Sophisticated Giant by Maxine Gordon

University of California Press; 284 pp., $29.95

a look at the reviews by Norman Warwick

An editor at The Austin Chronicle once opened a feature about an Austin musician with the foreboding line, Jazz will kill you. 

´Unfortunately, that declarative turned out to be prescient for that local jazz artist´, said Jay Trachtenberg (left) in a later article in the same newspaper, ´as it has for all too many legendary jazz musicians down through the decades. Tragedy seems to be a part of the game plan´.

Not so for saxophonist Dexter Gordon, however, we were reminded by Trachtenberg.

´His long, prolific career may have been characterized by dramatic highs and lows, but the final fifteen years of his life were marked by one success after another – a righteous homecoming, worldwide recognition, prestigious awards, and even an Oscar nomination. His wife Maxine Gordon was by his side throughout that charmed period, and we get a particularly intimate look at those career highs in this wonderful biography of the iconic jazzman´.

Sophisticated Giant is more than a career highlights resumé, though, as Trachtenberg explains

´Maxine has also done her homework in researching Dexter’s family tree, his early years growing up as the son of a doctor in “eastside” Los Angeles, his short tenure with the Lionel Hampton Big Band at age 17, and his salad days as an integral part of the thriving bebop scene along L.A.’s famed Central Avenue in the years just after World War II. Much of this research from the bebop era was actually undertaken in Austin at UT’s Harry Ransom Centre, which houses the archives of Ross Russell, who documented those years through his Dial Records label for which Dexter recorded. Generally considered the first musician to translate the new language of bebop to the tenor sax, Dexter would be an all-important influence on saxophonists who followed in his wake, including Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane´.

Nevertheless, ´Maxine does not shy away from Dexter’s long bouts with drug addiction and subsequent incarcerations in the Fifties and Sixties. She is quite thorough in covering Dexter’s 14-year expatriation to Copenhagen (1962-76), where he was openly embraced by appreciative jazz fans all over Europe. It was during the early part of this period that he recorded some of his best albums for Blue Note Records.

By then his manager, Maxine Gordon was instrumental in directing Dexter’s triumphant return to America in 1976 and his subsequent unprecedented success, perhaps crowned by his Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his role in Bertrand Tavernier’s acclaimed film Round Midnight as an expatriate jazz musician living in Paris. In his later years, Dexter started to write a memoir, and Maxine includes some of these enlightening passages in her book´.

Most striking for the Austin Chronicle journalist was was how, through her intimate, first-hand knowledge of her husband’s life, ´Maxine was able to convey how the art of jazz was far more than a career path for Dexter and his colleagues. The very spirit and essence of jazz was an attitude and a way of living one’s life as an artist. And certainly Dexter’s warm, soulful, big-toned sound enriched the lives of those who heard and embraced it´.

David Hajdu, (left) writing for the New York Times Book Review said of Sophisticated Giant:

´Although fairly short passages from Dexter Gordon’s notepads appear here and there, the book is mainly Maxine Gordon’s, and that’s to its benefit … Sophisticated Giant is a work of considerable sophistication, the first-person testimony of its subject employed with affectionate discipline, smartly contextualized and augmented by material from interviews Maxine Gordon conducted with the tenor saxophone masters Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Heath, the record producers Bruce Lundvall and Michael Cucsuna, and others … Maxine Gordon astutely frames the fiery daring of Dexter Gordon’s generation of bebop innovators in the context of rising black consciousness and creative agency in mid-century America … With Sophisticated Giant, Maxine Gordon has produced a homecoming even more dramatic, and perhaps more important, than the one she helped arrange for him in 1976: She has brought back the restive teenage fireball who wanted only to play some new music.´

Clifford Thompson

Even The Wall Street Journal weighed in with Clifford Thompson writing that ´Maxine Gordon…has produced a story of Dexter’s life that is also about the challenge of portraying a reluctant subject … Sophisticated Giant (which shares its title with a Gordon album) is affectionate, enjoyable and informative, painting a portrait of a handsome, elegant, easy-going person and artist who refused to agonize about his past. Like the man himself, however, the book fails to discuss some things the reader may wonder about … Perhaps more important, the word ‘legacy’ in the subtitle is misleading. Maxine Gordon clearly regards as her husband’s crowning achievement his lead performance as the fictional musician Dale Turner, based on the pianist Bud Powell, in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film Round Midnight, for which Gordon was nominated for an Oscar. Jazz fans, though, might be more interested in Gordon’s stylistic influence on other musicians, one obvious example being Sonny Rollins. Maxine Gordon relies on quotes from others for that, and even those are sparse´.

