The Saga of Society Red
He did everything wrong and it all turned out right.
— Dizzy Gillespie
These days people will say to me, "Oh, gee, you're out here alone now. All these people are gone." Well, I don't really know what they're talking about. They're all still here.
— Sonny Rollins
When Dexter played, everybody listened. He could really power you off the stage if you were up there with him. Long Tall Dexter. He will never be forgotten.
— Jimmy Heath
Dexter Gordon was known as "Society Red." He got this name when he was with the Lionel Hampton band as a seventeen-year-old in 1940 — just about the same time Malcolm X (then Malcolm Little) was being called Detroit Red. Dexter wrote a tune with that title and decades later, when he began working on his autobiography, he decided to name it The Saga of Society Red. The irony of that nickname has many levels and it became an "inside" jazz nod to an earlier time when young Black men konked their hair and wore zoot suits. Dexter began writing his life story in 1987 after the big fuss was made about his Academy Award nomination for the leading role in the film Round Midnight. When the noise had died down and we were living in Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he would play his saxophone in the garden, float his stretched-out body in the pool, and saunter to the zócalo (main square), Dexter would jot down his memories and thoughts on yellow legal-size pads. He had originally hoped that James Baldwin would write the book with him, but sadly, Baldwin was ill and he died in December 1987.
James Baldwin was one among many of our shared passions. Dexter and I owned the same Baldwin books, loved talking about Go Tell It on the Mountain, and would laugh about the fact that we traveled with our individual copies. Dexter knew Baldwin well enough to call him Jimmy. I only got to meet him once, at a party in Harlem, and I was stunned and wordless. Being speechless is a very rare condition for me. Dexter joked that if I pulled myself together he would introduce me to the great author. As he said that, Baldwin yelled across the room, "Hey Dex, I read in the paper that we were expatriates. I thought we were just living in Europe." Dexter roared, then strolled over and bent down and hugged Baldwin, who seemed to disappear in his embrace. I thought we were just living in Europe — that remark has resonated with me for years.
The years Dexter lived in Europe — 1962 to 1976 — are treated as "lost" years by many fans, friends, and critics. Those Europe years were when he went missing from the scene in the United States, which many believed to be not only the center of jazz at that time but also the center of the world and anything interesting that was happening in it. But Dexter was aware of everything that was happening in the States and stayed connected to his home country in many ways. Like Baldwin, he found humor in the designations that suggested he was something of an outsider.
I tried to be cool when I was introduced to Baldwin. I tried not to look nonplussed. I was New York cool — nothing, and nobody, could impress me. Baldwin was just another partygoer. But Dexter said I had tears in my eyes and looked like I was going to faint. And his ability to see past my pretensions, and make me laugh about them, was something I especially treasured. Dexter did that — he made you see yourself a little clearer and always did so with wit (sometimes a biting wit; every now and then the humor was a knife turning).
Dexter knew he had an important story, and a very interesting one, to tell. It was his story but also the story of Black "expatriates," a story about the history and culture of remarkably creative jazz musicians, a story about people's love for Baldwin and other brilliant writers, a story about America and the way it embraces and also pushes away brilliant and creative Black people. He knew he had a story to tell about himself and this country. He recruited the very talented Wesley Brown, who wrote the novel Tragic Magic, to work with him on it. When Dexter learned that Wesley had spent a year in jail for refusing to serve in the military during the Vietnam War, he felt that he had found the right collaborator. Wesley came to our New York apartment several times and then came to visit in Cuernavaca, talking with and interviewing Dexter. He wrote about Dexter's first trip to New York City with the Hampton band and Dexter liked it, but soon afterward Dexter decided that he wanted to write his own book, in his own voice.
He thought about writing it in the third person about a character known as "Society Red" who moved in and out of trouble while loving his life as a jazz musician and most of the people who played the music. Dexter began by writing notes to himself and vignettes on those yellow legal-size pads. His idea for the book was greatly influenced by one of his favorite novels, The Ginger Man, by J.P. Donleavy. He always had a paperback copy of The Ginger Man with him on the road and on the nightstand at home and could quote from it at length. He liked it because of the improvisatory feel of its narrative voice with an unexpectedness to it. Some chapters ended in poetry, some sentences had no verbs, and the thoughts would sometimes rush at you — Dexter wanted his book to be the same. Most of all, he loved the comic element of the novel and wanted his book to carry a sense of humor, the aspect Dexter thought most important in our complicated, harried lives.
