Letter From Milo: Dexter

February 28th, 2021

In the late 1970’s and early 80’s I had a little problem with cocaine. I wasn’t the only one. In my social circle the drug seemed to be everywhere. At the parties and gatherings I attended there were more runny noses than in a classroom of first graders during cold and flu season.

At the time there was a lot of misinformation being spread about cocaine. It wasn’t addictive (bullshit). It was great for your sex life (occasionally). It was as harmless as reefer (what a crock of shit). The truth of the matter is that cocaine ruined lives and killed people. And when some genius figured out how to distill the essence of cocaine and turn it into crack, well, you’ve read the papers.

My coke connection was a guy I’ll call Gary. He had been a pot dealer for years before adding coke to his inventory. He had an apartment about half a block from Wrigley Field, and I used to spend a lot of time there, getting high, listening to Gary’s extensive record collection and chatting with his clients when they stopped by to pick up an ounce or two of weed.

I met a lot of characters at Gary’s place. He had been around a long time and had collected an interesting customer base. A lot of theater people and musicians were regulars, as were a contingent of Lincoln Avenue hippies and barflies left over from the 60’s.

The only thing that changed when Gary started dealing coke was that he began making more money. He still liked having people around and was very generous with his product. There were always joints available and a few lines of white powder and a rolled-and-taped hundred dollar bill on a small mirror he kept on his coffee table.

One of Gary’s customers was a guy named Walt, who tended bar at popular local jazz club. I happened to be at Gary’s one day when Walt called and said he was going to stop by. When Gary got off the phone, he was as excited as I’d ever seen him.

“Man, oh, man. Guess who’s dropping by?”

“I heard. It’s Walt, right?”

“Yeah, guess who he’s bringing with him.”

“Prince Charles?”

“Dexter Gordon.”

“The saxophone player?”

“One of the greatest ever. The fucking guy’s a legend. Fuck, man. Dexter Gordon.”

It just so happened that I had read about Dexter Gordon in the Tribune that morning. He was making his first American tour in 30 years. Like many American jazz men, Dexter had been an expatriate for much of his career. The expatriates left the country for many reasons – racism, greater financial opportunities, drug problems. Sadly, in Dexter’s case, it was drugs. America’s drug laws were brutal in the 40’s and 50’s, when Dexter was in his prime. Instead of treatment, addicts were locked up for years, doing hard time just for having “marks,” which are the scars left by hypodermic needles. For a better idea of the drug hysteria of the time, read “Straight Life,” the biography of another brilliant saxophone player, the great Art Pepper.

Dexter Gordon was an impressive looking man. He must have been in his late 50’s or early 60’s, but looked younger. He was about 6’5″ tall, a light-skinned black man with freckles and closely cropped red hair. He looked a bit like the photos I’d seen of Malcolm X. When he spoke, his voice had a growl like Louis Armstrong.

Dexter was warm, open and talkative. We discussed all sorts of things, the upcoming Chicago Jazz Fest, baseball (he was a Mets) fan), a recording date he was planning, his performance that evening. He spent about three hours with us. I don’t recall everything we talked about, but I do remember that Dexter snorted about two grams of coke.

The man was snorting coke as quickly as Gary could dish it out, and, as I mentioned, Gary was generous with his drugs. I did my share but couldn’t keep up with Dexter. He wasn’t a Hoover, he was a Black and Decker Industrial Strength Wet/Dry Vac. Even Gary was impressed by the amount of coke Dexter was putting away.

It was a pleasant afternoon, one I’ll never forget. When it came time for Dexter to leave, he thanked Gary profusely for his hospitality and invited us to his show. He said he’d leave comps with the bartender.

Due to extenuating circumstances, I didn’t make it to the show, but I made it a point to read the Tribune the next morning to see if there was a review of Dexter’s show. There was indeed a review. I don’t remember the exact wording of the review but it went something like this.

“I am in awe of Dexter Gordon. His career, once derailed by drug addiction, is back on the fast track. The show he put on last night was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Now that Dexter has put his drug problems behind him, his playing is better than ever,”

It did my heart good to read that Dexter Gordon had given up drugs and straightened out his life. Good saxophone players are hard to find.

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