Soy Califa! On Dexter Gordon’s Life and Music: a review of Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon by Maxine Gordon (Alex Harvey, December 22, 2023, LA review of Books)

WHEN DEXTER GORDON played the role of Dale Turner, a fictional, self-destructive saxophonist living in Paris, for Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film Round Midnight, he drew on his experience as an African American jazz musician exiled to Europe. The emotional intensity of his performance gained Gordon an Oscar nomination, but it wasn’t straight autobiography. In the figure of Turner, Gordon created a composite persona, based on the stories of Black American artists, who had been marginalized in the United States and sought respite from the racism they had experienced. Writers such as James Baldwin and Chester Himes, along with jazz musicians like Sidney Bechet, Ben Webster, and Bud Powell, found not only deep respect for their artistic talent in Europe but also some refuge from white hostility. Gordon knew he had the ability and the chance to embody this experience in Round Midnight, as he acknowledged:

There was a sense of responsibility in this film. […] I felt like I represented all these hundreds of cats. Not that they’d all been to Europe, but they were all jazz musicians who’d paid their dues and got no admiration and got no remuneration. […] [W]e were able to enlarge the character of Dale Turner. There must have been 100 personalities in him. All my heroes.

Round Midnight reads like a valedictory statement, since Gordon died only four years later. But the story of Dexter Gordon isn’t only that of a long career spent exploring jazz’s possibilities, or a matter of honoring an extraordinary generation of musicians. To mark the centenary year of this great Black musician, one who was formed and nurtured in Los Angeles’s thriving African American jazz community of the mid-20th century, it is important to affirm Gordon’s continuing relevance. His story goes to the heart of contemporary America and the way “it embraces and also pushes away brilliant creative Black people,” as Maxine Gordon, scholar and widow of the musician, puts it in her 2018 book Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon.

He also has a turn in the best Crime Story arc–Moulin Rouge–which has one of the greatest endings in tv history.