Obscure Trumpet Masters #2 – Joe Gordon

Joe Gordon (1928 – 1963)

“When Brownie [Clifford Brown] had won the New Star Award in the Downbeat Magazine Critic’s Poll, he told me I should have won it…” – Joe Gordon

Such was the respect that Joe Gordon earned from his contemporaries. 

It’s ironic that Clifford Brown once considered Joe Gordon his better; for Gordon often said that two of his major influences were Dizzy Gillespie and Brown.  Like Clifford Brown, Joe Gordon was a remarkable technician, who was formally trained.  Like Brown, he won the admiration of his musical elders while still in his teens and like Brown, his life was cut tragically short at an early age, due to accidental circumstances.

(Joe Gordon with Harold Land, Wes Montgomery, et al; on the title track from Land’s West Coast Blues! album)

Joe Gordon was born in Boston in 1928. He attended the New England Conservatory and made his bones by sitting in on jam sessions between Boston and Albany, on layovers from his job as a sandwich boy on the railroad.  As jazz greats such as Lionel Hampton, Charlie Mariano, Art Blakey and Charlie Parker came through Beantown, they looked this big toned kid up.  When Clifford Brown stepped down from the trumpet chair in the original Jazz Messengers, guess who took his place? After 6 months and one recording with the Messengers, Gordon was called by Dizzy to join his big band for a tour of the Middle East in 1956. Such was Gordon’s prowess, that he was given a solo on Dizzy’s signature tune, “Night in Tunisia”.

L to R - Joe Gordon, E.V. Perry, Dizzy Gillespie, Carl Warwick, Quincy Jones (photo by Herman Leonard (1955))

After the tour with Diz ended, Gordon moved west to Los Angeles and found that the west coast cats dug him just as much as they had in the east.  He played and recorded on the left coast with Harold Land, Dexter Gordon, Benny Carter, Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne and Thelonious Monk. He also recorded his second and final album as a leader, 1961’s Lookin’ Good!, for Contemporary Records, featuring Jimmy Woods on alto and Dick Whittington on piano, in their recording debuts.  Lookin’ Good! is a strong album. Gordon and Woods are in top form and the tunes, all penned by Gordon, range from very good to the minor classic (“Terra Firma Irma”).  This disc was a promise of many great things to come.

Sadly, it was not to be, as Joe Gordon died in Santa Monica, CA on November 4, 1963, from injuries he sustained in a house fire. The fire was said to be caused by a lit cigarette, which Gordon had dropped on his bed.  He was 35 years old.

Recommended Recordings:

 Lookin’ Good! (Contemporary/OJC) – CD is OOP; mp3 version available from Amazon.com and various sources.

Because Gordon’s discography as a leader consisted of only two albums, the remaining recommendations are, for the most part, from dates he appeared on as a sideman:


5 Responses to “Obscure Trumpet Masters #2 – Joe Gordon”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff F., Curtis Davenport. Curtis Davenport said: New Blog Post Obscure Trumpet Masters – Joe Gordon: Joe Gordon (1928 – 1963) “When Brownie [Clifford Brown] had… http://bit.ly/gBJAAR […]

  2. Joe Gordon was particularly impressive on Monk’s Blackhawk date as he and Harold Land were called in at a moment’s notice and had to play through Monk’s tricky stuff with no rehearsals.

  3. Jeff Lasky Says:

    I was the last person to play with Joe Gordon. We met in the early summer of 1963 when he was playing at Shelly Mann’s club with just a rhythm section. He had heard me play briefly with a band rehearsing at the musician’s union in LA and when I showed up at the club, he asked me to sit in. We clicked musically and personally and were together almost on a daily basis from that point on.

    I happily played every night of that gig with Joe for no money, as the experience ( I was 18 ) was invaluable. We were reviewed in Downbeat by John Tynan (west coast editor) in the Oct., 1963 issue.

    Joe wanted to put a permanent quintet together with me for gigs and recording, as he was under contract with Contemporary Records. I like to think I inspired him, as he expressed an interest in exploring new musical directions. He was on the verge of a new phase in his career and I was on the verge of breaking out. We were in the process of trying out various rhythm section players, rehearsing, etc., when he died.

    Joe was going through a rough period at the time and was living in a back room in an old abandoned house in Venice Beach. We spent many hours practicing together in that room. The house had no electricity and Joe had to burn candles at night. I’m sure he fell asleep with a candle burning and that was that.

    I don’t know if anyone visits this site, but, if they do, this is the story of Joe Gordon’s last months on this earth. He was my friend and mentor and the best damn trumpet player I ever played with.

    • That is a disturbingly good story. It’s sad to see how life can be so tough with people, and especially with very talented people. I think there is a thin line between success and failure, between fame and obscurity and I must say I’m quite intereseted in this thin line. What makes the difference in anyone’s life???

    • Malcolm Hopkinson Says:

      Joe Gordon was awesome, I still miss him but I have the recordings at the Blackhawk with Shelley. Also I like the track Ursula from the West Coast Blues with Harold Land.
      I always thought he was more creative than Miles, Joe’s solos
      extraordinary. I have big collection Stan Getz and my reviews on Amazon. But Joe… I bow my head in admiration, he was the best

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