The Troy Street Observer

The Joe Gordon Story, Part 3: California

Joe Gordon Story Part 1 | Joe Gordon Story Part 2

In early spring 1958, Joe Gordon abruptly left Boston for California. His last known date with Herb Pomeroy was March 18. The story has it that he stopped by the Stable to tell Pomeroy he was leaving town, and he left that same night. Allegedly Joe owed a drug dealer money, was told “pay up or else,” and fled. It might be true, it might not, but the story conforms to the generally accepted Gordon narrative.

Photo of Joe Gordon, 1961
Joe Gordon, 1961. Photo by Roger Marshutz

Gordon was strung out when he arrived in Los Angeles, but he found work with the help of drummer Shelly Manne, who became one of Gordon’s strongest supporters on the West Coast. Joe gigged with Dexter Gordon and Hampton Hawes among others. He also married Irma, whom he’d known in Boston, after arriving in L.A., and he later named one of his better-known tunes for her, “Terra Firma Irma.”

Manne had a recording date with Benny Carter and he got Joe on it too, sharing trumpet duties with Al Porcino and Ray Triscari. The result was the Carter album Aspects. Soon after, in about July, Gordon voluntarily entered the residential recovery program at Synanon, where he remained for about four months.

Through Manne, Joe met another ally, Lester Koenig, the founder of Contemporary Records. Joe would play on seven Contemporary sessions over a two-year period—his own album in 1961, plus three with Manne and one each with Barney Kessel, Helen Humes and Jimmy Woods. (See Michael Fitzgerald’s comprehensive Joe Gordon discography.)

Gordon left Synanon in November, against the recommendations of the staff, to join Shelly Manne’s group. The 18 months with Manne’s Men were a high point for Joe. The band worked steadily and maintained a stable lineup—and it could swing. (Besides Manne, the group included tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca, pianist Victor Feldman and bassist Monty Budwig.)

This quintet recorded the four-album series, Live at the Black Hawk for Contemporary in September 1959. Reviewers rated the records as average; the lengthy live tracks featured moments of brilliance wrapped in longer passages of less interest. “Everything—solos and selections—are stretched out beyond all reason,” wrote John S. Wilson in Down Beat. Joe earned praise for his solos on “Summertime” and “Blue Daniel” on Volume 1, although Nat Hentoff in Stereo Review noted that Gordon “seems to have lost the wild daring, at least on this album, that used to characterize his early playing in Boston.” The critics never got around to reviewing “Nightingale” or the imaginative “A Gem from Tiffany’s” on Volume 4, other strong Gordon statements.

Joe’s other albums with Manne were Son of Gunn and the soundtrack for the film, The Proper Time. Billboard in June 1961 called the music on the latter “provocative and attractive,” and praised Gordon’s work. Here is Joe’s ballad, “Doreen’s Blues (Part 4),” from that all-but-forgotten album.

Playing “Like the End of the World Was at Hand”

Manne’s Men toured Europe in early 1960, and this is when journalist and photographer Valerie Wilmer interviewed Joe for Jazz Journal. The interview, published in September 1960, is Joe’s only substantial recounting of his own career. The interview is important for that reason, although Joe avoids the tough topics. Wilmer concludes that Gordon “is an interesting and likeable man, a rebel with a difference, in that he wants to break with modernist introversion. Listening to him play, there seemed to be a certain something lacking in his improvisation. But, he is only 31…and has plenty of time to reach greater things.”

Joe stopped off in New York on the way back to California. In early April he worked at the Five Spot with Kenny Dorham. Gordon’s playing amazed Don Nelson, the jazz critic at the Daily News. The tone of Nelson’s review was basically “who is this guy?” He wrote: “Gordon displays a fertile musical mind, a keen lyric sense and a powerful tone, which he combines with a considerable measure of self-assurance. He charged into those tunes like the end of the world was at hand.”

The East Coast visit gave Gordon a boost, and he produced some outstanding work during his first months back in Los Angeles. His musical companion at the time was tenor saxophonist Harold Land. Land was also under contract to Contemporary Records, and the two, along with Wes Montgomery, recorded West Coast Blues for that label in May. Here is “Terrain” from that album.

Gordon and Land were also the “Plus Two” on Live at the Blackhawk by the Thelonious Monk Quartet Plus Two, a one-nighter recorded in April for Riverside Records.

Photo of Harold Land and Joe Gordon
Harold Land, Barry Harris, Wes Montgomery, Joe Gordon at the West Coast Blues session

Gordon’s approach was changing in early 1960. He still had the big sound he inherited from his Eldridge-to-Gillespie lineage, but he was also listening to Miles Davis in this the year after Kind of Blue. And there was a relaxed swing to these performances, revealing a kinship to Blue Mitchell’s work at the time.

