Maxine Gordon, author of Sophisticated Giant to Spend a
Mini-Residency in Madison
Exploring the Real World of Jazz
|Clockwise from above: Maxine Gordon holding
an Art Blakely & The Jazz Masters album
cover; The late Dexter Gordon (l) and his wife
Maxine looking at a Billboard magazine; The
cover of Maxine’s book, “Sophisticated Giant:
The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon
By Jonathan Gramling
Maxine Gordon, the widow of the phenomenal
tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, has lived a life
filled with the melodies and vibes of jazz music
starting as a teenager listening to jazz in clubs
like Birdland. She has held many positions over
the years as a road manager, grant manager,
producer, and jazz archivist among many others.
And in November 2018, she added award-winning
author to her resume when the book she, in
essence, wrote with Dexter, Sophisticated Giant:
The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon was
published by The University of California Press.
Maxine has pretty much been on the road ever
since touring Europe, Northern Africa and the
United States promoting her book. She spoke to
300 people in Copenhagen where Dexter once
lived. It’s already been translated into Italian and
there are plans to publish French and Spanish
versions as well. An audio book has been made
and it will be published in paperback in February 2020.
I was able to catch up with Maxine for a phone interview after she disembarked from a train headed for Maine
where she will speak at Bates and Bowdoin Colleges. Maxine is an adventurous spirit who appears to enjoy the
book circuit meeting new people and seeing new places.
And writing the book has been a long journey in itself. Dexter began writing it in 1987.
“The book was begun by Dexter after he made Round Midnight and we were living in Cuernavaca, Mexico,”
Maxine recalled. “He was approached to write his biography with a writer. They suggested some writers to do
the book. His idea was to write it with James Baldwin. So naturally being Dexter Gordon, he called up James
Baldwin and he was like, ‘They want me to write my biography. Do you want to do it with me?’ James Baldwin
said, ‘That’s a great idea. But I’m not doing too well. I’m ill, so you can write it yourself. You don’t need a ghost
writer. You don’t need a co-writer. Just tell them you will write it yourself. You write music. You are an actor.
You read. Tell them you don’t need anybody.’ We told the publisher, ‘James Baldwin said I could write it myself
and I’m going to write it myself.’ They were like, ‘Really? Okay.’ And so he began to write the book. He sat
outside and he had these yellow legal pads and every day, he would do what he does. He was a guy who
practiced every day. He swam in the pool. He was organized. He would write. He would write these stories.”
Sophisticated Giant reflects Dexter’s values and character. In many ways, it has been said that it reads like an
improv jazz session with everyone taking a turn to shine in the limelight.
“I said, ‘I think it would be easier if you made an outline,’” Maxine said about her suggestion that he write a traditional birth to death biography. “He said, ‘No, I’
m not writing that kind of book. I’m writing a book that people can open and read it wherever they want. I don’t want to write a chronological book. I don’t want
a timeline book. That’s corny. I want to write about the music and the musicians and the life.’ And then one day, he said, ‘If I don’t finish the book, promise me
you will finish the book.’ Of course, not knowing exactly what that would take, I said, ‘Yeah, no problem.’ I’ll finish your book if you don’t finish it. He didn’t
finish, but in the book you’ll see that we wrote the book together. He’s in the book. His writing is in the book. And then there is my research and my writing. The
book has three voices. But it is African American cultural history. It’s jazz. It’s a history of the musicians and their lives, not just ‘Dexter Gordon was born and
went on the road with Lionel Hampton and he made a bunch of records and a movie and then he died.’ It’s a cultural history.”
Most importantly, Dexter wanted it to be about the musicians of jazz and not just those who by a quirk of fate became the “stars” of jazz.
“One of the things that he wanted in the book was to mention the names of all of the musicians who were in Lionel Hampton’s band, Billy Eckstine’s band and
others,” Maxine said. “He wanted to make sure that they were in the Index because he said, ‘They are always just highlighting the band leader and then they
act like they did it alone. And nobody did this alone. Because you never heard of them doesn’t mean that they weren’t as good as someone you did hear of.’ He
always said, ‘I know there are tenor players out there better than me. They’re working. Maybe they are porters or red caps or work in the post office. But they
didn’t go out on the road and they didn’t get a recording contract. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t play.’ We know there are great players everywhere.
Dexter said that the reason he was successful was because he was tall. That was his theory. He told Jimmy Heath and Johnny Griffin, ‘You’d make more
money if you were taller.’ So Jimmy Heath said, ‘What about Miles?’ And Dexter said, ‘You know there is always an exception.’ He had the art of the
understatement. He was good at that.”
