Redemption Song: An Interview with Maxine Gordon

by    /  May 14, 2019  / Comments Off on Redemption Song: An Interview with Maxine Gordon

Dexter Gordon and Maxine Gordon

Maxine Gordon built an accomplished career as a tour manager for renowned jazz musicians, including Gil Evans and her late husband, the bebop tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. She has now turned her talents to archiving and researching the histories of jazz and the African diaspora.

Her book Sophisticated Giant chronicles Dexter’s life and career. It combines several voices — hers, those of jazz scholars, and Dexter Gordon’s own unfinished memoirs. The resulting portrait depicts a layered, complex, and fascinating man who overcame adversity to find great success in the fields of musical performance and acting. In February, Sampsonia Way sat down with Maxine before her book discussion at Alphabet City, discussing the biography, her multiple careers, and her life with Dexter.

I. From Vignettes to Long Durée

Sophisticated Giant is a deceptively concise book, considering that it was actually a major project that took years to come to fruition. Can you tell me more about that process of combining the different voices while conducting research and crafting the writing for this book?

OK, good question. Before Dexter died in 1990, he began his autobiography. We were living in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I talk about how he began the book on these yellow legal pads. And it wasn’t in chronological order. He wrote these vignettes about his life and the stories that he wanted to tell in the book.

He said, “If I don’t finish the book, promise you’ll finish it.” I said, “Sure! Yeah, I’ll finish it” —  not really thinking about what that might entail. When I began to look at the book as a project, I realized that it took skills that I didn’t have. That means historical research of African American history, how to do oral history, how to do interviews. By figuring out those skills, I learned to think about Dexter’s book as longue durée. My idea was that I would write sections of the book about his life, but you don’t have to read it in the order that it’s written. Actually, you could go to any section that might interest you and go back or go forward. Each section stands alone. It took a long time because there’s more than one voice, and you want to have continuity.

II. Life Off the Bandstand

Dexter Gordon is revealed in this biography to have found great success in many fields, ranging from his colorful and sometimes poetic writings to his jazz performances, his public speaking abilities, and his performance in the film Round Midnight, which earned him an Academy Award Nomination for Best Actor. He was quite the Renaissance man! What was it like listening to, working, touring, and living with such an impressive man?

Well, there’s life off the bandstand. That’s something he used to say. And life off the bandstand has nothing to do with somebody’s fame, or success, or lack of, or working or not working. You have home life. He was an avid reader, a baseball fan, and he practiced saxophone every day. When he did make the film and got nominated for the Oscar, he used to say, “When can we go back to our regular life?” Because he really liked the idea of normal life. He liked order; he liked having breakfast; he liked a three-minute egg. So the idea that he was ‘famous’ or ‘successful’ didn’t matter. He really wasn’t impressed with himself at all.

In the book, you reveal how Dexter was a jazz fan first and how he helped build careers for many other promising jazz musicians and found inspiration from lots of players. And it seems that he was particularly marked by some of them, such as John Coltrane and Ben Webster. Can you elaborate some on the personal and professional relationships that these men had and why they are shown in the book to play such important roles in Dexter’s life story?

Well, the thing about jazz musicians is that most of them enjoy each other’s company. And they’re not particularly interested in career and fame and money. When they’re together, it’s always about music. Dexter admired Ben Webster tremendously. And Ben had moved to Copenhagen when Dexter lived there. Dexter was very happy about that. And Dexter admired John Coltrane, and the story is that John Coltrane is influenced by Dexter, and then later Dexter is influenced by John Coltrane, which is a kind of continuity. That’s what happens with real musicians.

Dexter had a very colorful personal life, with significant highs and lows. He started a wonderful family and made many great friends-for-life in the jazz community, but also struggled with substance addictions, faced discrimination in many parts of the United States, and dealt with difficult contracts with certain record company executives. However, through it all, you wrote that he maintained a positive can-do attitude and viewed mistakes or setbacks as lessons for the future. Where do you think he drew his strength to focus on the positives and to keep going, and how do you think his optimism and friendliness impacted his music?

I always wondered how he could be so positive even in difficult times! But he had this saying. If things would happen on the road or with the band, he’d say, “Oh, it’ll be alright! It could always be worse. Trust me, I’ve seen worse.” He would just wake up every day and say: “Look! We’re here. Look how we live. We have music.” He wouldn’t let circumstance interrupt what he wanted to do with his life, which was play music. That was what he wanted to do, and he’d be like, “Ok, well, let’s see what happens tomorrow.” A very good way to live. Dexter had learned something. I don’t know when. Maybe when he went on the road with Lionel Hampton when he left high school. He had these mentors who had lived through very difficult times – segregation and Jim Crow — like Marshal Royal, who was much older. I think that was it. That he was mentored by the right people.