Dexter would fill a few pages with his writing; I would type up the notes on a small portable Olivetti typewriter; then he would read them over, make changes, and talk about how he wanted to tell the story. One time when we were sitting on the patio in Cuernavaca, I remarked that I thought he needed to make an outline to better organize the book. He thought that was a bad idea and said he did not want a book written along a linear timeline. He wanted to improvise and have the book play out like a long jazz set, letting the story unfold as he reflected on the life of "Society Red." I insisted that an outline was necessary and recall that I won that argument — which was a very rare occurrence. (He later said that he agreed to make the outline just to quiet me down. But, as so often happened with us, Dexter saw the "long game": he knew that over time I'd come to see the wisdom of his approach. This book is, in part, another posthumous win for Dexter in one of our many spirited debates.) The way Dexter wrote the book is the way he wrote his life — on his own terms, in his own voice, in his own inimitable way. As I watched him work, and helped and argued with him about it, I saw why his story was important, even essential: to know the story of Dexter Gordon is to know the story of his community, the story of how some of the most creative people in the twentieth century projected their unique voices.
As he worked through the outline, he got to 1948, when he was twenty-five years old and working at the Royal Roost in New York, where Herman Leonard took the photograph of him as he was rehearsing with Kenny Clarke and Fats Navarro. Years later, Herman thought he would try to remove from the famous photo the cigarette smoke that swirled above Dexter's head. He was concerned that the smoke might encourage young people to equate being "cool" with smoking. But after retouching the image on his computer, Herman killed the idea, saying, "The photo is nothing without the smoke." The image still stands as the epitome of what was considered hip and cool at the time, and it is to this day widely accepted as the iconic jazz photo.
This Dexter Gordon — the icon — is the Dexter who is now known and beloved and celebrated, on albums and 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 a three-dimensional figure full of humor and wisdom, a man 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 book is an attempt to fill in the gaps, the gaps created by our misperceptions, but also the gaps left by Dexter himself.
After finishing up the details of 1948 in his outline, Dexter skipped directly to 1960. I said, "You left out a decade. You can't leave out an entire decade."
"It's my life and I can leave it out if I want to," he replied. "I don't want to write about it and I definitely don't want to think about those years."
I argued — to no avail. Dexter had that look in his eyes that let me know that no matter how hard I pushed or how many logical arguments I might make, he had made up his mind. That was that. There were many times when there was no point in discussing something that he had already decided about, and the 1950s was something not open for discussion. Then he said, "If you want it in the book, you will have to write it yourself." This book is my unexpected acceptance of that challenge.
In 1988, for his sixty-fifth birthday, we threw a big party in Cuernavaca. It was one of the great parties, featuring two bands, copious quantities of food and drink, local women making blue tortillas on the patio, and an interlude during which Dexter played "Bésame Mucho" on the soprano saxophone for Gil Evans, who had come to Cuernavaca for health treatments. As the party wound down, Dexter thanked the guests for coming and said, "If you had told me that I would be at my own sixty-fifth birthday party, I would not have believed it. This is a jazz miracle. So many great friends and musicians died young. I salute them and pledge that they will not be forgotten."
Two years later, when Dexter began to have serious health problems, we had some conversations about how he wanted things to be handled should he die before me. His mother had lived into her nineties and I kept thinking he would live into old age as well. He said that living past thirty-five was old age for a jazz musician. Dexter wrote out a set of instructions to be followed upon his death, directing that his ashes be cast into the Harlem River and that there be no funeral nor church service. He insisted that if musicians played, it should not be in a commercial venue. We did our best to follow his wishes. He also insisted that I promise to finish college. He said that he thought I had regretted leaving college at nineteen, but the fact was that he was the one who regretted not going to college. Dexter was a passionate reader and admired people who valued academic skills and intellectual pursuits. I agreed to finish college. Then he asked me to make another promise. "If I don't finish the book," he said, "promise me you will finish it. I have talked to you more than anyone else about my life and you are here in this time when I am reflecting on the past. I never had time for that before. I was too busy running up and down the road." I promised to finish the book if he didn't, but I did not want to think about what that promise meant. But in April 1990 Dexter died, and I was forced to consider all the things I had been pushing out of my mind the previous few months.
