Born in New York City, Maxine has a long history in Jazz which began as a teenager when she and her friends would go to Birdland and the Village Vanguard to hear Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Art Blakey and the classic Jazz Messengers group with Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, and Bobby Timmons during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
A Career in Jazz
She began her career in Jazz as a road manager for Gil Evans when he had a large group and then worked in Europe as a tour manager for groups and Festivals. She was encouraged to continue her work with Jazz musicians by her friend Harold Vick who suggested she help manage a group he was in that had a contract with Columbia Records. It became apparent that many Jazz musicians knew quite a lot about the business but could use someone to make calls and talk to club owners and promoters on their behalf.
She learned the business of recording by helping her close friend Shirley Scott ("Queen of the Organ") and producing her album One for Me with Harold Vick and Billy Higgins for Strata-East Records. This was the first album where Shirley was able to pick the compositions, write the music, and play exactly what she wanted to play. The relationship with Shirley, as friends and partners, continued until Shirley’s death in 2002.
Maxine began to organize and write grant proposals for Jazz musicians when there were composition grants at the NEA. Most of the people she wrote grants with were awarded funding including Ahmad Jamal and Harry Sweets Edison. She learned to understand recording contracts and worked with artists and their lawyers to make the best deals possible. Producer Michael Cuscuna once said: “Maxine made the best deal I ever saw when she negotiated with Columbia for Dexter. I don’t know how she did that.”
On a tour of Europe for a promoter there, Maxine was sent to assist Dexter Gordon and his group to travel to Scandinavia by circumventing Italy where there was a train strike. On the very long trip with Dexter and his group, Dexter remarked: Is that the only book you ever read? She was required to spend hours studying the European Rail Travel schedules to get the band to their destinations on time. This is only one of the “trials by fire” in a long history of learning the Jazz business by being with the musicians who became her teachers and supporters. The bass player Sam Jones once said: “Maxine really loves this music and she seems to like being in the company of jazz musicians. We need to help her because we need as much help as we can get.” As Maxine has often said: “I love this music and I love being around Jazz musicians and I found a way to live a life where I could be in a world that suits me.”
First mAJOR gIG
Dexter Gordon had been in Europe for 14 years and when Maxine met him, he started to talk about coming home. Woody Shaw was his best press agent because he told all the musicians how good Dexter sounded and when the time came for Dexter to return, Woody organized the group he was playing in with Louis Hayes, Ronnie Mathews, Stafford James to play the first gig with Dexter and then record with him on the Live at the Vanguard album, Homecoming. Dexter and Maxine formed a partnership and spent six months planning his return. The story has been told many times about the triumph of his return and the recording contract he was offered by Bruce Lundvall, then-President of Columbia Records. It didn’t actually happen as suddenly as the jazz myth would have it. It took six months of planning, hundreds of phone calls, an apprenticeship with the great booking agent Jack Whittemore, and lots of advance publicity.
In the late 70s, Michael Cuscuna and Maxine opened an office down the block from Columbia Records on 53rd Street when Dexter and Woody signed to the label. Michael was their producer and Maxine was the personal manager and executive producer for the recordings. They worked long hours and went back and forth to the record company almost every day. Both groups began to travel and were very well received. Woody Shaw’s first Columbia recordings were released in 1978 which gave a boost to his career. Maxine organized tours for other musicians and Festivals and, at Dexter’s suggestion, brought tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin back to the States after many years living in Europe.
JAZZ family LIFE
In 1978, Maxine and Woody Shaw became the parents of Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III. Eventually, Maxine and Woody Shaw (Woody III's father) separated, and in the early 1980s Maxine retired from the music business. From then on, Maxine, Dexter, and Woody III lived in Cuernavaca, Mexico for half of every year. During this time, Maxine and Dexter were married.
Living and Working Abroad
Throughout this period of rest and recuperation from years on the road, Dexter was offered the lead in the film Round Midnight, directed by Bertrand Tavernier. He accepted the part and Dexter, Maxine, and Woody III went to Paris for four months while Dexter worked on the film. Dexter was nominated for an Academy Award for Leading Role in the film and life changed from that moment.
After the nomination, Dexter toured Europe with the Round Midnight band, performed with the New York Philharmonic in a Concerto written for him by composer and educator David Baker based on the music of Duke Ellington, made the film Awakenings with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, was the lead in two episodes of the TV series Crime Story, and began work on his autobiography. Dexter and Maxine would discuss all the business offers on Friday mornings at breakfast but they agreed that his attorney Norman Annenberg would handle the business. Dexter was anxious to have a life off the bandstand and for Woody III to have as comfortable a childhood as possible.
Back to School
When Dexter died in April 1990, Maxine worked as a Music Producer for Bill Cosby on his game show, You Bet Your Life, with Shirley Scott who was the musical director. She then returned to college to get her BA degree at CUNY, a Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from NYU, and entered the PhD Program in African Diaspora History with a MacCracken Fellowship to support her work. She gives lectures in the U.S. and abroad and seminars on Bebop and Dexter Gordon, on expatriate Jazz musicians, on Chano Pozo and the Afro-Cuban religious influence on Bebop, and on other related subjects associated with her work on Dexter Gordon.
Preserving the Legacy
Maxine Gordon is currently finishing her work on Dexter Gordon’s biography/autobiography which he began before his death in 1990. As mentioned, Maxine had been Dexter’s manager and executive producer of his recordings before their marriage. She is now President of Dex Music LLC which controls the copyrights to his compositions and licenses his name and image. She is also President of the Dexter Gordon Society, launched in 2013.
When Maxine began the research for Dexter’s book, including his early life in Los Angeles and his family history, she quickly realized that she was not prepared for the task. She worked as the Archivist in the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University while a graduate student and gave lectures on Jazz and African American History at academic conferences. She became the Senior Interviewer and Jazz Researcher for the Bronx African American History Project at Fordham University doing many interviews that are transcribed and housed at the Bronx County Historical Society after studying Oral History at Columbia University. In 2010, Maxine became the archivist of the Dexter Gordon Collection that is now housed in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Read More about the Dexter Gordon Collection at the Library of Congress.
Maxine stated in an interview, “Writing a book on Dexter Gordon requires skills and study in historical method and African American history. After all, the story is not just about picking up the saxophone and going on the road with Lionel Hampton. The story is much larger and it is important to understand the cultural context from which Dexter developed to understand who he was and what he strove for in his life.”
In 2013, Maxine founded The Dexter Gordon Society, a nonprofit cultural organization created to preserve, document, and present their collective life's work and completed the official Dexter Gordon biography, Dexter Calling, in 2017 (pub. 2018).