THE STORY OF Ben WEBSTER and DexTER GORDON (Part 1)
Blog Post #1 | JANUARY 4, 2016
by Maxine Gordon
In celebration of my birthday (January 4th, 2016), I thought I'd share some anecdotes on the special heartfelt relationship that Ben and Dexter shared throughout their lives and careers. A relationship that was deepened by their shared connection to the city of Copehnagen, Denmark.
Dexter was already living in Copenhagen when Ben Webster arrived there. He had been living in Amsterdam but, as Dexter put it, the town wasn’t big enough for two tenor legends—Don Byas was there and it was “his town.” Even though I am thinking about Dexter and trying to understand his life in Copenhagen, somehow Ben’s life there is important to the story. I believe that having Ben there gave Dexter a sense of his own life and the difficulties of being a Jazz musician in the States and made him grateful for having made the decision to live in Europe and for having chosen Copenhagen as his home. Or, as he put it, Copenhagen chose him.
Dexter was thrilled to be around Ben and hear his stories about “the Guv’nor,” as he called Duke Ellington, and to hear him play. He said that Ben was so charming and sociable at the beginning of the evening and as there were more drinks served from admiring fans, other personalities would appear. First Ben would be laughing and talking, then he would get somber and tearful over the past, then he could get angry and aggressive. Dexter always tried to get out the door before the last stages began. He often told stories about being on the road with Ben on a Wim Wigt tour. Wim was a booking agent from Wageningen, Holland and he was quite young and inexperienced when he began booking Ben and Dexter and other Jazz musicians who were living in Europe. Of course as the years went by, he became quite experienced, had a record label, and used U.S. road managers including me, which is how I met Dexter. Dexter always said sending me on the road to Nancy, France to travel with his band during a predicted train strike was the nicest thing Wim Wigt had ever done for him. (But that’s another story that comes in later.)
The story about Dexter and Ben and “Body and Soul” has been told and re-told and written up in many versions in books and articles with interpretations by Dutch musicians and jazz fans, but here is how Dexter told the story and he did not force more meaning into the incident than it needs. Normally, on the gigs with both Dexter and Ben, they would play a finale together. They began to play Body and Soul even though Ben said that it was impossible to add anything to the song after Coleman Hawkins. Ben played his solo first and then Dexter told the piano player, Rob Agerbeek, to play in the “Coltrane style.” This means that there were different chords and a chromatic bass line and a new approach to the standard. When Dexter began to play, Ben started yelling “Hey, motherfucker, how dare you, this is not how you play this piece, who do you think you are, what kind of shit is that...”
According to Dexter, he just kept playing. The pianist has it all on tape in case the story needs to be verified (which it doesn’t). Dexter tried to calm Ben down and explain that they were just trying to do their thing, but Ben wouldn’t hear it. He played one or two more pieces and left the stage and Dexter finished the gig. On the ride back to the hotel, Ben sat in the front with Wim Wigt and Dexter sat in the back with Wim’s wife Ria. Ben kept berating Dexter and the fight continued all the way back to Copenhagen. Ben refused to speak to Dexter for about six weeks which was so upsetting to Dexter because he never wanted to hurt Ben or insult him. Ben said: “Got my phone number?” Dexter said: “Yes, Ben.” Ben said: “Well, lose it.” Dexter wanted to play Body and Soul the way he heard Trane play it and that was the way he played it until the end of his life.
Dexter was first and foremost a jazz fan and he loved to be in the company of the older cats. Whenever any of the older musicians would be in town, he would be sure to be in their company and they treated him like the new kid on the block. The incident with Ben was worrying him until one night Ben came into the Montmartre where Dexter was playing and during the break, he came over to him at the bar and handed him a box. He opened it and it was a gold Cartier cigarette lighter. Ben said: “OK, let’s forget it, but don’t ever do that again.” Dexter was so relieved.
