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  • Kirk Lightsey

dexter gordon part 2

with Johnny Griffin


Dexter was a strange kind of person to travel around the world with. He had his own agenda wherever he went. He could speak a little bit of many languages, especially in Scandinavia, plus he could speak a little German and a little French. He spent many years in Europe before coming back and forming the band that I ended up joining. And I didn’t know much about his history as a young man. I knew some of his records and recordings when he was in California. But I had never kept up with him. I was busy listening to Coltrane and some other players during that time, but I came to find out from Dexter that the one of Coltrane’s favorite mouth pieces, was one that Dexter had given him. They knew each other but Trane didn’t bother Dexter at all. Trane’s fame or exquisite musicality. Dexter had his own way of expressing himself. Onstage, offstage, in life, in music, and it was quite gentle. Quite to the point but thought-provoking. Whatever his answer was to a question, it would make you think about more than what you asked. And he would always answer in very few words. As in an interview that I saw him do. When the interviewer asked him, “How would you describe your playing, Mr. Gordon?” Dexter said, “Uh, musical.” Ahh, Dexter Gordon brings tears to my eyes. This guy. In all the five years I was with him traveling around the world, the only other music that we did by another composer was a tune written by George Cables, which was a tune called “I Told You So.” I think for Dexter not only the music, but also the title, was something he could use in the things that he would say to the audience. I mean he would work that into his presentation of the song somehow. It would be related to something he would say that would be very classy, very thoughtful, and very funny. He had quite a sense of humor but you had to be very clever to discover it.


We would often have rehearsals when we got back to NY after a tour, to rehearse new music. We already had about fifteen or twenty songs that formed the base of our performance. But when we returned to NY and had a few weeks off, we would meet at Dexter’s apartment, on West 43rd Street and Ninth Avenue at the Manhattan Plaza, a distinguished residence for artists of all types. Lots of symphony players lived there. Actors and dancers, painters and all. They lived in Manhattan Plaza because the rent was governed by your income and usually you had to wait a long time to get into Manhattan Plaza. About 70% of the tenants are in the performing arts. We would rehearse at his apartment and we would always rehearse new material. Sometimes songs of mine, songs from Rufus, from David Eubanks when he joined the band. Eddie wasn’t a writer just a great player. But we would have a few rehearsals and we when we went back on stage he would always play the same material again out of the usual fifteen or twenty songs we had in our repertoire. And most of those were his. Which stands to reason because at that time, when you performed your own music, you got paid for the performance. You were paid quite well for performing your own music. Especially when it was played on the radio or in the movies.


Dexter was quite an actor and it took me, I think it took us all, some time to realize that. I think Rufus Reid actually realized it before anyone because, when I joined the band, Rufus was the “straw boss.” He was the person in charge of tickets. In charge of Dexter’s being at the airport on time and in good shape. He was in charge of stage setups. He was the person in charge on the road. He was the one in contact with the office of Maxine to make sure everything ran smoothly. I think Dexter was very good at pushing Rufus to his limit. Because Rufus was, wow, he was the best player for Dexter that I could imagine. He was the best one for teaching me the music and how to play with Dexter. He was the best one who understood the focus and continuity of what we were after with Dexter. And he was the one to explain it better than Dexter himself. Rufus Reid is still one of my favorite bass players in the world. And one of my favorite people.

