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In early December 1976, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon performed at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard for a double-album titled Homecoming. Gordon had been living primarily in Europe since the early ’60s, and this concert signaled his return to the United States, where he would remain until his death in 1990. But in early December 2018, almost exactly 42 years after the Homecoming gig, Maxine Gordon, Dexter’s widow, organized a private gathering at the Vanguard that fully summoned his spirit.
Maxine’s event acknowledged her recent biography, Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, but mainly she had invited people to celebrate her husband’s life through personal reflections and, of course, jazz. For the first half of the late-afternoon affair, people filled the renowned basement club to reunite with old friends and make new ones while Dexter’s classic Blue Note recordings graced the air. Then Maxine’s longtime friend and producer extraordinaire Michael Cuscuna took over as emcee and introduced a variety of speakers.
Impresario Todd Barkan, who brightened the stand with his well-shined spats, told a humorous anecdote about a woman who tripped over Dexter’s foot and whom he managed to catch with his long arms. “My shoes may be dirty,” Dexter said as he cradled her, “but my soul is clean.” Two distinguished figures from stage and screen, Jasper McGruder and Joe Morton, read selections from Sophisticated Giant, including those that reflected Dexter’s sentimental delight for the 1940s, when, in his late teens and early 20s, he toured with prestigious bands led by Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong and Billy Eckstine. More than once, presenters replicated the tenor legend’s deliciously slow spoken delivery — “Suddenly … I heard … polka dots and … moonbeams” — and those who recognized the music of Gordon’s voice smiled every time.
Then Cuscuna introduced George Cables, the pianist from Dexter’s final, extraordinary quartet, who in turn introduced Louis Hayes, the drummer from the Homecoming album. (Both artists still perform at the highest level, and their presence energized the room all the more.) They were joined by Dezron Douglas on bass and, dueling it out on tenor saxophones, Antoine Roney and Joe Lovano. The quintet launched into a rendition of “Cheese Cake,” the up-tempo standard from Gordon’s 1962 album Go, and then Cables led the trio through a lush, reflective version of “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” At that point, Roney’s phenomenally gifted 14-year-old son, Kojo, took over on drums, and the two tenors returned with a third, JD Allen, for “The Chase,” a tune made famous in 1947 by Dexter and Wardell Gray. No one played to cut the other, but they weren’t there to lose, either.
In jazz, imitation is not, in fact, the highest form of flattery, and none of the tenor players replicated Gordon’s phrasing or tone. Instead, as is customary in jazz, they played their own life stories. Still, Dexter’s spiritual presence was undeniable. There before us were Cables and Hayes, musicians who had recorded some of their best work with Gordon, and there was Maxine, aglow from the pleasure of friendships and throwing a wildly successful party. And there, in a Francis Wolff portrait taken during a 1963 photo shoot for the album Our Man in Paris, the image enlarged but crisp and placed behind the drum kit, was Dexter Gordon himself, leaning on a Parisian postbox as though mailing a love letter to us all. — Sascha Feinstein