Holding copies of both the 2018 hardback edition and the subsequent 2020 paperback version, Amazon´s synopsis should also attract new readers.

Sophisticated Giant presents the life and legacy of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (1923–1990), one of the major innovators of modern jazz. In a context of biography, history, and memoir, Maxine Gordon (left) has completed the book that her late husband began, weaving his “solo” turns with her voice and a chorus of voices from past and present. Reading like a jazz composition, the blend of research, anecdote, and a selection of Dexter’s personal letters reflects his colourful life and legendary times. It is clear why the celebrated trumpet genius Dizzy Gillespie said to Dexter, “Man, you ought to leave your karma to science.

Dexter Gordon the icon is the Dexter beloved and celebrated on albums, on film, and in jazz lore–even in a street named for him in Copenhagen. But this image of the cool jazzman fails to come to terms with the multidimensional man full of humor and wisdom, a figure who struggled to reconcile being both a creative outsider who broke the rules and a comforting insider who was a son, father, husband, and world citizen. This essential book is an attempt to fill in the gaps created by our misperceptions as well as the gaps left by Dexter himself´. 

These excellent pieces serve to remind just how much great writing about the arts is contained, but not constrained. within the pages of our newspapers.

Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, this and similar newspapers, and in the UK, need our support to continue supplying us with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a small donation of whatever you can afford, to the newspaper of your choice so that on street corners everywhere we might continue to hear Jimmy Brown The Newsboy* still singing out ´read all about it´.

  • a song written by A.P. Carter and recorded by the likes of Roger Miller and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

Despite dying in relative obscurity, A.P. Carter (right) was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. Carter was inducted as part of the Carter Family in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970. In 1993, his image appeared on a U.S. postage stamp honoring the Carter Family. In 2001 he was inducted posthumously into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honour.

PBS aired a one-hour show on A.P. Carter and the Carter Family in 2005 on American Experience titled “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”.

In recent years, The Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Virginia, has performed a play based on A.P.’s life called Keep on the Sunny Side.

On her 2008 album All I Intended to BeEmmylou Harris includes the song How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower, co-written with Kate and Anna McGarrigle about the relationship between A.P. and Sara, inspired by a documentary that the three of them saw on television.

Lulu And The Lampshafes

The song When I’m Gone, written by A.P. Carter and performed by the Carter Family in 1931, had been revived in 2009 when Lulu and the Lampshades created a reworked version, using the cup game as percussion, titled Cups (When I’m Gone), which in turn was famously covered by Anna Kendrick for her 2012 film Pitch Perfect.

The A. P. and Sara Carter HouseA. P. Carter HomeplaceA. P. Carter StoreMaybelle and Ezra Carter House, and Mt. Vernon Methodist Church are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as components of the Carter Family Thematic Resource.

 In keeping with A.P.’s dying wishes, his daughter Janette Carter restarted regular performances at A.P. Carter’s general store venue, and the organization became known as the Carter Family Fold, which continues to offer regular Appalachian music performances.

A straight line is always the shortest route to take, especially with a task as ´straightforward´ as writing a review, but we prefer to follow sidetracks & detours and look at the scenery.

A few weeks ago we were introduced to the work of the late Dexter Gordon by his wife Maxine Gordon. We wandered through fields of jazz, took a trip top Denmark and we were recommended to read Maxine´s biography of Dexter, Sophisticated Giant. That took us to The Austin Chronicle, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal where the newsboys were sining on the streets in a song that led us to AP Cater, The Carter Family, Emmylou, Kate and Anna McGarrigle and all the way to Lulu And The Lampshades !

We´re a long way from Kansas, Dorothy, and we´re a long way from Jazz, but it´s been great fun along the yellow brick road.

And there will be more great fun in September as Music That´s Going Places promised in a press release we received this morning, just in time for us to paste here.

As more live gig possibilities open up there’s still a “fingers crossed” element in every confirmation. Even so, it’s good to see the Jazz Bar in Edinburgh back with a Wednesday to Sunday programme.

