Book Review: ‘Sophisticated Giant, The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon,’ Maxine Gordon

SOPHISTICATED GIANT: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon
By Maxine Gordon
University of California Press © 2018
pp. 279

This biography of tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (1923-1990) by his wife Maxine was written after his death and was a fulfillment of a promise she made to complete his life story.

Most people will remember that Dexter was the star of a 1986 movie “Round Midnight.” This movie was about a U.S. expatriate in France a decade or so after the end of World War II. In some ways, it was also a reflection of Dexter’s life in that he lived in Copenhagen, married a Danish woman and had a son with her. In actuality, the inspiration for the movie was a pianist with mental health issues, Bud Powell, who had spent time in France and had a Frenchman as his friend and protector. There are interesting details about making of the movie. American movie director Martin Scorsese had a bit part in the movie and predicted, accurately, that Dexter would be nominated for an Academy Award. And that prediction came true. Dexter didn’t win that year, not being a Hollywood insider. But, just to be nominated, especially since he wasn’t a trained actor, was a great accomplishment.

Dexter was the son of one of the first African-American physicians in Los Angeles. His childhood was comfortable and he had musical friends and went on the road in his late teens. There was a brief prison term and when the opportunity came for him to go to Europe, he seized it.

As stated, there was a period of marital stability with a Danish wife and a son born to that couple. But, when they moved back to the U.S. and his life became that of traveling bandleader, the marriage failed and his wife and child moved back to Denmark.

In the course of time, he needed an assistant who could help with the accounting and other details of travel and band personnel. That’s when he acquired the services of Maxine who became his manager/partner and, subsequently, wife. She had a common-law marriage to Woody Shaw and their young son, Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III, came to live with Dexter and Maxine when they married.

Dexter had wanted to write the story of his life and had made some notes but never got that far along. Maxine promised that she’d make an effort to complete the work. This required additional study and effort — quite a remarkable story in itself. For more details on Maxine’s life and work see:

Prediction: If you read this interesting book, likely you will have the urge, like me, to watch the movie, “Round Midnight,” again.

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