Dexter Gordon, in the words of the great jazz writer, editor, producer, and archivist Dan Morgenstern, “is of course the man who first created an authentic bebop style on the tenor saxophone.” That style influenced in one way or another just about every saxophonist who came after, and some of them—most notably John Coltrane—influenced Gordon in turn. That tells you something about the man’s dedication to his art.
On Saturday, July 15, tenor saxophonist Doug Lawrence, longtime lead tenor in the Count Basie Orchestra, will join Cobb’s Mob, a trio led by NEA Jazz Master drummer Jimmy Cobb, with bassist John Webber and pianist John Campbell, for a tribute concert copresented by the New Mexico Jazz Festival and the New Mexico Jazz Workshop. The festival will also be celebrating the 30th anniversary of Bertrand Tavernier’s film Round Midnight, in which Gordon plays a fictional tenorist named Dale Turner, loosely based on saxophonist Lester Young and pianist Bud Powell. The performance earned him an Oscar nomination. The free showing, on Sunday, July 16, will be followed by an interview with Gordon’s widow, Maxine Gordon, conducted by Steve Feld.
I had a chance to chat with Lawrence, a man as sweet as he is hip, and the following excerpts from our conversation touch on the genesis of the upcoming gig, the honor of playing with Jimmy Cobb, and Gordon’s influence on Lawrence.
Mel: How did it come about that you hooked up with Jimmy Cobb and Cobb’s Mob for this concert?
Doug: First of all, let’s start with Maxine, Dexter’s wife. I was playing Birdland, and she came up to me at the break. She said, “You don’t know me, but I just wanted to tell you how much I love your playing and how much you remind me of my husband.” And I said, “Oh, yeah? Who’s your husband?” And she said, “Dexter Gordon.” At that point— [He looks at his goosebumping forearms.] I’ve still got the shivers.
We started talking. She came up right at the beginning of the break, so we had a nice long time to talk. She started telling me all these stories about Dexter, and about how his favorite band that he ever— The only thing he ever wanted to do in his entire career was play with the Basie band, which he didn’t do. Now there’s a part in the movie where he says, “The only thing I ever wanted to do was play with Basie, and I couldn’t do it.”
So dig this. She tells me, “You were doing a tour with [trumpeter] Buck Clayton.” In 1988, I think. It was in Europe. And she says, “And you know, Dexter was on that tour.” I said, “I remember [he was]. I remember sitting in the audience a couple of nights. It was George Wein. He would do these huge European tours. There were probably 10 or 12 jazz festivals in Europe back in the day, and every June and July, a lot of musicians were gone, to Europe. It was just a wonderful thing. You’d be in Nice. You’d be at North Sea Jazz Festival.
Mel: Tough life.
Doug: [laughing] Yeah, it was tough. Really tough.
So anyway, she said, “Yeah, he really loved the way you played.” I had no idea he even knew who I was. Well, I knew he knew who I was, but I’ll tell you that story later. So she says, “Do you remember Basie was [on that tour]. I said, “Yeah, I do remember.” Basie still had the band, so this must have been 1981 or ’82. She says, “Yeah, well, the first time that Dexter walked backstage to talk to Basie about the band was 1981, 1982. . . .” He says, “Basie, the only thing I ever wanted to do was play in your band. Can I join your band?” Basie rolls his eyes and says the usual thing. He always says—after what happened with Lester Young back in the day, when Lester split—“There’s only room in this band for one leader.” That was his standard answer.
So Dex was like, wow, you know. So he goes back out and talks to Maxine. He says, “I don’t think he thought I was serious.” And Maxine says, “Why don’t you go back in and tell him that you’re serious.” So he goes back and says to Basie, “You don’t understand. I’m serious. I’ll work for free. I won’t take a salary.” And Basie looks at him and says, “Well, what am I going to do with Kenny Hing?” And Dexter goes, like, “Oh. Well, OK, I just want you to know, you ever need a tenor man, I would love to do it. I’m your guy.” And Basie said, “OK.” Now, isn’t that something.