Thanks to the urging of my good friend Shirley Scott, the legendary jazz organist who had gone back to school and was teaching at Cheyney University, I enrolled in college. When I began writing "the book," I realized that there was no way to write about Dexter without writing about so much more — the early history of African Americans in Los Angeles, the criminalization of drug users in the 1950s, the political economy of jazz, and more. The story of Dexter's life is nothing less than a cultural history of creative Black Americans in the interwar and postwar years. Dexter being Dexter, though, it would have to take the playful, circuitous, improvisatory route that he so adored in life and left as a legacy for us in death.
Now you have in your hands Sophisticated Giant, the story that began as one more creative and musical spark in Dexter Gordon's mind as The Saga of Society Red. It is my voice, yes, and also my story — my attempt to close and fill in gaps, even in some cases against Dexter's will — as well as, for many of his years, our story. But it's also an ensemble affair. This book is my nod in agreement with Sonny Rollins that all those jazz greats of days past, "They're all still here." Throughout Sophisticated Giant you will find original vignettes, notes, and thoughts, exactly as Dexter laid them down on those yellow legal-size pads as he relaxed and reflected in Cuernavaca, "City of Eternal Spring." When you arrive at those passages, always rendered in italics, think of Dexter (or "Society Red") stepping out to take a solo — sometimes eight or sixteen bars; sometimes a full chorus, or three. Those passages appear exactly as Dexter wrote them on his yellow pads. Other italic passages, including original letters and quotes from Dexter with noted attribution to previously published sources, indicate similar "solo" turns.
The 1950s was the decade that Dexter wanted to leave out of his book. He had his reasons — relationships he did not want to talk or think about, in which he preferred not to face his weaknesses or, perhaps more likely, his neglect. He said to me that he chose to go on the road to play the music he loved, and his family was lost in the course of his travels. "I messed up my family life," he said, not wanting to elaborate because to break the silence was to face heartbreaking facts. Of course, it wasn't only the 1950s that was problematic for Dexter. Decade after decade, I recognized, he wanted to leave out many pertinent details. Anything he found to be unhappy or negative was out of bounds. It was the personal that was the problem. But, of course, there were happy moments in the 1950s. He married his first wife, Josephin A. Notti, known as Jodi, and they had two daughters, Robin and Deidre, during that decade. They all lived with Dexter's mother in the family home on Los Angeles' Eastside. (Dexter and Josephin divorced in the mid-1960s.) His daughters surely have their own stories about their childhoods and we hope they will one day write them. This, we know, must have been a very difficult time for the family, people who heard too little of the voice that this book celebrates.
When digging to uncover a hidden past, one comes upon a life in the form of fragments. This book is a jazz composition that gratefully gives the bandstand over to different voices to play their tunes, and lovingly pushes against Dexter's inclination to turn away from the uncomfortable. But it does not lose sight of what is most crucial in this story — an individual voice and its determination to assert itself in a world too often arrayed against it. Arriving on the scene just as the new phenomenon of recorded sound was mixing with the cultural explosions that were jazz and then bebop, and the growing vibrancy and confidence of an emerging and demanding group of young Black radicals, Dexter and so many of his contemporaries made themselves heard like none that had been heard before, bringing joy, hope, and fulfillment through their voices — musical, political, racial, cultural. This is a book about voice — playful, poignant, funny, firm, querulous, confident.
My voice didn't enter the story until 1975, when I met Dexter in France, the year before he returned to the States. Mine is quite a loud voice (as I have often been told) that was formed by jazz from the late 1950s when we teenage jazz fans had a little listening club (mainly boys) that would get together at Joel O'Brien's house and listen to the latest LPs. Joel's father was a well-known morning radio host who received DJ copies of all the latest albums. We went to matinees in New York City's Village Vanguard and sat in the listening section at Birdland. I always wondered how I might find a way to spend as much time as I could around this great music and these fascinating people. I often say that hearing Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at the Village Vanguard with Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons, and Jymie Merritt was my moment when I entered the jazz life, or at least wished I could claim to be part of that world. This became a life that chose me as much as I chose it. I was a road manager for Gil Evans, worked with Shirley Scott and Harold Vick, and learned from them what it meant to keep things together while traveling, to handle the payroll and find places to eat after the gigs and go to meetings at record companies acting as if I knew what I was doing before I actually knew what I was doing.