Fergus McCreadie´s diary is getting busier. He too has a Jazz Bar date, in a duo with the fabulous young saxophonist, Matt Carmichael on Wednesday 15th September. Before that Fergus returns on Friday 3rd September, with his trio, to the scene of last years triumphant ´gig in Sheffield. They then bring their energy back to The Blue Lamp in Aberdeen on 23rd September before festivalling at Limerick Jazz Festival on Friday 24th September and Scarborough Jazz Festival on Sunday 26th.

Vocalist Tina May plays the Corn Exchange in Witney, Oxfordshire on Friday 3rd September and joins fellow singer Nel Begley and pianist Bruce Barth at Pizza Express in Soho Saturday 4th September. The Observer has described Tina as one of the best singers anywhere today´. Jazz Journal, when reviewing her latest album, 52nd Street And Other Tales, enthused about ´the professionalism and alacrity evident at every turn´, so advance booking in these times might still be necessary.

Playtime return to in-person gigs with trumpeter John Green on Friday 3rd September. This will be a musical blend of jazz, rock, country, electronics and avant garde elements.  he will be joined by Playtime regulars martin Kershaw on sax, Graeme Stephen on guitar, tom Bancroft on drums with special guest Paul Harmon on keyboards.

The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra (SNJO) finally to get to celebrate their 25th anniversary in front of a live audience, in the same room when it goes LIVE AT 25 at the Queen´s Hall in Edinburgh on Friday 24th September in a program representing the orchestra´s lifespan.

SNJO founder-director, saxophonist Tommy Smith continues his solo tour around the nation´s cathedrals with an afternoon celebration of melody in Dunblane Cathedral on Sunday 26th September. Check cathedral website.

Fergus McReadie pops up again at the end of the month, performing with rising star singer Luca manning at Paisley Abbey on Thursday 30th September as part of the Tanahill Festival.

With Bandcamp continuing to waive its charges on the first Friday of each month you can check out some of the releases that Music That´s Going Places has been involved with, and there are more than twenty of their recommendations to choose from.

Music That´s Going Places, under the stewardship of Rob Adam, has worked to place leading jazz acts at appropriate venues and has at the same time worked alongside venues to attract and promote appropriate jazz acts. We pass all this on with Rob´s permission but would urge you sign up for his newsletter. You’re very welcome to sign up a friend to the mailing list here. and feel free to share information from both that and from ourselves here at Sidetracks And Detours with like-minded jazz loving friends. Thank you.

Primary sources for this article was a pieces in The Austin Chronicle. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and texts are duly attributed.

In our occasional re-postings Sidetracks And Detours are confident that we are not only sharing with our readers excellent articles written by experts but are also pointing to informed and informative sites readers will re-visit time and again. Of course, we feel sure our readers will also return to our daily not-for-profit knowing that we seek to provide core original material whilst sometimes spotlighting the best pieces from elsewhere, as we engage with genres and practitioners along all the sidetracks & detours we take.


These pages were compiled by Norman Warwick, founding member of UK organisations like Lendanear, Just Poets and all across the arts.

Norman, a writer and broadcaster, is the owner and editor of Sidetracks And Detours, this daily not-for-profit blog. He also writes a weekly arts column for Lanzarote Information and was a founder member of Joined Up Jazz Journalists a group of freelance music journalists formed to share and expand their knowledge of jazz to enable them to attract non-traditional jazz audiences to the genre.

Sidetracks And Detours collaborate with radio programmes such as Hot Biscuits at www.fc-radio,co.uk and follow the jazz programming at Monster radio fm.

We are also proud to enjoy an synergy with listing organisations such as Jazz In Reading, Ribble Valley Jazz And Blues Festival and Music That´s Going Places and we than them all for information they have supplied for this and previous articlse.

Sidetracks And Detours are delighted to accept submissions of news, previews, interviews and reviews and although, being a not-for-profit organisation, we cannot pay for work we publish we will always fully attribute.

Readers wishing to contribute pieces, on any art form, should attach a Word document as an attachment addressed to normanwarwick55@gmail.com

Please include a brief autobiography in the body of the e mail and attach any complementary photographs in a second attachment of a zipped folder.

We thank you for your support and look forward to hearing from you.

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