We lost a great man this week. He died in a hospital bed in Philadelphia. Few people noticed, because he didn’t have a hit TV show or a People magazine cover. You make your living playing jazz saxophone in America, you don’t expect a big funeral.
Dexter Gordon should have had one anyhow. He played jazz sax all right, some say he helped mold it, wailing, crying, deep, throaty ballads and hard-bopping solos that left you breathless, teary-eyed; if you ever heard him play, you know this is true. The sad part is, you probably never heard him play, not if you are the typical American music listener. There may be a Madonna or Van Halen album in your collection should you be in your teens, or a Sinatra and Mathis LP should you be in your 50s, but albums by Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, Chet Baker, Coleman Hawkins — they call you a jazz “nut” if you have these, as if there were something crazy about falling in love with brilliance.
Crazy? Why? Did you know these men had to leave their own country to hear real applause? They played to wild crowds in Europe during the ’50s and ’60s. Some stayed there. Some died there. Some, like Gordon, went and came back and probably wondered why. His gift was be-bop, dancing notes around the melody of standards, sometimes erupting fast like a volcano, sometimes playing slow as a kiss at midnight, but always sweet, elegant, original, and here he was, scraping by, night after night, while four idiots named Kiss were painting their faces and wearing spandex and yanking in millions.
Now, who’s crazy? Great songs, great stories
After Gordon died — kidney failure killed him — I pulled his albums out from my collection. Inside one is a lovely story about the week he returned to New York after 14 years of living abroad. He was sitting in the club one afternoon when the phone rang. No bartenders were around, so he picked it up.
“Hello, Village Vanguard,” he said, like an employee, “uh- huh . . . yes, on Tuesday night, Dexter Gordon plays here . . . uh-huh . . . Who’s this? This is Dexter Gordon . . . Yes . . . Why, thank you, sweetheart . . . “
I smiled. Jazz men. When I started in this business, I did a magazine story on a be-bop pianist named Red Garland. Like Gordon, Red was now an old, slow-talking, bespectacled man. I introduced myself at a New York club one night, and asked if he would let me interview him.
“Only if you buy the beer,” he whispered.
Deal. For two hours he filled my ears with countless tales of smoky nights and hot music, famous names, famous tunes. What a rich life! This man had played with legends, Coltrane, Miles, he’d made dozens of records, and here he was, just grateful for a drink. Toward the end of our talk, he told me about the night in Boston when he was supposed to play with Charlie (Bird) Parker, whom most consider the greatest jazz saxophonist ever. But Bird never showed up. The next morning, Garland bought a paper and saw the headline:
“Jazz Star Dies From Drug Addiction.”
“I cried,” he said.
And he wiped his eyes again. A few years later, I picked up a paper and saw that Garland, too, had passed away. True American music
And now, another newspaper, and Dexter Gordon, 67, is gone. Sarah Vaughn, the great jazz vocalist, said good-bye a few weeks ago. We never appreciate artists such as these. Not while they’re living. Not once they’re dead. It’s crazy. Here is one form of music that America can claim as its own — not classical, not opera, they belong to other countries — but jazz, it was born on this soil in cities such as New Orleans, Kansas City, St. Louis, it is as rich as gravy and as original as clouds, and yet you want to know what got Gordon the most attention in his long career? A movie.
They called it “Round Midnight.” Came out a few years ago. Dexter played himself, basically, an old tenor sax man, plagued by alcohol, who goes to Paris and meets a Frenchman who tries to save his life. In one scene, Dexter is arrested and taken to a mental hospital. He slumps in the chair and answers a doctor’s questions.
“You know,” he rasps, in a gravel voice, “there are some nights where I’m playing . . . and playing . . . and at the end of the night, I look at my saxophone and the mouthpiece is all bloody. Full of blood. But I hadn’t felt anything. Do you understand, doctor?”
We have never understood. And now Dexter is dead. His obituary got less ink than a story about New Kids On The Block. It is crazy and unfair — these jazz players are American treasures — and what can you do? I suppose if you love the music, if it speaks to you the way it did to these artists — then you can only put on their albums and close your eyes. There’s magic on that vinyl, magic and blood. Neither, it seems, will ever dry up.