MAXINE GORDON. role model and utter inspiration.
by Norman Warwick
If we were a professional organisation like Jazz In Europe, perhaps, with staff and calendars and year planners and staff we could and would have done what they did. Jazz In Europe marked International Women´s Day with a lengthy feature on a little heralded lady who nevertheless made a difference in the jazz genre. They also announced that over the following two weeks, Jazz In Europe together with the Europe Jazz Network, would be highlighting some of the most prominent women currently active in today’s jazz world under the common hashtag, #womentothefore. They kept that promise by each day publishing new interviews and re-publishing some great articles of theirs from the last few years.
They actually marked International Women´s Day 2021 with a great interview with Maxine Gordon by Fiona Ross.
I didn´t know the name of Maxine Gordon and only slightly better knew the name of Fiona Ross, interviewer, and in fact I only knew her name under her other hat of being a successful jazz musician.
Written, arranged and produced by Fiona, the new album, “Fierce and Non-Compliant” is an eclectic mix of songs that all sit under the heading of jazz, from the big band sound of the title track, to the haunting, freer ballads to some Latin and funk numbers.
Award winning vocalist, pianist, composer and producer Fiona Ross has become known for creating her own contemporary Jazz sound using fast paced Latin Jazz, vintage jazz club and a little neo soul along with heart wrenching ballads that demonstrate that ‘Her style is poetic and the messages ooze with Millennial angst’ (Jazz weekly). She came to the world’s attention as ‘the artist that gave Ed Sheeran his ‘first push’ (Daily Express), but has very quickly established herself as an artist in her own right and has received incredible reviews across the globe for all of her four albums.
Her live performances have seen her perform at prestigious venues including 606 Club, Pizza Express, Bulls Head, Nells Jazz and Blues and Toulouse Lautrec and her music is played on radio stations all over the world including 40 stations in the USA as well as in Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Australia and Spain.
Fiona is also a member of the Jazz Journalist association and is a contributor to Jazz in Europe and a creative writer for Jazz Quarterly. She has interviewed Steve Gadd, Maxine Gordon, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Eric Bibb (a huge hero of mine, and I roo was fortunate enough to interview, although its decades ago now), Roseanna Vitro and Kyle Eastwood, to name a few. As Head of the British Academy of New Music, Fiona was responsible for the training of the likes of Ed Sheeran, Rita Ora and Jess Glynne, to name just a few but left her role there to establish herself as an artist in her own right.
I have just read that article, despite the fact that the name being celebrated was not instantly recognisable to me. Maxine Gordon was described in the introduction by Fiona Ross as a ´Historian, researcher, author, producer, scholar and consultant. President of the Dexter Gordon Society and President of Dex Music LLC (which controls the copyright to Dexter Gordon’s compositions and licenses his name and image). The Jazz in Europe interviewer added that she felt ´role model and utter inspiration´ should be added to that already extensive cv. of Maxine Gordon.
Maxine was also married to Dexter Gordon, but I have to say, to my chagrin, that although well-acquainted with Dexter´s name and the work he produced, I was, until now, absolutely unaware of Mrs. Gordon.
She is not only a ferocious worker and high achiever, Fiona informed us, but was also the inspiration for Woody Shaw’s Theme for Maxine which was written for her.
Maxine has just completed an epic journey of writing Sophisticated Giant: The Life And Legacy Of Dexter Gordon, a biography Fiona Ross hails as a masterpiece.
´It has everything you think you want from a biography and things you didn’t realise you needed. The beautiful combination of historical facts, anecdotes and Dexter’s own words is brought together through Maxine’s own experiences, allowing us a precious insight into not only Dexter Gordon’s world but the wider context of time – this is a much-needed narrative. Maxine’s love and dedication to the role she has in bringing this story to an audience, makes it clear the value she places on the importance of the story that must be told – and told in the right way. Maxine Gordon is someone who carries within her the spark of true jazz, it’s in her very fibre, it runs through her veins and she is not only holding and sharing the flame of Jazz, she is an actual part of that fire.´
So much is she a part of the very fire of jazz that Dexter once said to a friend having some difficulty with the language of jazz that ‘Maxine can translate for you. She speaks Be Bop !’