III. Legacy, Redemption, and Looking to the Future

Are there any key messages about Dexter Gordon’s life and legacy that you hope that readers will take away from Sophisticated Giant?

What I would hope is that people would read it who maybe are not what we call “jazz fans.” Maybe they don’t know that much about Dexter Gordon, and then they read the book, and they can learn about this community of jazz musicians, their backgrounds, and how these people come from different parts of the country but have a common goal to play music. When we gave a talk last night at NYU, a friend of mine said that Sophisticated Giant is like a redemption song. He said it reminded him of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” because people hear such negative things about jazz musicians. But, as in “Redemption Song,” this book shines a light on jazz musicians, illuminating the overlooked positive dimensions of their lives. People say, “Oh, drugs! Alcohol! Sad ending.” In fact, that is not the only storyCan we not blame a person for having a bad ending? What are the circumstances? What can we do to avoid those circumstances? And a reader would say, “Oh! I didn’t realize this about jazz musicians.” They could also read what Dexter wrote and see that jazz musicians would read and write. And write poetry! These people had interests beyond going to the gig, and whatever else people think is involved with being a jazz musician. Because a lot of it is a mythAnd there’s a lot of negativity around the myth.

Can we talk a little about your careers in academics and the music industry? You focused on contributing to the field of jazz history, and especially oral jazz history. What is a day of work like, researching and putting together accurate and engaging stories of the careers and lives of jazz musicians?

There is no one day that is like any other. What I would do is assign myself a project. Now, I’m working on a second book. It’s a good example. It’s about four women. And one of them is from Pittsburgh — Maxine Sullivan. She’s from Homestead. I want to write about her, but I need to know more about herMaybe what I find out won’t be in the book, but you have to know more than what you’re going to write about. So now, I’m reading SmoketownI’m reading about Pittsburgh. I’m reading about Carnegie. I’m reading about the steel mills. I was trying to figure out why so many great jazz musicians come from Pittsburgh! And the level of the musicians who come from here is astounding! You have Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine, Ahmad Jamal — great players! So, what I found was because of the steel mills, the clubs in the Hill District were open 24 hours.

Does your work as an academic, as someone who researches jazz history, relate back at all to your work in the music industry? Spending time with performers, booking and promoting gigs, helping develop and negotiate contracts must feel so different from academia.

Yeah, of course. I learned to negotiate a contract, what to avoid, and what to look for. I tried to make it possible for jazz musicians to earn a living, have money in the bank, and have health insurance. Basic things that maybe have been overlooked for them. Because they are independent artists, and it’s not common for them to have all of the benefits that people need. Working with them definitely gave me a point of view in my academic work.

Interesting. So, how do the day-to-day tasks and the work environments differ in these two fields?

It’s really the same. You have to follow up. You have to be organized. It’s more that the academic work, the writing and the research, is a solitary profession. But the goal is the same. You try to finish what you begin, right? Which not everybody does.

Recently, you established the Dexter Gordon Society to help promote jazz history and to honor and preserve his legacy. How did this organization take shape, what other goals for jazz history does it have, and where do you see it going in the future?

Well, you know, the City of Asylum is a very good example. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a place to take musicians who are in danger from places where they’re not safe, or where they don’t have the money to practice and live. But our goal is to have a physical space for the Dexter Gordon Society, and in that space, I want to have free rehearsal rooms, training on how to use social media effectively, and instructions on how to design websites. I know musicians can learn to do it. Just like they can learn to read a contract. Basically, our goal is to take the Dexter Gordon Society forward. It’s not about looking at it as placing Dexter in some kind of historic moment, but saying, what are we going to do nowDexter was always thinking about the future, and that’s our goal!

Would you tell me more about life with Dexter? On the one hand, you worked as his manager to revive his career in America at a time when bebop was on the decline and it seemed so unlikely. On the other hand, you lived together and raised a family with him. What was it like to balance these two dimensions of your lives?

Well, when I stopped being his manager in 1983, there was no balance because I wasn’t his manager! He wanted to have his idea of a normal home life. It might not look normal to everybody, but we were happy in Mexico. We had an excellent lawyer who took care of everything. I would be in the discussionbut then they would make the final decision. I remember when they had the first meeting about the film Round Midnight. There was a question of a bonus or something about a contract. I chimed in on it, and someone said, “Oh, I thought you’d retired?” Dexter said, “That doesn’t mean she’s stupid!” But most of the time, I tried not to interfere, because Dexter had said, “I’m not marrying my manager.” It’s a tricky relationship people have when they work with each other. It’s rare when it doesn’t end in disaster!

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