On the Way to Gotham with Dexter Gordon at 100

To drive out of the city of Ithaca in Upstate New York in October you need music. The hills are just beginning to show the golds, reds and rusts of autumn. The sumptuous melancholy of the season needs a soundtrack, otherwise it might be too hard to take even through—especially through—the dirty windshield of a battered Subaru Impreza, mostly white but with streaks of green from close encounters with the clapboard garage that houses it.

Once you’ve left the citadel of Cornell University and its outlying fiefdoms of sport and agriculture, the woods and fields are dotted with trailer parks, weather-beaten houses, junked farm machinery and appliances, and prisons. Climate refugees are flocking to the area from California and New York City. Old Timers don’t like the newcomers’ notions about preserving their newly acquired bucolic views that lured them to the region. Signs staked to the lawns in front of the old houses lining the suburbanizing rural routes leading out of Ithaca shout: “No Zoning!”

The Upstate towns are mostly devoid of commerce except for gas stations. These once-thriving enclaves now are there to provide the means to leave them by car or, more often, by truck. The beleaguered downtowns of post-industrial cities like Binghamton on the Susquehanna River look like they’ve recently hosted a civil war: derelict buildings and boarded-up shop fronts alternate with bombed-out parking lots. Residents seek refuge in the ailing malls or stay home and order it on Amazon.

Coming down from the Endless Mountains in northeastern Pennsylvania civilization emerges in the form of Scranton, a place that has attained unexpected fame—or perhaps infamy—first as the setting for the American version of the television series The Office and more recently as the hometown of President Joe Biden. Though I can’t claim an intimate knowledge of its civic glories, Scranton seems to be an amalgam of malls, slag heaps, and pork-barrel highway projects. Most striking is the eyesore spread across the first hills of the Poconos rising up from the city’s southern edge. This could well be the world’s largest junkyard, a vast “parking lot of the dead” as James Dickey put it in his immortal “Cherrylog Road,” though Scranton’s sprawling acres of wreckage hardly seem an alluring place for an erotic encounter.

After the Poconos, it’s the Delaware Water Gap and then the relentless sprawl of New Jersey all the way to the Hudson.

I reach into the canvas bag on the driver’s seat and pull out a Dexter Gordon disc. At home, I’ve playing through my LP collection of the titanic tenor saxophonist all year. 2023 marks the centennial of his birth. Now I need him to get me to Gotham.

That I own about half of Dexter’s recorded output isn’t much of a collector’s boast since he was in and out of prison for heroin possession across the 1950s, which would have been one of his most productive decades.  Still, he made fifty or sixty recordings after his years in the big bands of Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, and Billy Eckstine in the 1940s.

I can’t say exactly why Gotham City holds a special place in my affections, but it does. Yes, there are the other dates of thrilling tenor madness with Wardell Gray and some boisterous sets for Savoy in the mid-40s; also, the gleaming monument, Daddy Plays the Horn, made in 1955 just before Dexter was sent back to prison for several stints, finally released from Folsom in May of 1959.  He started his celebrated series of albums for the Blue Note label before going to play a month-long gig at Ronnie Scott’s London jazz club in 1962, a sojourn that turned into fourteen years of expatriation in Europe. He continued recording for Blue Note on occasional trips back to the U.S.

There are also radio broadcasts (issued on Steeplechase) from the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen, the city where Dexter lived for over a decade.  (YouTube has much excellent footage from this smoky, atmospheric venue, the best of these with another Copenhagen resident, the ex-pat pianist Kenny Drew.) The early 70s sessions done back in the U.S. have a canny cool to them, and foreign fire too. (I would single out “The Jumping Blues” of 1970, simply because it has Wynton Kelly on piano).

Dexter moved back to his native land in 1976, an event commemorated in Homecoming:  Live at the Village Vanguard with trumpeter Woody Shaw’s marvelous quartet, Ronnie Matthews making the famed club’s out-of-tune piano jump.

In the varied topography of Dexter’s repatriated years rose Great Encounters with saxophonist friend Johnny Griffin (“fastest tenor in the West”) in concert at Carnegie Hall. Still more riches gleam in the live recording from Keystone Korner in Oakland with Dexter’s stellar quartet from the late 70s—George Cables on piano, Rufus Reid on bass, and Eddie Gladden on drums. (I’ll admit that I’m not so enthusiastic, though still duly reverential, about the soundtrack for Round Midnight, the role for which Dexter received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination in 1985, five years before his death).

But for today’s drive, it’s Gotham City on the way to Gotham. The lush autumnal landscape looks even lusher as soon as I hear guitarist George Benson’s eight-bar introduction to the opening track, “Hi-Fly” by Randy Weston. Benson is much better known for his hits as a guitar-playing singer; his hit single “Give Me the Night” was released the same year as Gotham City, and four years after that he made it to number one on the pop charts with his album Breezin’ and “This Masquerade.” At the time of the Gotham session, the pop music money and stardom had done nothing to blunt the guitarist’s genius for jazz.