After Manne, a Solo Career

Joe Gordon left Shelly Manne in September 1960. Why Gordon chose to leave a name band with plenty of work is something of a mystery. Nonetheless, 1961 promised to be a good year for Joe, and in July, after a seven-year wait, he recorded his second album as a leader, Lookin’ Good!, for Contemporary Records. His quintet included two L.A. up-and-comers, alto saxophonist Jimmy Woods and pianist Dick Whittington, and the well-traveled Contemporary session men Jimmy Bond on bass and Milt Turner on drums.

John S. Wilson reviewed the album for Down Beat (Jan 4, 1962), and he praised Gordon’s playing: “Gordon has a clean crisp attack with a bright, brassy sound and a singing quality that make his solos flow easily.” Gordon composed all the music, and Wilson liked the variety and changes of pace. But he also noted that the quintet followed the Miles Davis model, and that “The main drawback to this set is that the group…follows such a currently common groove that much of its work lacks an identifiable individual distinction.” It needed that distinction. Among its competition in 1961 were Whistle Stop by Kenny Dorham, The Cat Walk by Donald Byrd, and Out Front by Booker Little.

Here is “Mariana” from Lookin’ Good!

There was a final session for Contemporary in September, and then Joe Gordon dropped from sight. I don’t know where he went or whether some legal or medical malady forced him off the scene. Unlike 1958, though, he didn’t have another coast to flee to.

The Last Days of Joe Gordon

Two years later, Gordon re-emerged. Down Beat’s John Tynan reviewed his new group, with saxophonist Jeff Lasky, at Shelly’s Manne-Hole (Oct 24, 1963). Manne still believed in Gordon, and the new band had dates at his club all summer. Tynan raved about his sound:

Joe Gordon, for all his tragic record of personal problems in recent years, today is playing probably the best modern trumpet on the West Coast. He stands out among contemporary trumpeters in that his sound is, so to speak, of the “old school”—big, solid, round-toned, lots of body to it. But the ideas he offers are as new as the next moment. Add to that the fact that Gordon is as hard a swinger as one may ever hear. He is, in short, just about the ideal modern trumpeter, a player who, had not the fates decreed otherwise, would have been accorded hosannas long ago.

High praise indeed, but at the time Tynan wrote those words, Gordon was scuffling—living in an abandoned building slated for demolition and lighting his room with candles. It was a long way from touring Europe with Shelly Manne.

Joe Gordon played his trumpet for the last time on October 30, sitting in with Ralph Pena’s band at the Manne-Hole. The musicians hung out into the early morning hours before going their separate ways. Joe went home, and a few hours later fire consumed his room. Firefighters speculated that Joe fell asleep and dropped a cigarette or knocked over a candle. His injuries were devastating; he suffered third-degree burns over 85 percent of his body but somehow he hung on for four days. He died on November 4.

John Tynan wrote a sympathetic Down Beat piece, “The Final Hours of Joe Gordon” (Jan 30, 1964), and it provides some information about Gordon’s frame of mind in his last months. He noted that Gordon’s friends said he was drug-free and getting on with his life, and playing with enthusiasm. Tynan also mentioned that Gordon had more than a drug problem; he had long-term mental health issues that were the root cause of his personal difficulties. He didn’t elaborate.

Tynan talked to Chuck Dederich, the director of Synanon, who provided one last reminder that Joe Gordon was an impatient man. Said an angry Dederich: “He had his chance here. He was going great. But we couldn’t keep him from going with Shelly Manne; he wanted to go. There’s no excuse for this at all. He should be alive today. He signed his death warrant when he walked out of here.” Heroin impeded Gordon’s career and wreaked havoc on his personal life, and whether he was using in October 1963 or not, Dederich was certain it contributed to his death.

His mother shipped his body back to Boston and a memorial service was held there on November 9. The story ends, and if anyone has published a fitting coda for the life and career of Joe Gordon, I haven’t found it. He was a good modern trumpeter who never reached the heights forecast by his early career. He was known as a fiery soloist but was underrated as a ballad player. He was an enthusiastic man, he wanted to get somewhere in the world of jazz, but his impatience sometimes betrayed his desire. So we add Joe to that long list of horn men who left us too soon. He was only 35 when he died. Like John Tynan, I wish the fates had been kinder to Joe Gordon.

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To read the rest of the story: Joe Gordon Story Part 1 | Joe Gordon Story Part 2

A postscript: Fellow blogger Steve Proviser, in his Joe Gordon post at Brilliant Corners, offers analysis of Joe’s playing and supplies many more links to his music.

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  1. I met Joe’s wife Irma on a number of occasions in the mid 1980s. She would come into a bar where I was playing with the Junior Cook/Bill Harman quintet to listen. I think she was with Blue MItchell after Joe Gordon.

    • Can you tell me in what city you met Irma? And Junior Cook… I should write a post on Junior, who spent some time in Boston in the late ’60s and early ’70s, teaching at Berklee part of that time. Thanks for dropping by!

    • Thank you, Frank. It bothered me that I could not find a decent biography of Joe Gordon anywhere online. Too many sites just copy Leonard Feather’s liner notes from Lookin’ Good!, errors and all. I’m surprised myself that this series ran to three parts. Anyway, glad you enjoyed it. –DV

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