The Troy Street Observer

The Joe Gordon Story, Part 1: Boston

Trumpeter Joe Gordon was only 35 when he died in 1963, and he was in and out of the limelight during his too-brief career. Relatively little is known about him, and it seems like the same few biographical sentences copied from The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz appear on website after website. With the anniversary of his birth approaching, I thought it was time to dig deeper into Gordon’s history.

Photo of Joe Gordon, 1954
From back cover of 1954 LP, Introducing Joe Gordon

Part 1 of this three-part post covers Joe’s early years, mainly spent in Boston, and stops in 1953, the year Joe met Clifford Brown. Part 2 covers his hard bop and big band years, from 1954 with Art Blakey to his flight to West Coast in 1958. Part 3 covers his final years in California, ending with the tragic fire that killed him in 1963.

Gordon’s was an original and confident voice, and writers such as Nat Hentoff, John Tynan and John S. Wilson noted with approval his big sound, clean, articulate attack, and creative solos brimming with ideas. In terms of influences, Joe himself said: “I always seem to have liked Miles’ melodic thing with Dizzy’s drive, but actually it would be hard to say which one of the trumpet players I did follow. I always seemed to have a scope wide enough to employ everyone’s style.”

Early Years in Boston

Joe Gordon was born in Boston May 15, 1928 and grew up at 706 Columbus Avenue, about five blocks west of Massachusetts Avenue—the Jazz Corner of Boston. He started on piano at about age 12, but gave it up for the bugle and a marching band because, as he told Val Wilmer in a 1960 Jazz Journal interview, a girl taking lessons with the same teacher played better than he did. This is the first evidence we have of Joe’s restlessness and impatience. After the bugle came his first trumpet. His first influences were Roy Eldridge and Sweets Edison, whom he called “the most creative trumpeter to ever come along.” And we should not forget the influence of Gene Caines, the longtime trumpeter and arranger with Sabby Lewis, and Boston’s top trumpeter all through the 1940s.

Gordon was too young to join pianist Hopeton Johnson’s working band, but during the war years, he sat in the weekly jam sessions staged at Johnson’s home. Recalled Johnson in 1987: “Every Sunday at our house, I’d have all the fellows come over and we’d jam. I gave Joe Gordon his first gig. I used to go by his house on Columbus Avenue and ask his mother for him to come over and jam with us because he was only fifteen years old. He had an old trumpet with black tape on it.”

Gordon studied privately with Fred Berman, who taught at the New England Conservatory. He quit because he found the practice regimen boring—another instance of that impatience—although he later acknowledged Berman’s positive influence.

In his late teens, Gordon sold sandwiches on the Boston & Albany Railroad, which contracted with the New York Central to run trains west as far as Chicago. He always brought his horn with him, and on layovers he’d hang around the clubs looking for opportunities to play. In 1947, in Akron, Joe sat in with the territory band of vibist Pete Diggs. Most sources credit this as Joe’s first professional engagement.

Finding His Voice

Back in Boston, bop had not yet taken hold in 1947, but Joe certainly heard it. He formed his own group, Joe Gordon and the Be-Boppers—the personnel, unfortunately, unknown. He was powerfully influenced by Dizzy Gillespie; Down Beat praised Gordon as “the town’s outstanding Diz trumpeter” in December that year—but also noted that he wasn’t finding much work. Gordon remained a Gillespie disciple throughout his career, and it was a thrill for him to join Gillespie’s big band in 1956. (Marshall Stearns, who wrote liner notes for that orchestra’s albums, even referred to Joe as “Little Diz.”)

Nineteen forty-nine found Gordon in a bop sextet with Sam Rivers, working regularly at Louie’s Lounge on Washington Street. The pianist was Jimmie Martin, who led an Eckstine-inspired big band of local significance. Rivers was also on the Martin band, and he vividly recalled Gordon’s strong solos, and his unison playing with valve trombonist Hampton Reese. (Reese later served as B.B. King’s music director for almost 25 years).