Now, back to Dexter’s being an actor. It took me at least two years of being with him to realize that the things that he did were part of an act that he had figured out. This had to do with tension and release like his approaching the stage and doing his drunk act. In a club where he had to walk up on the stage, he would stumble up onto it. People in the audience would say “Wow, look at Long Tall, look he’s drunk.” Then when he got on the stage, he would bend way over and put his sax on the floor or a chair; it seemed it was all a big performance for the crowd it. Then he would wobble up to the microphone and start to recite the lyrics to a song that he was about to play. And the people who had been looking at him like he was drunk again, suddenly were enthralled by his voice reciting the song lyrics. And the audience would say, “Aww, Dexter,” and they would be so relieved. And, of course, when he began to play, his laying so far back on the time, was a part of this tension and release. He would start a medium to fast song, almost falling backwards on the time, while the trio was expected to be on the time. Which created this real tension of him seeming to almost catch up. And as the song went on, he would get closer and closer to the time. And by the 3rd or fifth chorus he would jump right on the time, and it would create such a release that he would get a standing ovation for finally playing and arriving on the time. This tension and release Dexter had figured it all out. He was a very clever man. Which you could tell by how he played in his earlier years. How clever he was, how smart he was, how unique his sound. He had this tension and release figured out so well, that he would make his audience wait for his arrival. The trio would have to be on stage and start on time, meanwhile Dexter would arrive later, just when the audience began getting agitated and want their money back. That’s when he would walk in the door. And just for showing up, he often got a standing ovation. He knew how to get house. It was so routine that in one of the clubs in DC, the waitresses had a pool where they would bet how late Dexter would show up each night. And he would walk in the door after getting his big reception, but he wouldn’t get on stage and start to play right away. He would climb on stage and go back to the dressing room. He would have a drink, have a smoke, maybe something to eat. And when he was good and ready, he would go back on stage, start to play and recapture his audience.


Dexter had a big voice when he chose to use it. Usually he was a mild mannered, soft talking, gentleman. But one night in Barcelona, when we had a night off, Dexter chose me to hang out with him. Take a walk. Go out and have drinks. Hear some music or something. But on the way, we went into one of his favorite bars to figure out where we were going. We stepped into the bar, ordered our drinks. He was standing next to me on my right side. And suddenly two kind of scruffy looking guys came up to the bar and pushed me out of the way. Well, seems like smoke came out of Dexter’s ears. He raised his voice and yelled at these two guys. I forget what he said, but when he raised up to his full height and his voice at full volume, these guys left the bar. And he said, “Yeah, I have to take care of you, Crunch.” Concerning his cleverness or slickness: because of some old story, something that happened to him in Paris or somewhere in France, and for some reason they had his name on the books in the customs at the airport. And one day, David and I didn’t understand why Dexter had left us with his small bag and his horn and we couldn’t find him. He had dashed ahead of everybody else, whizzed through customs and was waiting for us at the bar, while we were stuck at customs, and they were asking us where he was. We didn’t understand why and we didn’t know why we were stuck with his bag and his horn that time. And it turned out that he somehow got through customs unquestioned. He had his stash in his bag and if we were found with his bags, we had nothing to do with it. But thankfully no one checked the bags. When we got through, we found out that he had gotten through ahead of us and left us holding the bags.


It’s often claimed in things written about Dexter that he was always drunk or always high. Different things that aren’t necessarily favorable for his reputation or not necessarily true even. What is true is that there were only two times in the five years that I was with Dexter Gordon, that he was so drunk, or so out of control, that he could not play his horn. That he could not operate. Only twice in five years. And this was after very long travel days coming from somewhere far off in Europe and ending up in Chicago to play at the Jazz Showcase and we had had next to no sleep and had to show up, shower, dress and play. And we had been traveling all day from very early in the morning. He was the oldest of us, so it had worn on him. I think that was the case both of those times that he ended up out of control so to speak.

The other time, the second time in the five years that I was with Dexter when he was over his limit and could not perform, was in Bern, Switzerland. Strangely enough, that being the name of the place we were in, because the press was there to review our performance, and the press burned Dexter in all of their write-ups. And that was because we were doing an early Sunday morning performance where they had Sunday morning Jazz. And as I recall, we were coming from far away and arrived just in time to set up and play. I don’t think we even had time to change our clothes. We had started out very early from wherever we were. We had changed planes to get there and we had stopped at early morning bars to prop ourselves up. And by the time we got to Bern for the performance, Dexter had gone over his limit with lack of sleep and too much of everything else. And when it was time to perform, he actually could not find his mouth with his mouth piece. He couldn’t put his horn to his mouth. He was a wreck. And the band was confused about whether to take Dexter off the stage or not. And this was a chore because the dressing room was up some stairs. For Dexter to get back up the stairs was a real problem and he didn’t want to leave the stage. He couldn’t really play, couldn’t put his horn to his mouth. So when we said, “Chief, let’s go back to the dressing room,” he said, “This is my band,” and kept trying to find his mouth. Well, we were fortunate to have a great friend, Ted Milner, in Bern who was a dentist quite well known there and he was also a bass player, which made him doubly famous. Thankfully, he was a friend our ours and Dexter’s and he was at this unfortunate performance with us. At a certain point, Ted came to the stage, got Dexter and took him back to the dressing room. By then, Eddie had left the stage in complete and utter disgust. I told David not to move and we would follow Dexter in whatever he was trying to do. So, we stayed with him until he had been shuffled off the stage and back to the dressing room by Ted. The stairs were in full view. They were the backdrop of the stage. This was all in complete audience view and unfortunately the press only stayed for that first set. Nobody from the press stayed for the second set because they thought there would be no second set. Our friend, the dentist, took Dexter back to the dressing room, gave him something, a potion or something, and in twenty minutes Dexter was completely sober, and ready to go on and perform. We returned to the stage and Dexter played his heart out. He played his ass off. He played like there was no tomorrow. But unfortunately, we played to a very small audience; the press and most of the people had left. One unfortunate day in the life of Dexter Gordon and his band.