Fiona Ross met Maxine for the first time in what the reporter describes as ´a gorgeous, typical Parisian café in the Bastille district of Paris where we discussed her book, life with Dexter Gordon, the Jazz industry and so much more.´
Fiona left this experience ´feeling enlightened, inspired and honoured to have had the opportunity to sit and talk to such a legend. The whole experience would be a chapter in any biography of my own life.´
I can pay no greater compliment to Jazz In Europe and its contributor than to say I finished reading her interview by similarly feeling ´enlightened, inspired and honoured´, for no journalist can do more than help their reader share the emotions of the interview.
Fiona first asked about Maxine´s experience of writing the book and what she hoped people would take away from it. The detailed response set the tone for a fascinating that should have you all signing up for Jazz In Europe, because their content is invariably of a similar high quality to even this.
´I mean I promised him (Dexter Gordon) I would do this´, Maxine replied, ´but when I made the promise I didn’t really know what it would take. I mean he died in 1990, I had to go back to college – I wanted to write about jazz in the context of African American history, – but you know, I had to study it. You have to learn research methods, oral history. I mean I didn’t want to just write another jazz biography – that wasn’t what he had in mind. One of the people I quote extensively in the book is Jimmy Heath. He used to say to me, you got to get this book out before you die – and he’s 90! I was like, don’t worry, I’m getting it out. What I had in mind, was Dexter’s life story, as a way of talking about African American history, jazz history, his idea of living outside the country. Dexter read in the paper that we were expatriates ‘I thought we were just living in Europe’ so just because you are travelling and working somewhere else, doesn’t mean you are no longer part of that country. I hope people will think about Jazz in wider terms, people would be encouraged and particularly interested in incarcerated people – we have a very big problem in the US. My idea is to take the book to the prisons, drug users, the drug users union in Copenhagen, I went there and its was so great, I was like, can I put my husband picture up here? And they were like, we love Dexter! He never hid the fact that he was a drug user and he is a great hero. So, I’m interested in people that can identify with Dexter and what he said about his life and yes there were ups and downs, but in the end, he had a happy ending. He was an optimist.´
For promotional events like this, by the way, Maxine was only accepting interviews from women and African Americans, with all the book launch events being held at independent book stores, and Fiona Shaw understandably asked the obvious question of why?
´Ha, makes me sound a little narrow, doesn’t it?´ Maxine laughed.
´Ha! Well, most Jazz writers, or critics as they are called sometimes, typical ones, are men, of a certain age, white and I have found their approach does not include black cultural history and it doesn’t include the issues of gender and social issues that we are interested in. So, I was hoping that this book would be not so much a jazz biography, but a story of the culture of Dexter´s life, musical, social and political, and that he’d be the character to tell the story but the story would be bigger. My idea was to present him in relationship to African American cultural history. Our focus is Jazz, of course, but there are many other issues that we need to address. The idea for the book tour is to follow the geography of Dexter’s life. LA Nov, New York, Barcelona, Madrid, London etc.. ´The launch in London is at Honest Jons, a place where all the musicians would hang out in London when they came to play at Ronnie Scott’s. Dexter would always go to Honest Jons and buy vinyl (Honest Jon´s is at 278 Pottabellow Road WT105TE). he always liked to keep up with the latest recordings. Honest Jon´s, you know, they care about music. And I’m only doing independent book stores – I’m not doing chains – and I want to do black owned book stores.´
Maxine is deeply passionate about the rights of musicians and one chapter in particular, under the heading of Business Lessons, shows the harsh reality of contractual law and its impact on musicians lives. She describes Dexter and Miles Davis sharing a single room in 1946, taking turns to sleep in the one bed, but how they loved every minute of it because they were playing on 52nd Street.
