Dexter Keith Gordon was born on February 27, 1923, in Los Angeles, California. He began his study of music with the clarinet at age 13, then switched to the alto saxophone at 15 and finally to the tenor saxophone at 17. He studied music with Lloyd Reese and at Jefferson High School with Sam Browne, both of whom also taught Charles Mingus and Chico Hamilton. In his last year of high school, he received a call from alto saxophonist Marshall Royal asking him to join the Lionel Hampton Band. He left Los Angeles with the band, traveling down South and learning to play from fellow band members Illinois Jacquet and Marshall Royal. In January 1941, the band played at the Grand Terrace in Chicago for six months and the radio broadcasts made there were his first recordings.
It was in 1943 while in New York City with Hampton’s band that Dexter sat in at Minton’s Playhouse with Ben Webster and Lester Young. This was to be one of the most important moments in his long musical career. As he put it, “people started to take notice.” Back in Los Angeles in 1943, Dexter played mainly with Lee Young (Lester Young’s brother) and with Jesse Price, plus a few weeks with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. At an after-hours club in Los Angeles in 1944, Louis Armstrong approached him and said, “Hey, son, I like that tone you’ve got.” All he could say was, “Thank you, Mr. Armstrong.” Dexter joined Armstrong’s band and traveled playing mostly Army camps from May until December.
Late that year, Dexter joined the Billy Eckstine band, the source of many of the bebop innovators of the time and many future prominent bandleaders. Dexter began to record for Savoy Records in 1945 with original tunes such as “Blow Mr. Dexter”, “Dexter’s Deck”, “Dexter’s Cuttin’ Out” and “Long Tall Dexter” (none of which were named by the composer). These early recordings are examples of the development of his sound and style, which influenced many of the younger tenor players of that day. Both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane claimed they were influenced by Dexter’s lyricism, not only in terms of melodic ideas and sense of phrasing, but also in its bold, vocal-like quality.
In 1947, Dexter recorded his historic sides for Dial Records, including “The Chase” with tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray. The two tenor “duels” were popular then and Dexter commented that, despite the differences in style, it was sometimes hard for him to tell where one left off and the other began. This recording became the biggest seller for Dial and further established Dexter as a leader and a recording artist. Dexter rounded out the decade by playing on 52nd Street in New York at the Spotlite Club and the Royal Roost with Charlie Parker, Fats Navarro, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and many of the bebop innovators of the day.
In the 1950s, he was in Los Angeles working locally and recording sparingly. In 1960, Alfred Lion signed him to Blue Note Records. For five years, he recorded for Blue Note, producing a few classic albums of the period—Doin’ Allright, Dexter Calling, Go! and A Swingin’ Affair.
He settled in Copenhagen where he lived for 14 years until a triumphant return to the U.S. in 1976. During his time in Europe, he recorded for Fantasy and Steeplechase. His return to the States and his recording contract with Columbia Records gave him the success he had been hoping for at home. He was especially delighted about forming his fi rst working band with George Cables, Rufus Reid and Eddie Gladden.
In 1986, his acting debut in the motion picture ’Round Midnight (directed by Bertrand Tavernier), won him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his portrayal of Dale Turner, a character based on the lives of Lester Young and Bud Powell. The film included fellow musicians Bobby Hutcherson, Billy Higgins, Cedar Walton, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams, Pierre Michelot, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock (who won the Oscar for Best Musical Score)—most of whom were working companions from his Blue Note years.
Dexter Gordon’s last major concert appearance was with the New York Philharmonic in June 1987. He performed the concerto Ellingtones, composed by David Baker and conducted by James de Priest. In 1989, he appeared in the film Awakenings with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, directed by Penny Marshall. He died on April 25, 1990 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.