But I guess Dexter was like most people who have their favorite operating level or their preferred level of consciousness which they operate best at. Whatever they use, coffee, pills, etc. Dexter had his favorite substances that he used to get to his preferred operating level. What was being high for some people was normal for Dexter. I never knew Dexter to more than drink, smoke, or coke. And it’s very curious that in five years there were only two times that I can remember that he was not able to perform.

There was an incident that I was not there for. It’s a story about Dexter I heard from people who knew him when he was in Paris. This is hearsay, one of the strange or funny stories about Dexter. One day he came from the airport. Checked into his hotel. Left his horn and his bags in his hotel room. Went out into the street, did whatever he had to do and went back to find his hotel, but he didn’t know where his hotel was. It wasn’t written on his key. Apparently, he didn’t take a card. And he never found his hotel again. Or his bags. Or his horn.


David Eubanks was the youngest of us. As a matter of fact, when he joined the group he was in early twenties. We found David in Betty Carter’s group which was opening for us at the Bottom Line in the Village just across the street from NYU and about two blocks from where I used to live. And it just so happened that we were listening to Betty Carter and her bass player, who was David Eubanks. And at that time, we were playing with a bass player who didn’t fit us at all named Chuck Metcalf. A nice guy but not for us and we were desperately looking for a bass player. And while listening to Betty Carter we were thinking, we’d like to get a bass player like that. Turns out that that was David’s last performance with Betty Carter. When we found that out, he never got out of our hands. Me and Betty hijacked him. We took him over in the corner and told him “Look, you got a gig.” We almost forced him to come with us. But it didn’t take much forcing; he was over the moon. The chance to play with Dexter Gordon! From that moment on, it was David Eubanks. Now, David was I’m sure an A+ student all his years in school. He must have been. He was bordering on a genius kind of mind, kind of memory. And he was born and raised in Newark, NJ, which is kind of a hoodlum town. Eddie Gladden as well was born and bred in Newark. So, David, as mild-mannered a gentleman as he could be, he also had this fighting spirit, which when pressed would come out. I’m not surprised that he and Betty Carter had a falling out. Because her being from Detroit, she had a similar character. And Betty Carter was known to be the teacher of young musicians she chose to have in her group. I imagine she probably said something to David and he just decided, that’s it. Knowing both of them, I think that that’s what happened. Mulgrew Miller used to call Betty Carter, Ms. Betty, in a bowing fashion. So, this is how David became available to us that night, which was a blessing both ways for him and for us. For the next few years David was our bass player. A wonderful bass player and a wonderful friend. Actually, he was like my son. But, with his wit and his analytical mind, David would often question Dexter about his actions and intentions just to be clear about certain things. And sometimes this questioning would just piss Dexter off that this young boy was being such a twerp with him. Asking him questions about this and that and he would just get fed up and fire David. Then David would come to my room and I’d ask, “Ok, David, what happened?” He’d say, “I just got fired.” Then I’d call Eddie and me and Eddie would go up to Dexter and get David’s job back. We’d say, “Dexter, come on, David is the best bass player we’ve had since Rufus,” and Dexter would say, “Ok, he’s back in the band.” Actually, in the time that David was in the band, 2-3 years, he must have been fired many times and many times we’d get his job back. Because we loved David and so did Dexter. But because Dexter thought that David was too young to be such a smart guy with him, David would always have to go and apologize to the Chief, which we called Dexter, and we’d be back on the road. And the three of us would always end up laughing about the reason, this time, that David was fired again. And after a while, I think David would just do it on purpose. I don’t know. But David was, yeah, like a son to me. And one of my favorite players at the time. David and I played several times at Bradley’s in trio and duo, also at Zinno's. I still miss David. He died about 25 years ago. He got into crack and he was at a party in NJ. And suddenly they discover that he was missing. Nobody saw him and they found him drowned in the swimming pool. And, boy oh boy, that brought the tears and unfortunately, we didn’t hear about it until he was buried and gone. And it was even more heartbreaking to me because when Dexter finally stopped working with the band- I mean he just stopped working so we had to find other things to do, David somehow couldn’t get first class work. He was playing bullshit gigs in dives and other places and one night he came into Bradley’s when I was working there and he was in tears. He was begging me to hire him, to help him find some work because he was suffering. And I told him I would do my best. I didn’t know what to do. At that time, I was working a lot with Don Pate, who was just a street kind of feeling bass player. And during that time, it wasn’t so easy to get in touch with David. Well, it was just very sad that not long after that last time I saw him, we got the news that he had drowned in a swimming pool in Mont Clair, NJ at a party. He was the cousin of Kevin Eubanks and Robin Eubanks. And their uncle was a great pianist, Ray Bryant. He was from a family of great musicians. I still think about David Eubanks with deep feelings.