´That is a chapter on what I call the political economy of bebop,´ Maxine explained to Fiona, ´I supported Prince when he put the word slave on his face. Love him. (personal note, a halo literally appeared over Maxine’s head at this point) I thought when I do start to write a book, I want to be clear and in Jazz studies, the focus is always on the big stars at the expense of what made them. You know Count Basie said, ‘I’m nothing without the band’ and Duke Ellington – it’s always about the band. I always tell people, especially young women, if you are going to go in the business and think people are going to say thank you, acknowledge how hard you work – well if they do, and I used to make this joke until it happened – if they thank you it’s because they have a terminal illness. But then my very good friend, was sick, and he said I want to tell you something, and I got very worried, and I asked him are you sick, and he was like no – but he died a week later – and he just wanted to tell me that he appreciated that I never repeated, anything I saw or heard on the road with him. He said I just want you to know that that’s why we let you stay around. I was like ha, you didn’t let me stay around, I just stayed around! I was like first of all, I can’t remember, second of all, I don’t think about it, I don’t care! I was a road manager with 50 musicians, bookings to deal with, what did I care what they were doing?!´
Fiona remarked that Maxine must have been so strong and fierce and must have faced issue with being a woman back then?
´No, I just didn’t know it would be that hard,´ Maxine recalled. ´I mean, now, if you thought about it, if you want to be a performer, would you do it? No. If you really thought through the economics of it and all the things involved, you’d be like never mind. No, I didn’t have any barriers, actually not. And with the discussions going on at the moment, and talking to women about harassment I wonder why I didn’t have any of those problems. I think it was because I was just always around women. Shirley Scott and I were such good friends and I travelled with her, and we always had back up. It was very different back then, I mean there was a very famous booking agent back then and he paid my very first phone bill with Dexter. I saw this phone bill and was like what am I going to do and what he said was you must be doing a good job if you are making a lot of calls. I showed him the bill, and he said, ok I’ll pay it. And then when I made money and tried to pay him back, he wouldn’t take it. I just think I was around people that, by their experience, knew – you know some people come into the business, but they’re not like musicians, you know. Its not that I’m fearless, but I’m not afraid to confront things if they don’t come through. I mean what we know now with the whole
´me too’ attitude, but back then, a lot of people are lucky because their careers would have been over. But now, I’ve told some people – don’t take down the music because you don’t know how to act. Don’t mess this up. And women have to be very careful today. Camille Thurman, I love her. I’m totally devoted to her (even though I’m retired) and Dee Dee Bridgewater and I heard her and we went down and Camille got out of the car and Dee Dee said, ‘look if any one messes with you or touches you, makes you uncomfortable, you call me. You got back up. Maxine and I got your back’. Then she said,
I’m not going to let them do to you what they tried to do to me’.
The reader (even this somewhat not yet fully re-constructed male) can almost hear, in the silences between the paragraphs, how Fiona and Maxine must have talked about how women seem to often get labelled with the term diva or that they are difficult, when in reality they are just being strong, confident and not afraid to stand up for themselves
´What I would say about women in the business´, Maxine said, ´always being attacked for being difficult, singers getting the diva label, but you know, I don’t accept that. Sometimes we have to be a little more you know, stronger, forceful, than the norm. Thinking about recording contracts – when I was negotiating Dexter’s first contract, I remember this guy, he was a great guy, and he was like Maxine, what you are asking for is not standard practice, and I said, well your standard practice is very unappealing. It doesn’t apply to what Dexter needs or wants.´
Despite Maxine saying she wasn’t especially strong or fierce, she is very clearly an incredible woman.
‘In the end, we are joined together by our love of the music and our love of the musicians who have sacrificed so much to play it night after night,’ Maxine says now.
