Although fairly short passages from Dexter Gordon’s notepads appear here and there, the book is mainly Maxine Gordon’s, and that’s to its benefit ... Sophisticated Giant is a work of considerable sophistication, the first-person testimony of its subject employed with affectionate discipline, smartly contextualized and augmented by material from interviews Maxine Gordon conducted with the tenor saxophone masters Sonny Rollins and Jimmy Heath, the record producers Bruce Lundvall and Michael Cucsuna, and others ... Maxine Gordon astutely frames the fiery daring of Dexter Gordon’s generation of bebop innovators in the context of rising black consciousness and creative agency in midcentury America ... With Sophisticated Giant, Maxine Gordon has produced a homecoming even more dramatic, and perhaps more important, than the one she helped arrange for him in 1976: She has brought back the restive teenage fireball who wanted only to play some new music.
His long, prolific career may have been characterized by dramatic highs and lows, but the final 15 years of his life were marked by one success after another ... and we get a particularly intimate look at those career highs in this wonderful biography of the iconic jazzman ... Maxine has also done her homework ... She is quite thorough in covering Dexter’s 14-year expatriation to Copenhagen (1962-76), where he was openly embraced by appreciative jazz fans all over Europe ... Most striking for this reader was how, through her intimate, first-hand knowledge of her husband’s life, Maxine was able to convey how the art of jazz was far more than a career path for Dexter and his colleagues. The very spirit and essence of jazz was an attitude and a way of living one’s life as an artist. And certainly Dexter’s warm, soulful, big-toned sound enriched the lives of those who heard and embraced it.
Maxine Gordon...has produced a story of Dexter’s life that is also about the challenge of portraying a reluctant subject ... Sophisticated Giant (which shares its title with a Gordon album) is affectionate, enjoyable and informative, painting a portrait of a handsome, elegant, easygoing person and artist who refused to agonize about his past. Like the man himself, however, the book fails to discuss some things the reader may wonder about ... Perhaps more important, the word 'legacy' in the subtitle is misleading. Maxine Gordon clearly regards as her husband’s crowning achievement his lead performance as the fictional musician Dale Turner, based on the pianist Bud Powell, in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film Round Midnight, for which Gordon was nominated for an Oscar. Jazz fans, though, might be more interested in Gordon’s stylistic influence on other musicians, one obvious example being Sonny Rollins. Maxine Gordon relies on quotes from others for that, and even those are sparse.
Gordon’s life has previously been chronicled, but not with so much of his own achingly personal, brutally honest voice. Sophisticated Giant is not a critical analysis of his music; instead, Maxine has interwoven Dexter’s own letters and poetry with a broad spectrum of anecdotal accounts, plus her own meticulous scholarship and adoring reflections, to craft a vivid life story ... Sophisticated Giant paints vibrant portraits of the critical turning points in Gordon’s early musical development ... One of the highlights of the book is the account of Gordon’s involvement in the making of Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 movie Round Midnight, for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor ... This is a must-read for jazz fans.
The author is not just a Dexter insider, but a thoroughly qualified researcher, particularly as it applies to music. She wasn't just Long Tall Dexter's wife, she was also married to trumpeter Wood Shaw and was a tour manager elbows deep in the music business. [When she writes of the questionable tactics of the shakers and movers in the industry, she know of which she speaks.] The sharp portrayal, with in-depth observations and stories, is also important because Dexter himself is a kind of co-author ... As his health waned, and finishing the memoir was not possible, he asked Maxine to continue; to see the project to fruition. This she did in laudable fashion. Admittedly, there were things the saxophonist did not want to talk about ... But Maxine Gordon, properly, opens the curtain on those blemishes. Not for prurient interests. There is no car wreck to see. Showing hard times makes the eventual triumph more resounding. Rising after one falls is heroic. It's also part of the complete story ... Maxine points out he always thought his story would have a happy endng, even if interrupted by transgressions or trouble laid at his feet by others.