Another time when Ben and Dexter were traveling together, Dexter was taking a solo that seemed way too long to Ben. He asked a friend, “Are they showing Gone with the Wind around here? If so, I can go to see it and come back and Dexter will still be playing the same solo.” Gone with the Wind is 3 hours and 58 minutes long.
“What Ever Happened to Ben Webster’s Horn?”
Ben died in Copenhagen in 1973. When his Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone came up for sale, Dexter bought it and that became his horn. He played it until the end of his life and played it in Round Midnight as well. In 2011, the choreographer, conceptualist, and installation artist had a performance at the Museum of Modern Art. The brilliant Fred Moten was there to discuss his work with Ralph and his collaborator, Okwui Okpokwasili. During the discussion, Ralph said: “I wonder what happened to Ben Webster’s horn?” I wasn’t sure if it was part of the performance or just a random question. After the discussion, I went up to Ralph and said: “I know where Ben’s horn is. It’s in my house. It became Dexter Gordon’s tenor and it is safe with me.” He was so happy to hear it and we had a brief conversation about Ben and I told him that I always visit his grave in Copenhagen and that the streets named for Dexter and Ben intersect each other. There is Dexter Gordons Vej and Ben Websters Vej in what they call “New Jazz City” in Copenhagen. Ralph was delighted to hear about Ben and I was happy to tell him that the horn was safe.
On November 4, 2015, I went to hear Fred Moten read at The Kitchen as part of another performance by Ralph Lemon. Ralph invited me to the performance of Scaffold Room the following evening. It was spoken word, music, dance in the spectacular way that Ralph Lemon combines so many things to involve his audience. In the middle of the piece, the woman dancer/artist comes forward and said: “When we did this piece at MoMA, I said, ‘I wonder what happened to Ben Webster’s horn’ and Maxine Gordon came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I know where the horn is. It’s in my house. It was Dexter Gordon’s horn after Ben died.’ I had no idea that he had included that story in his piece and there I was, sitting there in the audience and in a flash I was in the performance. I looked around but of course no one knew why I had made a discreet shriek when I heard my name. After the performance, Ralph and I had a big laugh about it and I understood how he is always moving the line between audience and performance. The irony of the situation was that I was leaving on November 8 for Copenhagen for the premiere of a TV documentary on Dexter and Ben Webster called Cool Cats. Since I do not believe in coincidence, I felt that this connection between Dexter and Ben was something I needed to think about.
Cool Cats is a Danish documentary telling the story of Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon living in Copenhagen. There is some remarkable film footage taken by Ben with his 8mm camera from the window of his apartment and at the zoo and footage of him performing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra at Tivoli Gardens. It also shows Dexter riding his bicycle and performing at the Montmartre and doing an interview speaking in Danish. Though the footage is very spirited and the musical excerpts are splendid, the film tends to portray them as being “saved” by living in Copenhagen. We know that both Dexter and Ben enjoyed being able to work frequently in Denmark and Scandinavia and that they were widely appreciated in Denmark, but the film posed some questions about the scope of their lives and their connection to the U.S. After discussions with the director, some changes were made in the one-hour version of the film made for TV. The U. S. Ambassador to Denmark, Rufus Gifford, introduced the film and the audience was filled with old friends of Dexter’s and musicians who worked with him. The following night, the film was shown at the Montmartre jazz club and we had a discussion about the film and a musical tribute was performed in honor of Ben and Dexter. Being in Copenhagen means seeing old friends and being back in Dexter’s second home. It is always good to be there.
We are hoping to get permission to screen Cool Cats in New York City and open it up for discussion here. Dexter talked about Ben often and he would joke about the horn and how he hoped he could play a ballad as well as Ben did by having his horn. Of course, he also said “It’s not the horn that makes the sound, it’s the horn player.” Listen to Ben Webster playing Stardust in Copenhagen in 1965. Thank you. Maxine
On that note, have a listen to Ben Webster playing Stardust in Copenhagen in 1965.