At this point in the interview Fiona Ross considered, in print, that she has been very fortunate to meet some truly incredible people through her work in the music industry, but there are two people that stand out for her. They stand out because they, unknowingly, made Fiona not only re think what I do and why I do it but actually develop and change her perceptive on things. We are all happy to speak of issues that concern us, but how many of us take action? How many of us use the platforms we have – and we all have a platform – to make a difference? Snow Owl is one of these people – and Maxine Gordon is the other.
Maxine embodies, Fiona suggests, a well-known quote from her late husband.
‘Jazz to me is a living music.´ Dexter Gordon once said. ´It’s a music that since its beginning has expressed the feelings, the dreams and hopes of the people´.’
Maxine Gordon, among many things, is a passionate arts advocate and one of her roles is as a senior researcher for the Bronx African American History Project, at Fordham University, USA. The project is phenomenal. It explores the lives and stories of hundreds of African Americans who lived in the Bronx since the 1930s and focuses on the economic, cultural, religious and political histories.
Fiona reckons that Maxine’s book, Sophisticated Giant – The Life And Legacy Of Dexter Gordon, explores what life was like through not only Dexter Gordon’s eyes, but also through the eyes of many others. It is not ‘just’ a Jazz biography. It is so much more.
´I wanted to write the story of the culture of his life, musical and social political culture and he be the character in it to tell the story´, the author explained to Ms. Ross, ´but the story would be bigger. Many of the books I have read tend to be, very linear, very much about where they were, what they recorded. …and not so much about the history and the culture. So, my idea was to present Dexter in relationship to African American history and culture. I mean our focus is jazz, of course, but there are many other issues that need to be addressed. I have been doing some work with Camille Thurman (left) and was talking with the woman who is organising her tour etc. We were discussing this and how it would be for Camille and she said we have gender training now. The men have to go to these courses and basically learn how to behave. One of the men who took the course – he’s a friend of mine – he said he took it twice and got a certificate in like gender behaviour! The culture is very conservative even though the music is not. The people are very slow to accept change and this is true in many of the institutions, in Jazz studies programmes. You know, I mean, there’s no women. A woman just got a job replacing Geri Allen, who just died, but she’s probably the only one. All the other programmes have men, white men, very few African Americans and hardly any women.´
When Fiona acknowledges that this is all incomplete contradiction to what jazz is, to what jazz is about, Maxine continues,
´Right! I mean now, they are being forced to come into the real world. My friend who did the gender course, and this was specifically for musicians – and he’s a really cool guy – said it was great but you know, I have never seen him be anything other than correct. He said it was very good because now there are rules – don’t touch, don’t make these jokes, if you see something you have to approach it, don’t let anyone be alone in a situation – and this is really what Dee Dee (Bridgewater) and I were saying. You know in the past, you really didn’t see a lot of men step up when there was a problem, but I never had that problem because Shirley Scott – who was my friend – we worked together and we always had back up, men that we could call, great people – we called them our bodyguards, ha – but I do know that was unusual.´
Maxine is very obviously passionate about sharing and supporting unknown artists and the book explores many musicians that the audience may not know. She and Fiona therefore discussed the problems with promoting musicians who have made a significant contribution to the Jazz industry but who remain virtually unknown.
´I have talked to people about writing books about lesser known musicians´, Maxine revealed, ´but you know, nobody wants to publish them. What would be good would be if in the academic world, people would do dissertations and theses, specifically on people that made contributions that don’t have the big name. Then maybe they could be collected into a book or something. When I had the first reading of my book, we had an anonymous reader and he said he didn’t see any reason to mention all the members of Lionel Hampton, Billy Eckstine and Louis Armstrong bands, ‘because after all, no one’s ever heard of them’. I said, well of course no one’s ever heard of them because no one ever mentions their names! We were doing the index, I told them, every single musician needs to be included, which makes for a very long index – but I don’t care. They all have somebody who is related to them, or knew them and I just find it unacceptable to not include them. If you mention them they will be heard’.
