Tete Montoliu: Piano
Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen: Bass
Axel Riel: Drums