Dexter Gordon is a jazz saxophone legend that all of us as sax players need to know about.
Dexter Gordon: Great Jazz Sax Player
Fred Vigdor from the Sax School tutor team gives you a quick introduction to Dexter Gordon, his career and his music, and points you towards some tracks and albums you should check out.
This month in Sax School we’re digging into classic jazz and jazz ballads, and our Members are learning an original Challenge Song in the style of Dexter called “Old Memories”.
Today we’re also going to take a look at one of Dexter Gordon’s iconic solos “Love For Sale” and there’s a transcription for you too.
You can get the solo transcription, and the practice track for free from our LOCKER. That’s where we keep all of our free stuff so you should definitely check it out. It’s completely free, just register with your email address to get access to everything. There’s a link below.
Why Listen to Dexter Gordon?
Dexter Gordon’s career reads like a Who’s Who “ of the jazz world. His image has become synonymous with jazz and has appeared on thousands of album covers, posters and t-shirts.
But as a saxophone player, why should you listen to the music of Dexter Gordon?
Dexter Gordon is widely regarded as the first musician to translate “bebop” to the tenor saxophone. Dexter led a colourful and eventful, sometimes tragic life, that included three triumphant comebacks in a career that spanned over four decades.
He was the first musician to be nominated for an Oscar in a film where he pretty much played himself – more about that later.
Dexter Gordon played alongside some of the biggest names in jazz in the twentieth century – and there’s even a cameo appearance by a big name from the world of heavy metal… stick around to find out who!
A Charismatic Performer
Dexter Gordon was a hugely influential saxophone player and charismatic performer.At 6 feet, 5 inches, Gordon was a dominating figure on and off stage, and he earned the nickname “LTD” ( Long Tall Dexter). In many ways his life and career were typical of the experiences of African-American jazz musicians of his generation. He came up against racism, and struggled with substance abuse, even having a spell in jail. But his career had lots of high points as well.
Dexter began his study of music with the clarinet at age 13, then switched to the alto saxophone at 15, and finally to the tenor saxophone at 17, and was soon performing with other young Los Angeles musicians, including Charles Mingus and Chico Hamilton.
In his last year of high school, Gordon received a call from great alto saxophonist Marshall Royal, asking him to join the Lionel Hampton Band. He left Los Angeles with the band, travelling down south and learning the ropes from fellow band members Illinois Jacquet and Joe Newman.
It was in 1943, while in New York City with the Hampton band, that Dexter sat in at Minton’s Playhouse with Ben Webster and Lester Young. This was to be one of the most important moments in his long musical career. As he put it, “people started to take notice.”
In 1944, he worked with Louis Armstrong‘s band, which was one of the highlights of his career. It gave him invaluable insight into the world of music. It was during this period that Gordon made his first recordings as a leader, fronting a quintet, featuring Harry “Sweets” Edison on trumpet and Nat “King” Cole on piano.
The Birth of BeBop
In 1944, Dexter joined vocalist Billy Eckstine’s band. With Dizzy Gillespie as its musical director, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Dexter in the reed section, Art Blakey on drums and Sarah Vaughan on piano and vocals, Eckstine’s orchestra was the incubator for what was to become known as BeBop.
In the late 40s, Dexter returned to Los Angeles, which now had a flourishing jazz scene. Gordon was a major figure there, playing saxophone with the best of the musicians, among them Sonny Criss, Art Farmer, and Hampton Hawes.
Battle of the Saxes
One of his most famous periods was a 1947-52 tour with fellow tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, billed as a “Battle of the Saxes.” This collaboration produced a series of historic tracks for Dial Records, including The Chase and The Hunt. These two tenor “duels” became very popular at this time.
A photo of Dexter taken by Herman Leonard at the Royal Roost club in 1948 has been reprinted on album covers, t-shirts, posters, and print ads. It has become one of the most iconic images in jazz photography.
But alongside these high points came massive lows. Gordon had battled a drug and alcohol problem. He spent two years in California’s Chino prison on heroin charges in the 1950s.
In the 1960s, he recorded a series of albums for Blue Note, all of which are considered classics. But despite the success of these recordings, Dexter had trouble finding work in New York. His prison record meant he couldn’t get a Cabaret card, which musicians needed in order to work in the clubs there.
Move to Europe
Feeling unappreciated and sensing limited opportunities, Gordon went to Europe in 1962 for a three-month tour. He ended up staying for 14 years. He made his home in Denmark, and worked for long periods at the historic Montmartre Jazz Club in Copenhagen. Many of these performances for the club’s weekly radio broadcast were released as a series called Dexter In Radioland. These are certainly worth seeking out.
