Dexter Gordon and the Truth of ‘Round Midnight

Jazz films have a tendency to let you know that they’re very much about jazz. The medium—and the clichés associated with it—can become a hook upon which a picture is hung. Story is secondary, as well as relationships; the point will often feel like we’re being told that this is a form of music we should care about and here are some examples of it, as though there’s no way that everything won’t be new to us. Jazz itself is the centerpiece, not the way that life exists in relation to jazz, flowing through it, fostering it, and vice versa.

Whenever I watch Bertrand Tavernier’s 1986 film ‘Round Midnight—newly reissued by Criterion on DVD and Blu-ray, with all of the bells-and-whistles and cinema-loving care one associates with that company—I think that this is a movie that gets it, by which I mean jazz, and jazz at its best, when jazz is more than jazz.

The story is based on the book Dance of the Infidels by Francis Paudras, who had befriended Bud Powell during the latter’s Parisian stint. Paris was a Shangri-La for African American jazzers in the 1950s, which is when the movie is set. Their experiences of home-based racial tribulation were largely left behind, as they were embraced by a French clientele the way that metal bands were later loved in Japan. The music was everything, which is what ‘Round Midnight is ultimately about. But when the art is everything, that’s naturally going to mean that the realities and hardships of life are bound to be infused in the mix as well.

Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon turns thespian and plays the Powell-type figure. I want to say that he plays himself, but he doesn’t quite do that, except insofar as the man knew what he knew, and that knowledge—of his friends, his rivals, his various iterations of self over the course of his own career—is brought to bear on the film.

My sense is that Gordon and the rest of the musicians who are a part of the movie—Herbie Hancock (who also contributed the soundtrack), Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, Billy Higgins, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson (this is a crazy list, no?)—had no problem informing Tavernier of what rang true and what didn’t. The resonance is pure, like a killer tone that could only come from one individual, on that one instrument.

The cover of ‘Round Midnight

Gordon was only in his early sixties when the film was made. He’d die just a few years after its release, aged 67. His character, Dale Turner, is reborn in Paris, even as we have the sense that he’s cognizant this will be a final flourishing for him. Gordon talks and emotes unlike anyone I’ve seen in a movie. It’s how he was. The voice is flowing gravel, a purring poetry of sediment and hard edges mellowed by a faith in the power of art. He’s drinking himself to death too, and treated like a child who can’t look after its own well-being, by a cavalcade of characters who 1) want him to be okay and 2) also need him to get to the gig on time . We have the metaphysics of art, and the practicality of business. The jazz mélange, for one who wants to make it—as a pioneer of sound and as a working, eating musician.

We all know hackneyed stories of self-destructive artists who are fast on their way out, birthing final creations right up to the dying day. It’s the Van Gogh trope. Real-life jazz is littered with these tales, for assorted reasons, one of the prime culprits being drink and drug. Gordon’s Turner is always ready to try and cadge a glass of wine or a bottle of beer—despite the zero-alcohol provision in his contract at the club where we see so many of the other jazz luminaries acting as members of the accompanying house band— but he has a larger issue, if an issue it may be. I’m not certain. The movie is not certain. That is also part of the movie’s point.

In various settings, with various people—a doctor, a former flame, the Parisian jazz-mad fan (and ultimate Turner devotee) who tries to be Turner’s guardian angel—Turner shares that art is total for him. It’s what holds his attention, thrills him, challenges him, makes him who he is. Its power is such that there’s nothing else. Nothing compares. And one still has to live one’s life. The comedown is part of what is killing him, because the need to rise is so extreme. To touch that place where art is made. Peace is in his horn—so long as he’s playing and inventing at his peak.

L to R: Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Pierre Michelot, John McLaughlin, and Billy Higgins in a scene from 'Round Midnight (photo: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)
L to R: Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Pierre Michelot, John McLaughlin, and Billy Higgins in a scene from ‘Round Midnight (photo: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

François Cluzet plays Francis Borier, the character based upon Francis Paudras, and, I would add, upon us. He wants to do everything he can so that Turner can continue on with his life—which is to say, his art. Francis is a Dean Benedetti type: a true believer, which our world will always need more of, a rare soul. He’s our point of connection with this world, the eyes through which we experience the jazz of this movie, which is itself a world within a world. And it’s organic. In jazz films we’ll typically get these tutorials, as if you’re back in your music appreciation class in college. In those instances, jazz isn’t talked about the way it is when jazz becomes real and total, and is loved. The talk remains learned—or becomes more learned—but it’s not academic. It’s presented. It flows. The conversation around it flows.

Francis takes Turner into his home, despite what it does to his own family, or what remains of that shattered unit. His ex-wife doesn’t want their daughter to be subjected to what she’s certain can only be a burden. Francis’ belief, though, is untrammeled because he needs it to be so. The world isn’t the same without a Turner out there creating as he might. They try to make it work. Were this not a film, you could easily think it will. I mean that less as a criticism and more as a compliment, though admittedly a guarded one. I esteem a film that telegraphs nothing. But sometimes you just know what notes are coming, and that’s okay too.

I could listen to Gordon, as Turner, discuss his love for Debussy and Ravel pretty much as readily as I can play the likes of classic Gordon Blue Note dates such as Doin’ Alright (1961) Our Man in Paris (1963; foreshadowing!) and walk across the whole of Boston and not realize I’ve been out very long at all. When Turner is asked what tenor saxophonists he loves best, you can tell that this man wants to open up his bosom to his interlocutor the same way you wish to when fronted with a version of this query. The enthusiasm that is in you is enthusiasm you want to help put in someone else.

Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner in 'Round Midnight (photo: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)
Dexter Gordon as Dale Turner in ‘Round Midnight (photo: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Maybe that’s what jazz is too, on the bandstand. Why it’s the ultimate team sport, we might say, in terms of music. Francis shows Turner some Monet prints, and casual as you please, Turner says that they’re suggestive of Tadd Dameron. It’s the colors—the panoply. The film itself has the look of a color noir. I’m typically resistant to the term, but this is a picture where one can imagine that a Monet came along with pastels and colored in an old black-and-white movie, kindly asking noir stalwarts—Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas, let us pretend—to clear out so that the jazz cats could do a residency.

Turner becomes whole again in Paris, and returns to the States, with everything that entails for a Black man. His demons are his demons, his choices his choices, but we recognize Tavernier’s figurative implications when a relationship with a drug dealer is rekindled, back in New York, with the devoted Francis in tow. America might not “get you,” during this period, but it wasn’t going to make your life any easier if you were a man like Turner. We can only watch as Francis watches, and the expected end arrives.

But what is more important—and central to the picture’s concern—is the life force that isn’t just jazz, but what Turner is talking about as he details his need to strive. Like I said, he makes these remarks to various people, changing the words each time, as if trying to nail a solo just right in the best composition he ever wrote. Each night he plays the tune, and each night he tries again and thus is he sustained. That model is itself sustaining for everyone else who is open to that passion and commitment, who witnesses it. There aren’t many better ways to bear that witnessing than with the art of jazz. You know this if you already know it. Or you start to learn it too, if you don’t and have decided to watch this film.

JT Notes: It Begins to Tell ‘Round Midnight

Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon by Maxine Gordon (University of California Press)

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