A Tribute To Dexter Gordon

On a very chilly Wednesday evening at Manhattan Jazz, Manhattan Beach, California, jazz was in the air. On stage with me were three of the finest jazz musicians I have ever had the pleasure of working with: Tom Owens-piano, Richard Simon-bass, and Mike Whited-drums. This gig took place in December 1987. We played many charts that night so I will highlight just a few, in that it was a tribute to Dexter Gordon, I’ll mention the charts he had recorded.

In the first set we kicked off with Dexter’s "LTD" (long tall Dexter) in Bb. Tom took the 12 bar blues intro running at about 210 on the metronome Then I took the lead a la Dexter Gordon--boppin’ down Dexter’s avenue. In the second chorus, Tom adorned the melody with thirds, very tasty. It was my solo; I played about six twelve bar phrases with Dexter’s flavor in mind.

With my solo over, we went into several rounds of exciting fours and back to the melody with Tom laying down thirds against the melody. As we made our exit, the excitement level heightened from the audience. On stage, we were creating an excitement with participation from all. The excitement began to subside as I closed all keys on my tenor to play a low Bb ending "LTD."

I added a note of humor as I responded to the Country & Western fans in the audience with an excerpt from the "Grand Canyon Suite," "On The Trail." With only three chords in the tune, it laid down well in the key of F. The intro was like that in the Suite--it laid easy at about 152 on the metronome. After the intro, I took the melody and gave it a Dexter sound. In my solo I used 9ths, M7, and 6ths, putting them in perspective as Dexter would. The overall sonorities from three simple chords with embellishments turned out a rather pleasing nuance of musical melancholy to the audience.

Tom turned "On The Trail" into a rhapsody of shiny notes played in a fashion known only unto Tom Owens. He made it appear that the "Grand Canon Suite" was in the same room--it seem to echo off those mighty cliffs themselves. Tom finished his solo and looked at Richard.

Richard Simon takes on a somewhat dualistic solo; he would insert a two bar phrase from another unrelated tune except for the harmonies. The subsequent humor was enjoyable to listen too. How he made the melody blend in with the inserted two-barclips is totally beyond me? I call it Richard’s groove.

Mike was up at the percussion podium with some rather intricate and tasty rhythms. His use of the cymbals, especially the ride cymbal, is a reflection of a professional. At times he would throw in a few flams or paradidles and set the pace for those to follow. Mike made drumming seem like a breeze. I picked up my tenor to start off a rendezvous of fours. Tom, Richard, and I would play four bars allowing Mike four in between each of our four-bar solos. This goes on for as many choruses as we choose. As it turned out we played about two choruses of fours and ended up taking the chart out to the end.

In the audience that chilly night were two ladies who grew up with Dexter in Watts. I was a bit on edge because we were about to play "Polka Dots and Moonbeams." I had studied Dexter’s licks and phrasing and could emulate him. I played a solo five-bar intro providing a downbeat for the others on the first note of the second-bar of the tune. I continued phrase after phrase through the bridge and the out chorus. Tom played the first eight and Richard the second eight. Tom played the turn around to the bridge and I played the last eight-bars to an ending, a flamboyant ending!

It was time for intermission prior to the last set. I walked over to the two ladies to say hello. Before I could say anything one of them offered, "Richard, Dexter would be pleased." This made my evening. We roamed around talking with the patrons while sipping on some refreshments. The audience was like a bee-hive; the buzz of jazz was in bloom.

There was a photographer walking around taking pictures of the band. She was from the local newspaper in Manhattan Beach. Little did I know that one picture of the band would appear in the paper, the one you see on page one. Mike is hidden to the left of the stage next to Richard. A few months later a picture of me displaying jazz intensity, was featured in the magazine, California Living South Bay.

During the intermission while all were in a jazz chit-chat format, I was thinking of the last set and what tunes would we play. Because it’s a short set, half hour, we can cut it with two tunes. I decided on "Body and Soul" and "Green Dolphin Street." With that decision out of the way, I decided to relax and enjoy our audience from an informal groove. I talked with several people I knew and some I didn’t know. Either way, it’s always great to be around jazz people and hear what they have to say about the subject of jazz.

It was getting close to downbeat so I started walking to the stage with jazz on my mind, my compadres followed. Knowing Tom would open the last set with a solo chorus of "Body and Soul," I decided to remain on the floor and out of the way so he could be seen (I’ve heard his musical voice on this tune before). So let’s hear Body and "Soul."

Tom began to play; his fingers all over the keyboard. I listened intently with my musical ear. His rendezvous with technique, virtuosity, execution, and ultimately, his inimitable prowess lead to a date with nuance. Tom’s rendition of "Body and Soul" was the most beautiful I have ever heard; mind and fingers were in a sonorous resonance with the piano, weaving in and out of one nuance another. As he approached the end of his solo I could hear the turn around; it was my turn to play.

After hearing Tom’s illustrious solo, I hesitated but played a chorus anyway. My chorus was straight forward with inflections of Dexter where I could fit them in and still maintain my balance within the melodic structure of the tune. My silver Conn tenor has a big plush tone, which gives me an edge over some. I managed to finish the first sixteen-bars and into the bridge still retaining some flavor from my mentor, Dexter.

I ended the bridge with some loud low notes taking us to end of the tune at which time Mike and Richard doubled their support providing a colossal ending soliciting a great response from the audience; it’s as if they all knew what Body and Soul was all about; a great composer, Johnny Green.

The last tune for this memorable gig was "Greet Dolphin Street." This is one of my favorite tunes that Dexter recorded in Cmi. I mention this because the original key is in Ami where some musicians play it. When I heard Dexter do it in Cmi, and I was sold.

Typical of this tune, the rhythm section with play with a Latin flavor in the first eight bars, back to swing for eight more and so on! The rhythm section laid down an exciting four-bar intro and I went into a Dexter Gordon musical orbit. For me, playing in the key of Cmi was always a delightful experience; it opened up new doors for using embellished chords. I played the first chorus and took off on a rendezvous with several choruses of improvisation. At the end of the last chorus we played three choruses of fours, then to the out chorus. The ending was exciting and lyrical. I gave the audience a Dexter signature bow. While holding my tenor up and horizontal, I moved from left to right as I bowed my head.

More about the quartet at the time of his gig:

Tom Owens was Professor of music at El Camino College. Richard Simon was working with Teddy Edwards, Buddy Colletee, and Ernie Andrews. Mike Whited, much in demand local drummer, provided his steady, driving, tasty rhythms in support of it all. Truly a colossal gig, and will never be forgotten!

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