Dexter Gordon

Dexter Gordon Biography

Actor, Saxophonist (1923–1990)
Dexter Gordon was an American jazz tenor saxophonist best known for his contributions to the bebop style.


Dexter Gordon was born in Los Angeles, California, on February 27, 1923. He took up the saxophone as a teenager and began playing with prominent jazz ensembles. Gordon became known as one of the premier tenor saxophonists in bebop, recording classic albums such as Go and collaborating with players like Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus. Gordon died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 25, 1990.

Early Life

Dexter Gordon was born in Los Angeles, California, on February 27, 1923. His father, Frank Gordon, was the physician of several prominent jazz musicians, including Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton.

Gordon took up the clarinet at age 13, switching to the saxophone shortly thereafter. Post-war Los Angeles was a center for jazz and a hotspot for the developing bebop style. This put Gordon in a perfect position to get his start among jazz greats, including Charles Mingus and Buddy Collette, while he was still a teenager.


Gordon joined Lionel Hampton's band in 1940, rounding out a saxophone section that included Illinois Jacquet and Marshall Royal. In 1943, he made his first recordings under his own name and played with Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine. He left Eckstine after several years and settled in New York City, performing and recording with Charlie Parker. He released his most famous recordings with Blue Note in the 1960s. These albums included Go and A Swingin' Affair. Gordon took part in regular tenor saxophone duels with another West Coast player, Wardell Gray, during this period.

It was also in the '60s that Gordon left the United States to live in Europe, primarily Paris and Copenhagen. There, he played regularly with fellow expatriates and continued to record for Blue Note. Gordon experienced better treatment in Europe, as a black man and a jazz player, than he had in the United States. He also found the change of scenery helpful in his struggle to kick his heroin habit, which had twice led to his imprisonment. While living in Denmark, Gordon became friends with the family of future Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, and was later named as Ulrich's godfather.

Gordon returned to the United States in 1976. He performed a celebrated homecoming show at the Village Vanguard in New York and began recording regularly with Columbia Records. His albums with Columbia are credited with popularizing acoustic jazz that was not necessarily recorded in a crossover style.

In addition to his formidable musical talent, Gordon was an accomplished actor. In 1986, he starred in the film Round Midnight, receiving an Academy Award nomination (best actor) for his performance. He appeared in several other films and television shows, including the movie Awakenings, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Awakenings was released after Gordon's death, in 1990.


After suffering from cancer of the larynx, Gordon died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on April 25, 1990, at the age of 67. He was survived by his wife, Maxine Gordon, who was also his manager and producer; and five children.

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