The Troy Street Observer

The Joe Gordon Story, Part 2: Hard Bop

Joe Gordon replaced Clifford Brown in Art Blakey’s pre-Messengers group in early 1954. That band, with alto saxophonist Gigi Gryce, pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. and bassist Bernie Griggs, recorded the album Blakey for EmArcy in May. Gordon stayed with Blakey for about six months.

Photo of Introducing Joe Gordon album cover
Introducing Joe Gordon, EmArcy MG26046, 1954

In September, with Blakey, tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse, pianist Junior Mance, and bassist Jimmy Schenck, Joe recorded for the first time as a leader, also for EmArcy. The album, a 10-inch LP, was titled Introducing Joe Gordon.

The album’s reviews were mixed. Down Beat’s Nat Hentoff praised it (April 6, 1955), writing: “Gordon, though still a little unsteady…unleashes a power and a comet-like imagination that heralds one of the exciting newer voices of the year…All in all, a bracing sample of somewhat raw but always moving jazz.”

Bill Coss in the May Metronome was less complimentary, faulting the group for a lack of imagination: “Trumpeter Gordon and tenorist Charlie Rouse play in a bop-time that’s disastrous from my point of view…This is old-time bop, and it just won’t do today.” Incidentally, both Coss and Hentoff were Bostonians and quite familiar with Joe Gordon and his playing. I find their difference of opinion a fascinating footnote in this story.

You can judge for yourself here on “Boos Bier,” a “Tunisia”-inspired tune written by Quincy Jones.

Gordon continued to work around Boston in 1954-55, with alto saxophonist Bunny Campbell among others. In summer 1955, Gordon toured the northeast with a Don Redman big band, which also included Shorty Baker and Louie Bellson. Joe remembered being on the road for four or five weeks.

There is never a convenient point at which to bring up Joe Gordon’s addiction to heroin. It is impossible to know when it started. I interviewed one trumpeter who worked with Gordon in the early 1950s and he was sure Gordon wasn’t using then. But Joe was an impatient guy, and perhaps he fell into the trap of thinking drugs would help him play better, sooner. He wouldn’t have been the first. Perhaps it dates to his time with Blakey in 1954, his first extended period away from Boston. Whenever it started, it was causing problems for Joe by the mid 1950s.

Climbing the Hard Bop Ladder

In August, Joe Gordon stepped onto the bandstand at the Stable, the Huntington Avenue club at the center of the local jazz scene. He replaced Herb Pomeroy in the house quintet when Pomeroy went with Serge Chaloff for two months. Pomeroy told me he never expected to be rehired there, but the club’s manager decided to use both trumpeters. Gordon, however, was the one getting mentioned in Down Beat.

Pomeroy, meanwhile, was organizing his big band. It debuted at the Stable in November 1955, with Gordon the featured trumpet soloist.

Photo of Byrd's Eye View album cover
Byrd’s Eye View, TRLP-4. Byrd and Gordon battle on “El Sino”!

By December, Donald Byrd occupied the trumpet chair in the Jazz Messengers. He also had a recording contract with Transition Records of Cambridge, and early that month, when the Messengers were at George Wein’s Storyville for a week, they crossed the Charles River to record the album Byrd’s Eye View in a Harvard Square studio. Joe, possibly at Art Blakey’s invitation, sat in on half of the tracks.

Quincy Jones, a friend of Joe’s from his Boston days, gave Gordon his biggest break yet—a chair in the trumpet section of Dizzy Gillespie’s new big band. The U.S. State Department had selected Gillespie to make a nine-week tour of the Middle East, with stops in political hot spots from Pakistan to Greece, starting in late March 1956. Gillespie was already crisscrossing Europe with his own group, so he hired Jones to organize and rehearse the big band stateside.

This was a major move for Gordon, but it didn’t work out. Gordon was not Gillespie’s choice, and things were never quite right between them. Joe’s playing brought excitement to the band, but he also brought his heroin habit and the baggage that came with it. In the end, it wasn’t a good fit. Gordon wanted more opportunities to play, but Gillespie held back. He questioned Gordon’s reliability.

Back in the States in June, the Gillespie band recorded enough material for two Verve albums, but Joe’s trumpet is featured on only one number, “A Night in Tunisia,” on World Statesman.

In early July, Joe Gordon again entered the Jazz Messengers orbit, when he joined Horace Silver and Hank Mobley on their first recording date following their departure from that band. He played on about half the tracks on Silver’s Blue, which was released on Epic Records.

The Gillespie Orchestra commenced a second State Department tour in late July, this one of South America. But Joe, for reasons of health and habit, wasn’t making it and Gillespie sent him home while the band was still in Ecuador, its first stop. The reason, as reported in Down Beat, was a bout with kidney stones.

Back to Boston

August 1956 was a significant month for hard bop trumpeters. Three prized jobs were to be filled that month: with the Jazz Messengers, with Horace Silver’s new quintet, and, tragically, with the Max Roach quartet. Max had to replace Clifford Brown, who died in an auto accident. Joe Gordon had the chops for any of those jobs, but he came up empty. Donald Byrd went with Roach, Art Farmer with Silver, and Bill Hardman with Blakey. Gordon ended up back in Boston. Everybody knew Gillespie fired Gordon, and they knew why. No one in New York wanted to take a chance on him.

Joe rejoined Herb Pomeroy’s band in early 1957, and if Gillespie had been unwilling to let him blow, Pomeroy had no such problem. Joe’s solos were featured on five of the eleven tunes on Pomeroy’s celebrated Roulette album Life Is a Many Splendored Gig, including here on “Feather Merchant.”

Gordon also freelanced around town that year, sometimes with drummer Roy Haynes or saxophonist Roland Alexander. And he had time for a non-musical gig that summer, too. Al Vega told me Joe played on the softball team Al organized to play musicians on other bands traveling through town!

Part 3 will conclude the Joe Gordon story, describing his West Coast years and tragic death.

Read more: The Joe Gordon Story, Part 1  | The Joe Gordon Story, Part 3

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