Benson’s solos on the album are much more than prodigious technical demonstrations, filled with multi-directional arpeggios, virtuosic melodic configurations, rapid bursts of octaves, and frenetic chordal arrays.  The way he complements Cedar Walton’s incisive piano contributions with complex rhythmic commentary seems the perfect solution to the problem of having two chord-playing instruments playing behind a soloist.

After Benson’s “Hi-Fly” intro, a volcanic drumroll ushers in a shuffle of such vitality that it can only be the work of Art Blakey, reunited on record with Dexter for the first time since 1944 when they were both members of Billy Eckstine’s Big Band, that traveling crucible and touring circus of be-bop. The long arms of Blakey’s drumming embrace all that enter the tent of his big beat, welcoming them with the ebullient counter-rhythms of his left hand and right foot on the bass drum, the mighty crescendo of his right hand on the ride cymbal, electrifying the musical space like ionized steam.

Dexter enters with big-hearted noblesse oblige, lagging far behind Blakey’s beat with aristocratic surety.  This refined confidence will be on full display in swinging affairs and when he enjoys the album’s lone ballad, “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.” The tallest tenor, Dexter is never in a hurry even at fast tempos like that of “The Blues Walk,” where he’s joined by trumpeter Woody Shaw, whose angular lines spark like syncopated ricochets.

Perhaps what I love and admire most about Dexter’s playing, something which finds such glorious expression throughout Gotham City, is the interplay of the expected with the unexpected. When Dexter shows you around his enormous musical estate you never go quite the same way; it is the varied turn through a familiar landscape and his knowing asides that make every tour so enjoyable. When embarking on a Dexter solo you can be certain that you’ll hear some of his favored song quotations and other staple figures, but never in precisely the manner or placement you’ve heard them before.

It is also the way these figures are put together that is so compelling. Each improvised motif seems both the answer to the preceding phrase and the question demanding the next response. The architecture of Dexter’s solos is constructed from these units whose meanings range from the lofty to the light-hearted. Many of these building blocks are quarried from his own musical lexicon and from pop, folk, and children’s songs. These motives are deployed with particular deftness on this album, as when his signature quotation of “Mona Lisa,” modulates onto itself across the boundary dividing two stanzas of “Hi-Fly.”

There are those who would say that Dexter’s use of stock phrases is schematic, while others might claim that, in signposting his improvisations in this way, the saxophonist offers a critique of the art of improvisation itself, ironically laying bare the mechanics of his craft. The great orators of antiquity built up their speeches with well-worn rhetorical figures; it was the way in which they manipulated these stock phrases and techniques that made their reputations and moved their audiences.  Dexter is the Cicero of the saxophone.

His inventive largesse has its effect on his sidemen, nowhere more sublimely than in the album’s last track, the title blues, “Gotham City.” I’m guessing it is Blakey who inspires his rhythm section colleagues to do great deeds.  Benson takes the introduction again, pressing into the oncoming fray with a string of ringing aphorisms. Dexter finishes the last of his dozen choruses on this, his final oration of the album (though a coda will be coming after the other players have had their time at the podium). Then Blakey starts right off on Benson’s solo with a quick pair of rim clicks on the fourth beat of every other measure. Walton soon notes this pattern and begins playing off of it. The dialogue is fierce. Percy Heath’s bass is the grease in that groove and though thick it is always just half a degree from combustion, Blakey’s drumsticks are the ever-dangerous fire-starters.

By Benson’s second chorus Blakey is pushing into the ride cymbal on the fourth beat of those measures not given over to rim clicks, momentarily suspending the swing, so that there is a short, shimmering hitch in the forward momentum. Walton quickly perceives this additional layer of complexity and there is a more spirited conversation between him and his former Jazz Messenger boss, Blakey. The pair enjoys a second chorus combining these contrasting inflections of the fourth beat with bassist Heath joining in for its final iteration. Once agreed upon by the entire ensemble, the motif is just as quickly dispersed by the counterpoint of individual intentions. A great band knows when to disband a musical idea.  In this passage, the dialectic of the ensemble and individual, the hallmark of jazz, reaches unforgettable, revelatory synthesis. Benson hears it all but lets its energy boost him into a focused frenzy of melodic and rhythmic invention, thrumming ecstatic at its close before a bluesy descent from the heights back to muddy earthy.

There can’t be more than forty minutes of music on Gotham City, three tunes per side on my LP. I get Gotham ten times back-to-back before the Empire State Building and the skinny new towers rise above the New Jersey traffic.

And I’ll get it all again and again on the way back home.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com