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.”

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July 31, 1949: Jimmie Martin Orchestra at the Rio Casino

Label of Motif M 2003
Mamie Thomas and the Jimmie Martin Orchestra on Motif, 1949

I dedicated a chapter of The Boston Jazz Chronicles to Boston’s two late 1940s big bands, the “white contingent” of Nat Pierce (in the blog on July 5 and July 16) and the “black contingent” of Jimmie Martin.

The bands had much in common—passionate and talented musicians, skilled arrangers, and a decidedly modern outlook. Unfortunately, they also shared a mostly empty schedule, and if the Pierce band only worked a little, the Martin band worked a little less. In what little mention the Martin band merits in the jazz literature, it is often called a rehearsal band.

Some members of Martin’s orchestra became household names, at least in jazz households—Jaki Byard, Joe Gordon, Gigi Gryce, Lennie Johnson, Sam Rivers. Some, while not household names, were quite influential. Trombonist and arranger Hampton Reese was B.B. King’s music director for almost 25 years in the 1950s-1970s, and trumpeter Gil Askey, who had the same role with Diana Ross, was one of the founding fathers of the Motown Sound. Still others were active sidemen on the national scene (Jack Jeffers, Clarence Johnston), or doubled as performers and educators (Andy McGhee, Floogie Williams).
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