When Dexter Gordon's name appeared on the immigration control
computer at Charles de Gaulle Airport, he was wearing the hat he wore
playing Dale Turner in "Round Midnight," a role that won him
an Academy Award nomination.
"Long Tall Dexter" is
an imposing figure and the film did well. Several arriving passengers
recognized him waiting on a bench and said hello. But as he leaned on
his tenor saxophone case, jet-lagged at 8.30 A.M., his wife, Maxine,
thought he looked as fragile as the doomed Turner in the film.
was feeling more like Jean Valjean. On Monday night, Dexter and Maxine
were in a Right Bank hotel suite. They had flown first class from New
York. He recently told a friend that he had never believed a saxophone
player could make so much money. This is one plot that thickens after
the happy ending.
"Remember that guy in 'Les Misérables'?"
Gordon asked. "They chased Jean Valjean for 20 years for a loaf
So there he was, about to start his first
major tour since becoming a household name, sitting in the holding
area of Charles de Gaulle Airport, being rejected by the country that
had provided his big break; being held by the French police for five
hours because of an old drugs charge.
In 1967, Gordon had
been working the cellars of the Saint-Germain-des-Pres, living the
expatriate lifestyle that "Round Midnight" made a
pop-culture myth - the wounded African American jazz hero ignored at
home, scraping by but accepted as an artist in Europe.
Gordon is an important figure in the history of what is called
America's native art form. He played a concerto for saxophone with the
New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan.
Like others of his alienated generation he was once addicted to
heroin, and in 1967 in Paris he had been arrested for it.
wasn't possession," he recalled, "but they observed me
buying and I was obviously a user. I wasn't hurting anybody but
myself. It was a misdemeanor." He spent two months in prison ("which
was just as well because I cleaned up") before being able to
arrange bail. A few months later he received a three-month suspended
He had to sign in at the police prefecture once a week, which
took a good part of the day. He read Henry Miller's Quiet Days in
Clichy while waiting on a bench. Finally he was told to leave the
In 1971 Gordon received a letter on Interior
Ministry stationery (he still carries it) that said he could enter
France to work for three month periods. He has toured France many
times since. The letter straightened out occasional problems at the
Although he was tired right then after his
adventure with the douane, you could see that in general he was
glowing at the age of 64. His eyes had a survivor's twinkle and
constantly slow-motion hands added twists of irony to his husky voice.
"Round Midnight" was in production, the Socialist minister
of culture, Jack Lang, gave Gordon one of France's most sought-after
cultural awards, proclaiming him aChevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et
The film's producer, Irwin Winkler, had reminded French
consular officials in New York about the award when they checked the
records and held up formalities before Gordon's current tour.
They gave him a three-year visa, but "when I showed it at
the airport, Le chef said: 'This doesn't mean anything. The
consulate people in New York don't know what they're doing.' That's a
quote. And he didn't want to know anything about any old letter."
Gordon said he was led into a series of rooms - "You know
like the police do, so your lawyer can't get to you" - while
Maxine his wife, who is also his manager, tried to get out of the
transit area and telephone for help.
"I went nuts on
them," she recalled. "I said they were a bunch of fascists
and we were going home on the next plane and we'll never play France
Gordon said a sympathetic officer told him they
would have let him go sooner if his wife had not been so rude. "He
told me, 'This chef, he's a racist, and he hates Americans. He'll keep
you as long as he can.'"
Waiting in a locker room around
noon, Gordon watched officers "come in and dig into their beer
stash - not one of them offered me a taste." This was said with a
raised eyebrow and a wink, followed by the observation: "I think
it's pretty weird that Klaus Barbie benefits from a 20-year statute of
limitations and not me."
He lost his temper only once,
when an officer picked up his hat, Dale Turner's hat. Gordon rose,
pointed and growled: "Touche pas le chapeau" - don't
touch the hat.
After five hours, the chief issued a nine-day
visa that covered the French portion of Gordon's European tour. Before
the Dexter Gordon Quartet played for 5,000 people in the Grande Halle
de la Villette, Jack Lang visited the dressing room and said, "Dexter,
please don't blame the French people for this."
Interior Ministry official invited Gordon to his office and, without
apologizing, extended the nine days to one month. Gordon did not
consider it a victory. He likes France; he had been considering coming
back for a vacation in Biarritz. That was now, let's say, postponed.
said he thought about "all the people this sort of thing happens
to every day - people who don't get any attention." And he added:
it probably wouldn't have happened to me if I was wearing my chevalier
medal. Next time I come to France I'm going to wear my medal."