When Dexter died in 1990, Maxine took up the pen, so to speak. But she also had to work and get her degrees and complete her studies while also become an
expert in jazz history and culture along the way.
In order to show all of the influences that made Dexter a jazz giant, Maxine had to go to places that Dexter didn’t necessarily want to go.
“There was a part of the book, a chapter, that I wrote about the 1950s that he was going to leave out of the book,” Maxine said. “I convinced him one day to
make an outline. He didn’t want to have an outline. When he started making an outline, he left out the 1950s. He went from 1948 to 1960. I said, ‘Oh, you left out
the 1950s.’ He said, ‘I know. I’m not putting it in the book.’ I was like, ‘You can’t leave out a decade.’ He said, ‘It’s my life. I’m leaving it out.’ And he was just
adamant that he wasn’t going to write about the 1950s because he was incarcerated and was using drugs. I did include that information, which took a long
time because I worked with Hadley Caliman, the tenor player. They called him ‘Little Dex.’ He was in Chino prison with Dexter. And he knew a lot about the
195r0s and about Chino. He helped me write that chapter. And then I got all of the research from the Department of Corrections. I also did a lot of research
about what happened in Los Angeles in the 1950s. They arrested drug users for internal possession and it was overturned by the Supreme Court, but Dexter
had already gotten off of parole and had left the country. It was health code violation. They locked them up for 90 days. But internal possession wasn’t even a
criminal offense. It was cruel and unusual punishment.”
And so over the course of 27 years, Sophisticated Giant took shape. But in some ways, it was out-of-shape and bloated.
“My editor was really great,” Maxine said. “One day he said, ‘Maybe you could shorten it so that people could read your book on the subway instead of it being
an 800-page book like Robin Kelley’s book where you can only read it in bed propped up by a pillow.’ People write books about Dexter and put all the research
in the library and then get on with it. I thought, ‘I would love to be riding on a subway and see someone reading a book about Dexter.’ And so I did edit it down.
That took a while. But it was a very good suggestion. I had a good editor. I didn’t agree with everything. It’s 279 pages.”
Maxine had a lot of support over the years from jazz musicians to complete the book as she was an intricate part of the New York jazz scene.
“People have said that they could hear Dexter’s voice in the book,” Maxine said. “Jimmy Heath was very helpful. He and Sonny Rollins were very helpful.
Both of them said, ‘You better get it right. Don’t write one of those jazz history books that don’t tell us anything about the people.’ It was a lot of pressure.
Jimmy Heath said on his last birthday, ‘I have to thank Maxine Gordon for allowing me to live this long because it took so long to finish the book and I wanted
to read it, so I stayed alive to read the book. And she did a very good job.’”
Soon after it was released in November 2018, Maxine learned that a review of
the book would appear in The New York Times, an exhilarating and dreadful
“On December 9th, it got an excellent review in The New York Times Book
Review section, a full page by David Hajdu,” Maxine said. “He’s a professor of
journalism at Columbia University. He reviewed the book. He loved the book.
He couldn’t find anything he didn’t like. When I saw him, I said, ‘I was very
nervous when I heard you reviewed my book because you always do this
thing at the end where you say however and then say what you wish the writer
had done.’ I got all of these texts saying, ‘Get The New York Times. You’re in
it.’ I was nervous, but he didn’t do that. There was no ‘However.’ He said, ‘I
wanted to do that However thing, but I couldn’t find anything I didn’t like.’ That
was very nice. But a full page review in The New York Times changes
And Maxine has been on the road ever since promoting the book and that road
leads to Madison beginning October 28th where, in essence, she will be a
Madison writer-in-residence for a full week appearing as a part of the
Wisconsin Book Festival extended festival. She will be appearing at a special
Café CODA tribute to Dexter Gordon on November 1 as well as at other venues.
Maxine has been imbued in the jazz world since she was a teenager and
learned and absorbed all of the nuances and complexity of the jazz world and
the real people who inhabited it.
“I would just like people to know more about the humanity of jazz musicians
and the life they live and what it takes to play this music and live this life and
how smart they are,” Maxine emphasized. “I don’t want people to have a
stereotypical idea about jazz musicians. Like Dexter said, ‘My life has a happy
ending.’ I would like people to know more about him and other people who are
in the book.”
It is a world worth exploring through Dexter’s and Maxine’s eyes.
Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon is available at A
Room of One’s Own and on Amazon. Books will also be available for purchase
during Maxine Gordon’s appearances.