Ben Webster & Dexter Gordon - Part 2
By Maxine Gordon
In 1983, we went to live in Cuernavaca, City of Eternal Spring, about 50 miles from Mexico City, for the winter months. Dexter was taking herbal treatments and acupuncture and swimming in the pool and walking to the the center of town, the zocalo. He had brought his tenor and soprano saxophones with him of course but he wasn’t practicing too much. He said he was trying to recuperate from the road and from years of being on and off airplanes and trains and buses.
The winter months we spent in Cuernavaca over a period of five years were filled with days of reading, reflection, swimming, and many notes on yellow-lined legal pads for the book Dexter was going to write. He planned to call it The Saga of Society Red, a fictionalized account of a jazz musician who lived a life that he only dreamed of when he first heard the Duke Ellington Orchestra with his parents at the age of seven in 1930.
One afternoon in 1985, he was taking a nap upstairs in our bedroom that had a terrace that looked out onto Popocatépetl, the active snow covered volcano. Here’s how he told and retold the dream about Ben Webster who had died in 1973. (And no, that is not our house in the photo above.) I wish!
“Ben walked into the room. First he stood in the doorway and then he walked over to the bed. He looked good, very sharp. He sat on the side of the bed. I remember that the bed sank in when he sat down. I was glad to see him. He looked at me and said: ‘You need to get up and start practicing. You sound like shit. Pick up the horn and practice.’ I said: ‘OK Ben. I’ll start today.’ He said: ‘I’ll hold you to that promise.’ Then he got up and walked out the door.”
After that dream, Dexter started practicing again. He left the horn case open most of the day and would pick it up when he passed by it and play a scale or two. Then he started with his exercises and then began to think about some new music he wanted to write. The horn became part of his daily routine and he even practiced outside in the garden and would play duets with his friend Larry Russell when he came to visit.
We were in Cuernavaca when the first call came about the possibility of Dexter playing a part in a French film which, of course, became the leading role in Round Midnight. He said that if Ben hadn’t come to him in that dream, he never would have been able to play the horn in the film and he would not have played concerto Ellingtones, composed by David Baker for him and performed with the New York Philharmonic, gone on tour again in Europe and played with the Tokyo Symphony. His last public performance on the S.S. Norway in 1988 was dedicated to Ben Webster. He played Stardust with Tommy Flanagan on piano. It all went back to a dream with Ben.