27 February 1923, Los Angeles, California, USA, d. 25 April 1990, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Gordon began his musical career studying clarinet; by his mid-teens he had switched to tenor saxophone, on which instrument he played with Lionel Hampton in 1940. He stayed with Hampton for a little over two years, recording with the band and gaining in stature so that no less an artist than Coleman Hawkins could nominate him, in 1941, as one of his favourite tenor players. Gordon then worked with Lee Young, his own small group, Fletcher Henderson, Louis Armstrong and Billy Eckstine. By late 1944 Gordon had absorbed many of the new developments in jazz and his exposure to numerous eager beboppers in the Eckstine band soon won him over completely. In the next few years he played frequently on both the east and west coasts, comfortably ignoring the artificial but effective dividing line in the bop of the early 50s. Amongst his playing partners of this period was Wardell Gray, with whom he made several important and much-imitated records.
During the rest of the 50s Gordons career was disrupted by his addiction to narcotics, but by the 60s he was off drugs and playing better than ever. Throughout the 60s and into the 70s he toured extensively, becoming especially popular in Europe where he mostly resided. He returned to the USA in 1976 and continued to record, attracting considerable attention with his mature yet evolving style. His personal life was then in some disarray due to a second broken marriage and a drink problem. He reached a turning point in 1986 when he secured an acting role in a feature film. He had previously dabbled with acting in the early 60s, but the leading role in a major film was a very different matter. He rose to the challenge and the film, Round Midnight, was widely considered an artistic and commercial success with Gordon being nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal of an alcoholic saxophonist.
One of the outstanding tenor saxophonists in jazz, Gordons early influences gave him a deeply felt appreciation of swing. Although he was rightly regarded as a major figure in bop, his playing always displayed his awareness of the swing era cadences. In his up tempo performances, especially in his duets and duels with Gray, there is a thrusting aggression to his playing. On ballads he could be tough or tender, able to enhance any tune through his unique combination of experience and inspiration. His recordings stand as eloquent testimony to a man who influenced many musicians. Perhaps because he was not at his best in his later years (one drummer who worked with him then described the experience as a crash course in playing slow), Gordon was largely ignored by record companies during the 80s, recording only the soundtrack album for Round Midnight between 1982 and his death in 1990. However, in 1985 Blue Note Records, for whom he had made many of his finest records in the 60s, did release the double Nights At The Keystone, comprising live recordings from 1978-79, and later added more material from the same sessions to make up a three-volume CD set with the same title, which was reissued in 1990.
Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.