Fiona observes that Maxine’s knowledge of the music business from quite early on in her career is rare. So many musicians made barely any money, lost the rights to their music and signed contracts that were quite simply, not in their best interests. This still goes on today. and the interviewer was curious as to how Maxine seemed to have a business ‘know how’, that so many others lacked during this time and in fact, still lack today.
´I think it came from the musicians´, Maxine mused. ´Especially early on, when I was thrown into it and I didn’t know anything. You know I always say, if you can play an instrument and improvise, you can read a contract! They were always like we can’t understand it, legal wording etc., but I would say sure you can! It’s English, you know. There was this book, written for musicians and we always went to this book.´
Maxine then broke the conversation for a minute to sign online, in order to track down this book, which she felt might have been the first book published about the music industry. She found it and learned it is now in its tenth edition –This Business Of Music – and was first published in 1964 written by Sidney Shemel and M. William Krasilovsky.
´I probably still have a first edition!´ she exclaimed. ´So, I studied that and you know the way it was written made it easy to understand – and if I don’t understand something, I ask, I like to learn one on one. But now, I see they have music business courses and they cover the ‘rules’ of the business, here’s a typical contract etc., but they’re missing the hands on and you know, put the human factor in business, right? It’s a huge problem. One of the big problems. I’ve been thinking of doing more work on the political economy. There were times when musicians would come to me and we would go through contracts and I would say, you can’t sign this – they will own the rights to your recordings forever. But they would say, yes, but Max, I have bills to pay, I have to pay my musicians so it’s a way for me to give them some money. I come from their point of view, I don’t come from outside of the music. I was told by a promoter once that I had no future in this business because I like musicians too much´.
Fiona has portrayed Maxine as she obviously is, a huge supporter and advocate of new artists, not only sometimes advising on the business side of things but regularly going to gigs not only in New York, but also across the country.
´I want to go and support and I am totally opposed to the idea that it is over, you know that everything good has already happened, Jazz is dead etc.´, Maxine confirmed. ´I also have the over 80 rule – if they are over 80 and still working, I have to go and see them. But a lot of times with what we call the older crowd, and they talk and say it’s over and that new musicians don’t understand. but you know when the beboppers came out, all the older guys said the same thing… these guys can’t play… it’s just totally not true. There are all sorts of young people out there doing great things.
And you know, these young people find gigs in places I’ve never heard of, like in the mountains, with actual bears. I spoke to this young drummer at a doughnut place – they made the best doughnuts, soooo good – and he said to me ‘I don’t play this music for the money. I play this music for the love of the music’.
Another chapter in Maxine’s book is called Mischievous Lady which focuses heavily on Melba Liston, (left) the trombonist, composer and arranger – Dexter Gordon dedicated the song of the same title to her. She is known for being the only female trombonist playing with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Count Basie etc.; a formidable woman in a male dominated industry.
In fact, Maxine Gordon´s next book will be aboutfour women – Shirley Scott, Melba Liston, Velma Middleton and Maxine Sullivan.
´I’m currently working on the proposal´, she told Fiona, ´and thinking about picking a moment from their lives and writing around that. I’m giving a talk about Louis Armstrong in August and writing an essay on Errol Garner and then I’m going to devote some time to the next book.´
Summarising her interview, and her reading of Maxine’s biography of Dexter, Fiona says that ´ít shows us not only the world Dexter Gordon lived and breathed, but many other musicians we know, don’t know and should know. We see the reality of the Jazz world, the unthinkable hardships and struggles brought together through the common love of music. The book is incredible. Maxine Gordon is incredible. Her passion to share, explore and discuss the reality of the Jazz world is a true inspiration. (As I stated earlier), Maxine Gordon not only holds and shares the flame of Jazz, she is an actual part of that fire.´
JAZZ IN EUROPE
Interview with Maxine Gordon conducted by Fiona Ross