The gentle giant

The gentle giant

Our resident music and whisky guru is back with another take on whisky and jazz, this time blending a USA-born saxophone player with a peaty powerhouse from the edge of Europe

People | 31 Jan 2020 | Issue 165 | By Hans Offringa

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A giant among giants, almost two metres (6’5”) tall, Dexter Gordon was raised in a family where jazz celebrities such as Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton would frequently visit to consult his father, Dr Frank Gordon.

Dexter Keith Gordon was born on February 27, 1923 in Los Angeles, California. He began to play the clarinet at age 13. Two years later he picked up the alto saxophone to exchange it for a tenor sax when 17. Soon after that, he received a request to join the band of Lionel Hampton. Apparently his father’s old patient had not forgotten.

‘Long tall Dexter’, as he was called, left Los Angeles and started to tour with Hampton’s band and travelled through the country, learning to play with the great musicians of the time. When playing in Chicago in 1941, he was first recorded. Two years later he played in New York City, still with Hampton’s band, and was influenced by Ben Webster and Lester Young.

According to Dexter, this period was a turning point in his career and he soon became well known. Shortly thereafter he moved back to Los Angeles and played with Fletcher Henderson. In 1944 he joined Louis Armstrong who would also greatly influence him. With sidekick Nat “King” Cole, he performed as the leader of a quintet. That same year he moved on and started to play with Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Sarah Vaughan in the Billy Eckstine band. Now Dexter Gordon had become one of the great and early leaders of the hard bop.

As if this list was not impressive enough, he started to play tenor duels with Wardell Gray. These battles became a great commercial success. At the turn of the decade, Dexter turned up at the famous 52nd Street in New York, playing along with Charlie Parker and Max Roach.

In 1960 Blue Note Records asked him to start recording with them. In the five years that followed, he made numerous recordings with many musicians who would later become famous in their own right including Freddie Hubbard, Bud Powell and Bobby Hutcherson.

After having played a session in Ronnie Scott’s famous jazz club in London, Dexter took a liking to Europe and would stay there for 15 years, living in Paris, Amsterdam and eventually settling in Copenhagen. It might also have had something to do with his earlier conviction for drugs possession and use, for which he had served time in his home country. In any case, Amsterdam took a more lenient approach to drugs.

His moving to Europe didn’t prevent Dexter from continuing to record with Blue Note, for which he frequently flew to the USA and back. Finally in 1976 he decided to leave Europe for good and return to his native country. He received an enthusiastic welcome in New York, assembled a new band and started touring with them all over the country.

“Dexter always had that big sound, from the early days. He’s a big man. Stands to reason, he’s got a lot of lungs.”

In the mid 1980s his musical career led him into a different direction, when he played the main character in the movie Round Midnight, loosely based upon the life of Bud Powell. It would become an all-time classic. Herbie Hancock won an Oscar for best music and Dexter himself was nominated for best leading actor.

The movie also meant reuniting with some companions of earlier times, since Bobby Hutcherson and Freddie Hubbard were two of the many musicians who played minor roles in the movie.

Until his death Dexter Gordon would always stay true to the style that made him famous, straight ahead bop, although during his stay in Denmark he would unknowingly become connected with the heavy metal world, being the godfather of Lars Ulrich, later to be known as the drummer of Metallica.

Dexter Gordon died of kidney failure on April 25, 1990 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Zoot Sims delivered the perfect epitaph for the giant man, “Dexter always had that big sound, from the early days. He’s a big man. Stands to reason, he’s got a lot of lungs.”

Lagavulin is the middle one of the three Kildalton distilleries, flanked on the right side by Laphroaig and on the left by Ardbeg, who both claim to be older (from 1815 and 1810 respectively). However, according to local lore, the unofficial history goes back to 1742 when Lagavulin Bay was framed by no less than 10 illegal rudimentary distilleries.

At the time the whisky produced at this lovely spot was called “laggan mhoullin”, which translates in English as “the mill in the hollow.” The official founding took place in 1816 by John Johnston, sometimes wrongly mentioned in whisky literature as the father of Donald and Alexander, who are credited as founders of Laphroaig.

However, the history of both distilleries is highly intertwined. Around 1837, said Donald ran Lagavulin for a short while alongside his daily work at Laphroaig. When Walter Graham became Lagavulin’s owner in 1852, he had been working as temporary manager for Laphroaig since 1847 when Donald Johnston had died, continuing to do so until Donald’s heir, Dugald, came of age in 1856. Graham would quit working at Lagavulin in 1860 when the distillery was acquired by James Logan Mackie, who in his turn owned a licence to trade Laphroaig.

The stills were an exact copy of Laphroaig’s. Mackie must have thought, “When I cannot sell it, I will produce it myself.”

His nephew Peter Mackie joined Lagavulin in 1878 and introduced White Horse 12 years later. From 1890 till 1901 the famous blend with the white horse on the label was for export markets only. Then Mackie’s blend also conquered Scotland.

Peter Mackie was deservedly nicknamed ‘Restless Peter.’ He was quite a character, matching boundless energy and grand vision with ditto ability to execute his plans and was in possession of a dangerously short fuse. In other words, a man who wouldn’t give way to the devil himself. When Laphroaig ended his contract as an agent, Restless Peter went mad and sought revenge. That was partly understandable, since the Mackies had turned Laphroaig into a well-known brand worldwide during the previous 80 years. His first act was to block the water supply of Laphroaig. A court judge was needed to make him restore the waterway. It only fuelled his anger, and he lured Laphroaig’s master distiller away.
With the help of that unfaithful man, he built a new distillery within Lagavulin and named it Malt Mill. The stills were an exact copy of Laphroaig’s. Mackie must have thought, “When I cannot sell it, I will produce it myself.”

Apart from Lagavulin Mackie owned two other distilleries, Hazelburn in Campbeltown and Craigellachie in the eponymous Speyside village. During his life he never succeeded in damagingLaphroaig, and Malt Mill didn’t even taste like it.

Peter Mackie did receive a knighthood andcould be buried as ‘Sir Peter’ in 1924. A couple of years later in 1927 Lagavulin became part of the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), a forerunner of current owner Diageo.

The year 1952 was disastrous for Lagavulin when a raging fire destroyed a large part of the distillery buildings. Fortunately, reconstruction didn’t take too long.

In the early 1960s Malt Mill was demolished and its site transformed into a visitor centre. Up until 1988 Lagavulin had been one of the lesser-known single malts, but the launch of the six Classic Malts brought this distinctive, yet elegant single malt under the eye of a broader audience. Lagavulin became so popular as a single malt in the 1990s that the standard 16 Years Old was a scarce product for a while. Currently this expression is widely available again, due to a 24/7 production schedule.

Lagavulin’s core range consists of a 12 Years Old cask strength version, the said 16, and the Distiller’s Edition, basically a 16-year-old with an extra maturation in Pedro Ximenes ex-sherry casks. Several limited editions are available, among which are a 21, a 25 and a 30 Years Old. Nearly all output goes into single malt. Only a small percentage is reserved for blending, not surprisingly for Sir Peter Mackie’s old stallion White Horse.
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