Dexter Gordon’s Elegant Version of the Jazz Standard ‘What’s New,’ 1964

In 1964, when this performance was given, the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon was in the second year of his European exile.

Gordon had risen to prominence in the early 1940s, after joining the Lionel Hampton band at the age of 17. He was one of the pioneer translators of the bebop idiom to the tenor sax. And he was an early influence on the playing of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins.

“Dexter made a great contribution to the bebop language,” Rollins once said. “In fact, I think he defined it during a certain period. He transcribed a lot of the stuff that Bird was doing, and brought that approach to the tenor without being a copier. He was an important figure in bringing people along. Coltrane at one time sounded like Dexter, and I still hear that lineage.”

But by the 1950s Gordon was addicted to heroin. He checked himself into the hospital several times but always fell back. In 1960 he was arrested in Los Angeles on drug charges and spent three months in prison. When he got out he had trouble finding gigs. Even though he had completely kicked his habit by 1962, New York police refused to issue him a cabaret card to play in the city’s nightclubs. An offer to play in Europe changed his life. “I  went for three months and stayed for 14 years,” Gordon told People magazine in 1986. “I came alive over there.”

Gordon had clearly hit his stride again by July 29, 1964, when this scene was recorded for Dutch television in Amersfoort, Holland. Gordon is playing the 1939 Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke standard, “What’s New?” His European quartet includes George Gruntz on piano, Guy Pedersen on bass and Daniel Humair on drums. The performance is available as part of the Jazz Icons DVD, Dexter Gordon: Live in ’63 & ’64. In the liner notes, Gordon’s former producer Michael Cuscuna describes him as being in peak form when this film was made: “His tone resonates with power and beauty, his chops enable him to execute whatever occurs to him and his ideas flow seamlessly.”

Gordon learned from his idol Lester Young that it was a good idea to know the lyrics of a song if you want to understand its essence. One of Gordon’s idiosyncrasies was to recite a few lines from the lyrics before playing the song. In this scene, the six-foot, six-inch-tall saxophonist steps up to the microphone and, in his deep baritone voice, recites the opening lines to “What’s New?” before launching into a beautiful instrumental version. Summing up Gordon’s distinctive playing, a biographer at the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz writes: “His rich, vibrant sound, harmonic awareness, behind-the-beat phrasing, and his predilection for humorous quotations combine to create a unique style.”

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