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  • Kirk Lightsey


For five years (1980-1985) I played piano in Dexter’s quartet with Eddie Gladden on drums, Rufus Reid on bass -later replaced by David Eubanks- and Long Tall Dexter front and center on tenor sax.

The beginning. I first met Dexter Gordon in Stockholm, Sweden, where I was with OC Smith doing a TV special. At the end of the special, the TV people took us to what was happening in Stockholm that night. Which was Dexter Gordon. He was alive and well and playing in a club called Ernest. And, it turned out that Dexter had fired his piano player that very night and when I walked in the door, I was taken right up to the piano. They introduced me to Dexter, sat me down at the piano, and we proceed to play, to burn. After the pianist he had fired, Dexter was quite impressed with my coming in and throwing down with him, without having played together or even met before. Well, that was the first and last time I saw Dexter until years later when I was living in California, in LA, and I went to hear Dexter on the pier at a club called Howard Rumsey’s Concerts by the Sea. In the band was my old friend, George Cables, playing the piano, Rufus Reid playing the bass, who I had just hung out with several months ago in Chicago when he was living there. We had played together and all of that. And the drummer who later became one of my favorite drummers, Eddie Gladden. Well, when they finally finished and we got a chance to talk, Cables told me that he was leaving the group and Rufus told me that they wanted me in the band, and to my utter surprise, they were serious. After having worked with Lovelace Watkins for the last five years in LA, I was on the verge of leaving him and moving back to New York. I had been in LA for about ten years, having worked with OC Smith for about five years and then with Lovelace. So for about a decade I was bicoastal, in LA but also in New York.

Rufus came up with a plan that I should meet them in NY, and join them to play two weeks at the Village Vanguard, which I wasn’t able to do because I had promised OC Smith that I would do two weeks of touring with him to conclude in NY at the Playboy Club. I agreed to join Dexter and the band on the Sunday night, which was the night after the Playboy gig had ended. That Saturday night at the Playboy Club, by the way, was the night that I met Ms. Linda Denise Brockington. The next night, that Sunday night,

was the first night that I could go down and catch Dexter’s band before the off night, which was Monday, and marked the end of their first week of two weeks at the Vanguard. When I arrived, it was almost déjà vu, just like the first night I met Dexter in Stockholm. It turned out that that night the pianist who was replacing George Cables, the great Albert Daly, had a problem with Dexter and walked off the stand and left the club. When I got there, they sent me straight to the piano. And that night the place was jam- packed. It was filled with loads of people who knew me and were friends of mine. There was even the woman there who was responsible for my meeting Natalie, my present wife. When I walked on the stage again, the music just burned. It seemed that I fitted them fine. I don’t remember what we played but whatever we played was great. The audience was in an uproar. They were all there that night for Dexter Gordon. It turned out that Dexter, of course, remembered me and welcomed me with open arms and accepted me officially in the band. In addition, Maxine Greg, who was Dexter’s manager and booking agent, was there. And she also accepted me and signed me into the band. I didn’t know that it would be such a fast start. I was to begin the following Tuesday night at the Vanguard for their second week. But I was also quickly informed that the next day, Monday, at something like noon or two o’clock, I had to be at a studio where Dexter was recording a big band album with Frank Foster doing the writing and conducting, and some of the top studio players in NY in the band. Together with the trio, Rufus, Eddie Gladden and the newcomer- me. And, of course, Dexter was the soloist. Woody Shaw was also in the band and Sheldon Powell and others whose names I can’t recall. And, I never saw the results of that album. The last time I saw Maxine or talked to her, she told me Dexter wouldn’t release the album because he didn’t think he played well on it. I thought the album was great, from my point of view.

Well, it turned out that Maxine Greg became our new mother. She took care of our expenses, our pay, our taxes. She wiped our noses if we had a cold. She did everything for us. She was one of the best agent/managers I had met and I had been in LA with a bunch. The manager for Damita Joe was her husband, but the manager for Lovelace Watkins was a great one. Anyway, I had known some good managers. Maxine Greg had an office called Ms. Management and she had all women working in the office and they were great. And it was great that Maxine was our manager because it didn’t take long to realize that Dexter Gordon needed special handling.

I had many surprises on that first day, the Monday after I was enrolled in the band, at the studio. I soon realized that Dexter was a very special personality. He was most unusual. He was very laid back and he didn’t rush for anything. Not in the music and not in his life. He had a cool personality. And it went along with his way of expressing himself when he talked. It was almost the same as when he played the saxophone. He always took his time and he was a man of few words. I would often ask him questions about phrasing or how he wanted me to play behind or what made him comfortable. Well, I don’t think he ever answered any of those questions. He would answer me like, uh, play for me like you play for a singer. And that was very good information. Especially because he remembered meeting me for the first time in Stockholm and I was there playing for a singer. And I think he remembered that when he gave me this instruction. Of course, we rehearsed. It was my first week with the band. I didn’t know the music they were playing. It was never Dexter who told me the ins and outs of the music or how he wanted it. It was always Rufus. He was my mentor. Rufus Reid was stellar. He became one of my close friends and a man we depended on for the essence of accompanying Dexter Gordon. It took me a while to realize that Dexter had so many things figured out and he was quite an actor in his own way. He would expect you to figure things out on your on, and if you didn’t figure them out then he would drop a word on you. Just one would be enough for him. He might pass by you and say “listen” or he might say “don’t worry” or he would just give you a catch phrase that might turn the light on for you, or for me. Like once, much further into my touring with him, maybe a year and a half or so, in some place in Italy. In this wonderful opera house that we were playing in. And he had played a great solo and we had played really good behind him. And at the end of his solo he got this rousing round of applause, which encouraged me to give it all I had. I played. We were playing a ballad or one of his other favorite songs. And I played the best that I could remember playing that song after him. And at the end of my solo, there was complete silence in the audience. Complete silence. And I was so stunned I started to cry. After Dexter’s solo, the audience was raving and after my solo which I thought I played really good, there was complete silence. I was thinking, my god what do I have to do, I don’t know if I can play better than that. And, of course, Dexter was watching me and he saw my tears and when we finished the set he passed by me and spoke. He said, “Crunch, (that’s what he called me) they we mesmerized.” And he continued on. And that was one of my biggest lessons. I mean his lessons were taught in this way. Just with a key phrase or a few words. And with those few words and lots of reflection on those words, I realized that I should never expect a particular response for what I give in a concert. I should never judge the response I get. I should give what I give and what I get I get. Dexter was completely right. They were mesmerized.


Dexter Gordon (tenor sax), Kirk Lightsey (piano), David Eubanks (bass), Eddie Gladden (drums).

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