There is another story connected with Dexter with another bass player we played with out of dire need. This was before David. We couldn’t find anybody to fill the bill that we felt good with at the time and we found that John Heard from LA had just left Oscar Peterson’s band. Herd was a friend of ours. We all knew him. I knew him from my days in LA. We had played together there and John Heard was riding very high on the hog, so to speak. He had been with Oscar Peterson’s trio and traveling first class and getting paid quite a lot. Of course, Dexter couldn’t pay John on the same level as what he was getting with Oscar Peterson. But he decided to join us anyway and I think he was already in Europe after he left Oscar, so we hooked up. It was an easy hook-up with the band. But John was feeling so good about himself after leaving Oscar’s trio, that he came to us with a big attitude and Dexter couldn’t imagine why John was suddenly treating us this way and he was complaining about everything: about his hotel room, about not traveling in business or first class. About not having his bags carried around by someone. About not having a roadie. About all these things. And when we arrived in Stockholm all together, we were picked up at the airport by a club owner. And it was a different club than we usually played in and this guy had an old van and we loaded up the van and John loaded his bass and when John closed the back door, there were side arms that when it was open, they were out of sight, but when the doors closed they came down and punched a hole right into John’s bass. John stood there and cried. We couldn’t really say anything to comfort him because he had done it himself. And he had been such a pain with us up until then that we thought, wow, what goes around comes around. Like he was deserving this in some way. Well, the club owner immediately called up his friend who was a bass maker, and it was urgent now, because it was apparent John couldn’t use his bass for the gig which was in a few hours. We barely had enough time to get to the hotel, to shower or even have dinner. The owner of the club got in touch with his friend the bass maker and the bass maker agreed to bring a bass over to the club so that John could use it that night. When we arrived at the club, John found that this bass that they had brought him was the most wonderful bass that he had ever touched. He was overjoyed that he was playing on such a fine instrument that was head and shoulders above the quality of his own bass. Unfortunately, we had to leave for another town the next morning, at least by noon, I guess, something like that. So the bass maker who took John’s bass back to the shop with him, worked on John’s bass all through the night. He fixed it and brought it back the next morning in time for us to catch our flight and John found that the bass maker had made his bass better than it had ever been. This accident turned out to be a blessing for John, who suddenly had a renewed and higher quality bass from a freak accident. This incident had somehow brought him back to being the good-natured person we knew him to be. He had suffered so much with this whole experience that he went through some obvious physical pain. For a couple of days, he couldn’t stand up, sit down, lie down. He was in horrible shape. He went through this emotional trauma which seemed to affect him in all kinds of ways. And I guess his pride was injured by his embarrassment. Something brought him down to floor level and when we finished the last gig on the tour he begged us to let him go. And that is when he went back home, with something that felt to him like a new bass. Of great quality.




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