The great tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon died in 1990, and UW-Madison will commemorate his life and legacy this month, when he would have celebrated his 90th birthday. Several Gordon-themed activities complement the university's efforts to build a new jazz program.
Gordon's widow and former manager, Maxine Gordon, will mark the occasion with four days of events. On March 11, at a talk dubbed Dex @ 90, she'll chat with WORT-FM hosts Steve Braunginn and Jane Reynolds in the UW's Morphy Hall. Then, on March 12 and 13, she'll visit the Chazen Museum and the Urban League to host free screenings of Round Midnight, a 1986 film that earned her husband an Oscar nomination and a Grammy Award. On March 14, she'll travel to the Goodman South Library for a free, by-reservation event titled Lunch with Dexter. Here, she'll screen a film of his final public performance and answer questions from the audience.
The March 11 event will also feature performances by the Blue Note Ensemble, one of the UW's new student groups. UW jazz studies director Johannes Wallmann uses the ensemble to help his charges study Blue Note Records artists each semester. This semester, the group has concentrated on Gordon's early '60s releases, like Go! and Our Man in Paris.
"The starting point is the compositions," Wallmann says.
This can be surprisingly challenging. Gordon's recordings drew mostly on jazz standards, and the tunes he composed can be tricky to transcribe. Take "Ernie's Tune," a ballad from 1961's Dexter Calling.
"He recorded it with a quartet, so there's nobody doubling the melody," Wallmann says. "Every time he plays the same phrase, he'll play it differently.... The challenge is trying to figure out what's the underlying musical phrase."
Tough as this may be, Wallmann says it's worthwhile to explore great compositions that haven't entered the repertoire of many jazz students.