One of the most well-known jazz expats was tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who also garnered attention as a screen actor. Samuel G. Freedman wrote a review for The New York Times of the 1986 film, ‘Round Midnight, starring Gordon. The film brought Gordon an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and won a Grammy for the soundtrack.
In telling the story of the fictional Dale Turner (Mr. Gordon) – a gifted and self-destructive musician admired in France as he never was in the United States – ” ‘Round Midnight” summons up one of the sad paradoxes in jazz history. For almost as long as this American music has existed, many of its foremost figures have chosen to live in exile, from Sidney Bechet in the 1920s to Johnny Griffin in the 1980s, and, for a 14-year period ending in 1976, Dexter Gordon.
The jazz expatriates acted out of a sense of imperative, of necessity – the necessity to work, the necessity to be accepted as an artist, the necessity to be treated as a human being. Leaving one’s own country is never a simple decision, and for a jazz musician it meant losing contact with not only friends and family but the social, racial and musicological wellsprings of the sound. ”’Round Midnight” sets forth that conflict in its opening scene. Dale Turner tells a dying musician named Herschel (clearly based on Herschel Evans, the influential tenor saxophonist in the Count Basie band) that he is moving to France. ”You won’t play no different in Paris,” Herschel says. Dale replies, ”No cold eyes in Paris.”
For the real jazz expatriates, life in Europe proved rather less idyllic than ”’Round Midnight” suggests. Some, like Don Byas, died abroad, embittered and obscure. Others, such as Mr. Gordon and the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, eventually returned to the United States. Many musicians had discovered that for all that recommended Europe, life on the Continent came at the price of dislocation; some also learned that racism existed east as well as west of the Atlantic. It fell largely to Mr. Gordon, who had never acted before ”’Round Midnight,” to personify all this history.
If you have never seen the movie, I strongly suggest you watch it. This performance of “Body and Soul” is from the film.
Jose Bernardez, who posted the clip to YouTube in 2018, writes:
Gordon’s sound was commonly characterized as being “large” and spacious and he had a tendency to play behind the beat. He was famous for humorously inserting musical quotes into his solos, with sources as diverse as popular tunes, “Happy Birthday”, and the operas of Wagner. This is not unusual in common-practice jazz improvisation, but Gordon did it frequently enough to make it a hallmark of his style. One of his major influences was Lester Young. Gordon, in turn, was an early influence on John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. Rollins and Coltrane then influenced Gordon’s playing as he explored hard bop and modal playing during the 1960s. Gordon was known for his genial and humorous stage presence. He was an advocate of playing to communicate with the audience. One of his idiosyncratic rituals was to recite lyrics from each ballad before playing it.
A photograph by Herman Leonard of Gordon taking a smoke break at the Royal Roost in 1948 is one of the iconic images in jazz photography. Cigarettes were a recurring theme on covers of Gordon’s albums.
The Leonard “smoke break” photos truly are iconic.
This full set of Gordon, recorded in Denmark in 1967, demonstrates his big sound.
For those of you interested in a deeper dive into Gordon’s remarkable life, I recommend you read his biography Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon, researched and written by his wife, Maxine Gordon.
Dexter Gordon the icon is the Dexter beloved and celebrated on albums, on film, and in jazz lore–even in a street named for him in Copenhagen. But this image of the cool jazzman fails to come to terms with the multidimensional man full of humor and wisdom, a figure who struggled to reconcile being both a creative outsider who broke the rules and a comforting insider who was a son, father, husband, and world citizen. This essential book is an attempt to fill in the gaps created by our misperceptions as well as the gaps left by Dexter himself.
I can attest to his humor. I had the good fortune to kid around with him when, back in the 1970s, I was working as a bartender at a club called the JazzBoat on New York’s Lower East Side, which Gordon frequented. He drank Tanqueray and tonic, and as soon as he walked through the doors—he was easy to spot since at 6’ 6’’ he was taller than everyone else—I’d have his drink already poured. He’d sniff at it suspiciously and ask if I’d substituted anything in the mix, then wink as he tossed back his drink. I had a major crush on him, and with no disrespect to his widow (or my husband), I still do.
Kim Hjelmgaard, writing about contemporary Black expats for USA Today, references some earlier history.
Writers James Baldwin and Richard Wright and entertainer Josephine Baker relocated to Paris. Wright and Baker died in France’s capital. Poet Langston Hughes was part of an expatriate community in London. Jazz and blues singer Nina Simone decided to see out her days in France, and after she stopped performing, she never returned to what she called the “United Snakes of America.” Simone also lived in Liberia, Barbados, Belgium, the U.K., the Netherlands and Switzerland. When she died in 2003, her ashes, at her request, were scattered across several African countries.
Freedman brought up another expat, Don Byas, in his Times review above. Scott Yanow at All Music offers this brief bio.
One of the greatest of all tenor players, Don Byas’ decision to move permanently to Europe in 1946 resulted in him being vastly underrated in jazz history books. His knowledge of chords rivaled Coleman Hawkins, and, due to their similarity in tones, Byas can be considered an extension of the elder tenor. He played with many top swing bands, including those of Lionel Hampton (1935), Buck Clayton (1936), Don Redman, Lucky Millinder, Andy Kirk (1939-1940), and most importantly Count Basie (1941-1943).