While living in Denmark, Dexter met Torben Ulrich, a professional tennis player and jazz writer for the local paper. The two men became friends, and when Torben’s son, Lars was born, Dexter was asked to be his godfather. Lars Ulrich grew up to be the drummer with Metallica, so Dexter Gordon is the godfather to the drummer for Metallica!
Back to the USA
In 1976, Dexter made a return to the US and received a hero’s welcome in New York City. Jazz critics heralded his return, and there were long lines of young fans waiting to see his performances. His playing had evolved. He was now incorporating some of the modern harmony of John Coltrane, who Dexter had inspired with HIS early recordings. So Dexter Gordon’s music had come full circle. In 1980 he was elected to the Jazz Hall of Fame and Readers of Down Beat magazine named him “Musician of the Year”.
Seeing Dexter Gordon Live
I was a young music student in university during this period and I was fortunate enough to see Dexter perform live several times in small clubs around New York. At that stage in my musical development, I wasn’t very familiar with his earlier work. However, I knew that he had been away from the US for a long time and that there was quite a bit of excitement about his return. I was certainly too young to appreciate much of what I was hearing. But there was no denying that he was a commanding presence.
He had a deep raspy voice and spoke softly and slowly.. Before playing a ballad, Dexter would recite the lyrics to the song. Actually – this is a great tip for sax players. If you’re going to play a song, make sure you know the lyrics so you can put the meaning and emotion of the words into your playing.
Dexter was a master of the musical quotation, and he would often insert a quote anything from “Mona Lisa” to “Pop Goes The Weasel” into his solos as comic relief.
When he finished playing a solo, Dexter would hold out his saxophone horizontally before him, like an offering to the audience.
In The Movies
In 1986, Dexter appeared in the film “Round Midnight”, directed by Bertrand Tavernier. He played Dale Turner, an ageing jazz saxophonist in a Paris club. The story is based on the life of Bud Powell, but it had many parallels with Dexter Gordon’s own life.
He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Leading Actor for his performance – the first musician ever nominated for an Oscar. He was also awarded the title of Officer of Arts and Letters from the French Ministry of Culture.
Dexter Gordon Recordings to Check Out
“Go” – one of the Blue Note releases from the 1960s, is a great album to check out. When asked about his favourite recording from that period, Dexter said: “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.”
“Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard” (1976). These are recordings of Dexter Gordon’s performances after his return from Europe. They really capture the energy and excitement of his triumphant return.
Body and Soul from the Homecoming album -hear Dexter’s rendition of the John Coltrane arrangement of this classic ballad.
The Chase – is a great example of the famous “tenor battles” Dexter recorded with Wardell Grey
Love For Sale from the Go album is a great example of his laid back time feel, even on an up tempo tune. Get the transcription of this solo below.
Love for Sale: The Transcription
Let’s take a look at the classic solo by Dexter on “Love for Sale”.
Many people talk about Dexter’s playing behind the beat, but actually he’s really locked into the middle of the beat, but playing each note, even the eighth notes, for their full value. Every note he plays has weight to it.
I love this solo because Dexter’s sound is huge. He is just singing through his horn. Dexter demonstrates a total mastery of the time. He’s floating across it in one section, then really digging in and swinging hard through the next.
Dexter creates these lines using very simple diatonic harmony, which means only the notes in the chord scale – and they sound great. It goes to show how just playing the correct scales with a good time feel can make you sound great too.
So this line from the bridge section starts with a II V I progression in the key of B flat major. So, it’s C minor 7, F7 then B flat major 7. And Dexter just sticks to the scales. He’s never varying away from the key of B flat. He’s playing the C Dorian, then the F Mixolydian. Just adding that E natural as a passing tone, puts the E flat (the flat 7 of the F) on a nice strong down beat.
Then the rest of the line is straight B flat major.
There are loads of lines like this in this solo and you can really learn a lot from this about how to play simple, swinging lines, just using the chord scales.
I hope you’ve been inspired to go check out Dexter Gordon’s playing. Explore some of the tracks mentioned above. And don’t forget to grab the FREE transcription from the Locker.
And if you want to dig further into this style and improve your sax playing, you should check out what we are doing in Sax School. We’ve got hundreds of video lessons, courses and masterclasses on genres from pop to jazz, classical to gospel. Start today with Sax School!