Doug: So that’s when Dexter was in the audience seeing me, but the first time I met Dexter was at a place called Joyous Lake in Woodstock, New York. I was in the army. I was at West Point in the West Point band.
Mel: Wait a minute. You were a cadet?
Doug: No, I wasn’t a cadet. That’s what they call a special band. I auditioned. That’s a whole other funny story. Anyway, I’m going up to see Flora Purim and Airto at Joyous Lake, and I get there, and it’s the Dexter Gordon quartet, with George Cables, Rufus Reid, and Eddie Gladden. [They replaced Purim and Airto, who had been busted at the airport.] So I’m there, and you know, I’m a little lit up, and they’re doing a sound check, and I hear this tenor, and oh, my god. And he’s getting his monitors together, and he’s telling them, “Up a little,” and I yell, “Crank it!” And he goes, “Oh, no, no way, not that much.” So they do it, and they start the first tune, and he puts his horn down after his solo, gets off the stage and walks— And I’m standing in the very back of Joyous Lake. It’s like a little amphitheater-type club, and there was no place to sit, but I was standing in the back, and he walks, and he makes a beeline toward me, and he comes up and that’s when I realize he was the same height as me. And he comes up, and he goes, “Whatchu got?” I’m like, “I’m sorry, Mr. Gordon.” “Don’t call me Mr. Gordon.” So that’s the first time I ever met Dexter Gordon, 1979. . . .
So Maxine is telling me all this other stuff about Dexter . . . and she says that this is coming up on the 30th year of Round Midnight. I told her I had seen Round Midnight in New York City. . . . I was transfixed by this thing. I had heard all these stories from these guys, friends of mine, who were in Paris at the time and had gone to see Dexter on the set and watched him do one take after another. . . . And finally the director says, “Cut. That’s a wrap.” Dex comes back, and they’re “Man, that was so great.” And Dex says, “Yeah, all them years of getting fucked up finally paid off.” [Laughter.]
Mel: Very funny.
Doug: So I’ve got to go back up on the bandstand, and somebody says, “Can I get a picture?” So Maxine hugs me, and she goes, “I fit you just— You’re just exactly the same size and everything as Dexter.” Oh, wow, you know. This is a trip. So every time I came to New York, she came, there for a couple of months. We started talking about things.
I started working a gig with Eddie Gladden in Jersey later when I got out of the army, and I used to tour a lot with George Cables, and I worked quite a bit with Rufus, so there was always this connection, this Dexter Gordon thing. Also, he’s had a huge influence on my playing. There’s a lot of Dexter in my playing, Dexter and Wardell Gray, because we’re all coming out of the same guy—Lester Young.
Mel: I just heard for the first time over the weekend The Chase and the Steeplechase [a 1953 recording featuring dueling tenors Gordon and Gray]. Wow. That just knocked me out.
Doug: Isn’t that something else? Wardell was so amazing. I used to listen to that as a kid. My father had that record and said, “This is how a tenor is supposed to sound, son.”
So anyway, there was always this parallel thing running. So how did this gig come about? So we’re talking and talking, and then Tommy [Tom Guralnick, executive director of the Outpost] calls up, and he says, “Do you want to do the jazz festival this year?” I said yeah. And he says, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “Well, I just got off the phone with Maxine? Do you know Maxine Gordon?” She told me it was the 30th anniversary of Round Midnight, and they’re having these showings in New York City. Steve Feld is coming. The director, Bertrand Tavernier, is coming to New York, and they’re having a thing at New York University and somewhere else. So a big deal. . . .
So I start telling him. It’s the 30th anniversary. Steve Feld lives in Santa Fe, who happens to be a very good friend of Tom. I said, “You know, Maxine and I have been talking about maybe putting me with a rhythm section and putting a band along with this thing and trying to tour it. We just got off the phone, and we’ve started talking about this.” And he goes, “I love that idea. Let’s make that happen.”
I had been talking to Jimmy Cobb about doing another gig, so I called him, and I said, “Hey, man, would you be into coming out and doing the jazz festival?” And he said yeah. Jimmy, at 88, is still incredibly strong. . . .