The Hi-Hat, the top nightclub on the Jazz Corner, was emerging as a spot on the national jazz map in 1949-50, and Joe was sometimes called to work there. One such engagement was a week with saxophonist Georgie Auld in January 1950. Auld came to the Hi-Hat and worked one night with the house band, but didn’t like it. He asked Al Vega, the intermission pianist, to assemble another one, and Gordon was on it. In March, Joe worked a week with Thelonious Monk at the same club.

In April 1951, Gordon played with Charlie Parker for the first time, at the Symphony Ballroom on Huntington Avenue, sitting in on “Cherokee.” He was Bird’s Boston trumpeter of choice thereafter, and can be heard with Parker at the Hi-Hat in 1952 on an Uptown Records CD. Joe takes a nice solo on “Scrapple from the Apple” from that session.

“Joe Gordon Was a Natural”

In 1951 Gordon replaced Lennie Johnson in the Sabby Lewis Orchestra. The band was good—Hiawatha Lockhart was the other trumpeter, longtime Sam Donahue sideman George Perry anchored the sax section, and Alan Dawson was on drums. Lockhart told me this anecdote in 2008:

Joe Gordon was a natural. I’ll give you an example. When Lennie Johnson left Sabby’s band to go with Basie, Joe was going to take his place. We used to play “Prince Albert,” Kenny Dorham’s tune, and played it fast. It was Alan Dawson’s arrangement, and he arranged it in a different key, and it made it harder, playing all those triplets in the wrong key. So I told Joe we’d run through it, and I counted it off nice and slow and Joe played it with no problem. We ran though it again, faster, and Joe played it with no problem. Then I said, OK Joe, this time you play it and I’ll lay out. And he played it at its regular speed, which is fast, but he played the whole phrase with just one finger. I couldn’t believe it. I asked him, how did you do that? He said, that’s just the way I hear it. Later on I told Lennie about that, and he couldn’t believe it either. He said remember how much trouble we had learning that piece? Joe got it right off, though. That’s why I say he was a natural.

Sabby offered steady work, but as Gordon told Val Wilmer, “Between gigs with Sabby Lewis, I had a chance to really play like I wanted to, with Charlie Mariano, and I recorded with him for Prestige.” That was on Mariano’s The New Sounds from Boston, recorded in December 1951, the album that heralded the arrival of the modern jazz generation in Boston. It was also Joe’s recording debut. Here is a brief taste of bop from that album:

By May 1952, Joe was gigging regularly with the octet of pianist Hillary Rose, a mainstay of the post-war Boston jazz scene. Gordon told Wilmer: “I’m telling you, this cat is soulful, though he can’t read a note!”

Gordon himself wasn’t much of a reader, and he apparently had little interest in learning. He relied on what Hi Lockhart called his natural ability. Trumpeter Don Stratton recalled an anecdote from 1950:

Joe came to me for help with reading—I’d give him some music, and he’d go learn it, and come back and play it. We’d play duets. And he’d always have some other music that he’d want me to run through. One day I ran into Gene Caines on the street and mentioned that Gordon had been coming around for lessons. Caines said, yeah, he’s been coming over to my house for lessons too. So Gordon was taking my music to Caines and getting him to play it, and he was bringing Gene’s music to me and getting me to play it, so he was learning from one and playing it back to the other!

In spring 1953, the saxophonist Jimmy Tyler organized a group with Gordon and baritone saxophonist Wally Brodis. That summer, Joe met Clifford Brown. Gordon told Wilmer, “When I was with Jimmy around ’53, ’54, I played with Clifford Brown in Atlantic City. He was there with Tadd Dameron, and though we never worked in a band together, we used to blow together a lot.” Then he again demonstrated the impatience of the bored trumpet student and the lazy reader: “Now there was the difference between Clifford and myself. He would stay home and practice, but to me he was an idiot—learning how to read and all that junk… like Harry James!” He did go on to say “Clifford Brown was a genius,” and acknowledged Brown’s influence on his own playing.

Read more: The Joe Gordon Story, Part 2  | The Joe Gordon Story, Part 3

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