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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Advice From the Mas­ter: Thelo­nious Monk Scrib­bles a List of Tips for Play­ing a Gig

The Nazis’ 10 Con­trol-Freak Rules for Jazz Per­form­ers: A Strange List from World War II

Watch 1959: The Year that Changed Jazz

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