Mel: I tell you, the cymbals alone on that guy.
Doug: Nothing like it. Even to this day, nobody has that. When he’s playing on stage, everybody has got to keep up with him. I mean, it’s all I can do— I’m practicing my butt off just so I can keep up with him now. Let’s put it this way: if someone gave me a million dollars and said, “You can have any drummer you want,” he’s the guy I would get. . . . Nobody’s got that ride cymbal beat. . . . It’s an honor to play with him, and he’s always liked playing with me and made me feel comfortable.
Mel: What in Dexter’s playing captured you?
Doug: The way that he swung the beat. He played behind the beat, and his phrasing, you know, and of course, his incredible sound. It completely changed me. Up until that point, I was pretty much just straight out of Lester Young, and I was really heavily into Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves. As a matter of fact, I was making a career for myself trying to play like Paul Gonsalves. . . . Naturally, because my father played a lot like Lester Young, that was a natural thing for me to play like. When I started hooking up with guys like Buck Clayton and Benny Goodman, that style was easy for me to fit in, and I think that’s how I got a lot of work. . . .
Right around that time, when I started seeing Dexter in person— I had listened to him on recordings, and it made a huge impact, but to tell you the truth, those early recordings with Wardell, I was more into Wardell because he sounded a little more like Lester, with his flow, right? Like a bebop Lester, kind of like Charlie Parker on tenor. But once I started hearing Dexter live— After that initial thing in Woodstock, anytime I could see him, I did. . . . Over the years, it just evolved more and more. I mean, I changed my mouthpiece. Right now, actually, I just got a mouthpiece a couple of months ago, not even, that I spent a small fortune for, that is pretty much the same type of mouthpiece that he played, same vintage and everything. That’s what I’m using, and not just because I’m getting ready to try to do this thing for Dexter, but the sound— It’s probably the best mouthpiece I’ve ever had. . . .
Mel: So what is it about Dexter’s sound?
Doug: It’s identifiable immediately, you hear one or two notes. It’s a big, full sound that has got the core of the same type of sound that Lester Young had. A very tight core, whereas compared to Coleman Hawkins or Chu Berry, their sound would be big, great—booo-oo-oo. Or Don Byas—booo. [He expands his arms to make a big circle.] Dexter’s arr-ooo. [He holds his hands up in front of his face, making a tight circle about the size of a cantaloupe.] As Dexter developed over his career, I mean that tone just got more and more core.
I remember asking Rufus Reid once, “Who’s the loudest tenor player that you ever worked with?” He says, “Without a doubt, Dexter Gordon.” And we talked about it, and it was that core.
It takes a lot of chops for me. I think the reason I can kind of get close to that sound is that we’re both big guys. We both have big mouth cavities. I don’t exactly get his sound because for me, I think, I spent so much time emulating Prez and Ben Webster and Paul Gonsalves. I’ve still got that air in my sound that I can’t really get rid of. So it’s not going to be as pure as Dexter, but it can be close. I mean, I don’t want to imitate him. I don’t want to play the same riffs or any of that stuff. I’m not playing his solos note for note.
Mel: I don’t think anyone would expect you to.
Doug: No, they’re not. . . . I’m just trying to take the essence of it. It’s already in my playing anyway.
Dexter Gordon Tribute Project:
Doug Lawrence and NEA Jazz Master Jimmy Cobb
Saturday, July 15, at 7:00 p.m.
Albuquerque Museum Amphitheater
2000 Mountain NW, Albuquerque
Tickets: $30, general admission/$25, NMJW and Outpost members/seniors/students
For more info and tickets, go here or call 505-268-0044.
Round Midnight in New Mexico:
Film Screening: Round Midnight, starring Dexter Gordon
followed by discussion with Maxine Gordon and Steven Feld
Sunday, July 16, at 4:00 p.m.
Weil Hall at the Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, Albuquerque
Tickets: free, but reservations highly recommended
For more info and tickets, go here or call 505-268-0044.
© 2017 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.