An advanced swing stylist, Byas’ playing looked toward bop. He jammed at Minton’s Playhouse in the early ’40s, appeared on 52nd Street with Dizzy Gillespie, and performed a pair of stunning duets with bassist Slam Stewart at a 1944 Town Hall concert. After recording extensively during 1945-1946 (often as a leader), Byas went to Europe with Don Redman’s band, and (with the exception of a 1970 appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival) never came back to the U.S. He lived in France, the Netherlands, and Denmark; often appeared at festivals; and worked steadily. Whenever American players were touring, they would ask for Byas, who had opportunities to perform with Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, Jazz at the Philharmonic (including a recorded tenor battle with Hawkins and Stan Getz), Art Blakey, and (on a 1968 recording) Ben Webster. Byas also recorded often in the 1950s, but was largely forgotten in the U.S. by the time of his death.
I never know what I’m going to find surfing through YouTube and was surprised to find this video, which, according to the Library of Congress, was produced for Dutch television by Nick Van Den Boezem in 1970, and documents Byas’ only “return home.”
One of my all-time favorite tunes, “On Green Dolphin Street,” was written for a film by Bronislau Kaper, in 1947 (the year I was born) and surprisingly became a jazz standard. I love this version—live from Haarlem (not Harlem) from Byas and the Jacobs Brothers.
Peter Beije reviewed the full album, Don Byas meets the Jacobs Brothers,” for Jazz in Europe back in 2016.
Don Byas lived the last seventeen years of his life in the Netherlands. He died in 1972 in Amsterdam at the age of 59. Now, decades later, there is the first Dutch album of this famous tenor saxophonist. The radio broadcast recordings of a Don Byas concert in Haarlem in 1964 has become an important tribute. Don Byas was one of the most important tenor saxophonists of the bebop era. Later influences of modern movements in jazz found their way into his game. Celebrities like John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins spoke with reverence about him. Coleman Hawkins was his main influence when he was a young saxophonist. When he played in the Count Basie big band, he sat on the chair position of Lester Young had. After Byas left the orchestra, Young reoccupied that chair!
After a tour in Europe with the Don Redman big band in 1946, Don Byas decided to stay in Europe. Initially he lived in Paris. While in The Netherlands, he met his Dutch wife and settled in Amsterdam. Despite the fact that he lived for seventeen years in The Netherlands, was never recorded an entire album in his second homeland. There is an EP “Blues by Byas’, but that’s all there is.
That’s now been corrected posthumously with this first rate CD. On “Don Byas meets The Jacobs Brothers”, the tenor saxophonist is in great shape. At the time of the original recording, his fellow musicians where considered the Netherlands finest. For example, pianist Pim Jacobs often had American musicians request he play with them while in Europe. Jacobs younger brother Ruud Jacobs and drummer John Engels formed a swinging duo – both, incidentally, still play. Don Byas plays impressive solos include “On Green Dolphin Street,” “I remember Clifford” and “Moonlight in Vermont”. The listener can really take time to appreciate this wonderful 11 track CD as it last for 75 minutes.
Lest you think I am slighting other expat instrumentalists by only featuring horn players, NEA Jazzmaster, drummer, and bandleader Kenny “Klook” Clarke was another expat who left the states for Paris in 1956.
Kenny Clarke, known among musicians as “Klook” for one of his characteristic drum licks, is truly a jazz pioneer. He was a leader in the rhythmic advances that signaled the beginning of the modern jazz era, his drum style becoming the sound of bebop and influencing drummers such as Art Blakey and Max Roach […]
A stint in the Army from 1943-46 introduced him to pianist John Lewis. After their discharge he and Lewis joined Gillespie’s bebop big band, which gave Clarke his first taste of Paris during a European tour. After returning to New York, he joined the Milt Jackson Quartet, which metamorphosed into the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1952. Though he and Lewis remained friends, Clarke chafed at what he felt was the too-staid atmosphere of the MJQ. In 1956, he migrated to Paris, which became his home for nearly 30 years, working with Jacques Helian’s band and backing up visiting U.S. jazz artists.
During the years 1960-73, he co-led the major Europe-based jazz big band with Belgian pianist Francy Boland, the Clarke-Boland Big Band. The band featured the best of Europe’s jazz soloists, including a number of exceptional U.S. expatriate musicians living in Europe. Among these were saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Sahib Shihab, and trumpeter Idrees Sulieman. After the disbanding of his big band, Clarke found numerous opportunities both on the bandstand and teaching in the classroom. He remained quite active as a freelancer, often working with visiting U.S. jazz musicians, until his death in 1985. In 1988, Clarke was inducted into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Check out Clarke’s crowd-stirring drumming on the Italian music show Senza Rete in 1970.
Clarke, one of the key founders of bebop, was interviewed for Danish television in 1970; he looks back on the birth of the genre.
Rutgers University Library has a 283-page transcript of oral history interviews with Clarke, as conducted by jazz historian, producer, and critic Helen Oakley Dance. Reading through it, I was struck by his memories of his first time playing in Europe while he was in the U.S. Army, and feeling that the response from the audience was “different”—more interested and respectful than he’d experienced here in the States.
Quite a few expat musicians I interviewed during my days at WPFW-FM in Washington, D.C., spoke about their ability to find a more open listening audience in Europe, as well as more venues to play what became known as “avant-garde” and “free jazz.”
Whatever your particular jazz style of choice is, and whether or not you celebrate the July 4th as Independence Day, please do raise a glass today to those musicians who took home with them to foreign shores, and in many ways helped preserve and promote the legacy of jazz for us all.
Enjoy your day, and please join me in the comments section for more great jazz.