The French-American film Round Midnight, directed by Bertrand Tavernier and starring my late husband, Dexter Gordon, as a jazz musician in Paris in the late 1950s, premiered in New York City 30 years ago today. As I near completion of Dexter’s biography, Dexter Calling: The Life and Music of Dexter Gordon, memories of the film come flooding back. They are bittersweet, as many of the performers have since passed away, most recently Bobby Hutcherson (1941–2016), who died this past summer. Bobby plays Ace in the film and delivers one of its most memorable lines. In the hallway of the Hotel Louisiane, Ace is holding a bowl of jambalaya as Buttercup walks past. He says, about living in Paris, “It would be the best city in the world if I could just find some okra.” Dexter loved that line, and whenever he repeated it to Bobby, they would both burst out laughing.
Bobby had known Dexter since he was a boy in Los Angeles (Bobby’s older brother, Teddy, was one of Dexter’s best childhood friends), and Bobby recorded with Dexter on the 1965 Blue Note Records album Gettin’ Around. A vibraphone and marimba player, Bobby was one of the most important jazz originals of all time. When Tavernier began casting for Round Midnight, Dexter put in a word for his good friend, but Tavernier was reluctant to give the role to a musician over an actor. Bobby did have some acting experience, however—he appeared as the bandleader in the Sydney Pollack film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969)—and when Tavernier called Pollack to verify Bobby’s ability, he was pleased to learn that Bobby had done a great job on the film. That settled the question.
We have also lost the incomparable Billy Higgins (1936–2001), whom Dexter knew from childhood as well and whom he considered one of the greatest drummers to play this music. Billy played on 10 Dexter Gordon albums, including the classic Go! on Blue Note (1962). Many regard Go! Dexter’s finest album for its rhythm section of Billy, Sonny Clark and Butch Warren. (Dexter later said all other rhythm sections should rise to the level of those three.) Their strength enabled Dexter to float on top, playing anything that came to mind. Dexter requested that Billy be cast in Round Midnight because when he looked behind him onstage he wanted to see that inimitable smile. It let him know that everything was going to be all right.
The great trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (1936–2008) passed several years ago. When Freddie arrived in Paris to shoot his scenes for Round Midnight, he didn’t realize that he had flown halfway around the world just to play on a set modeled after Birdland, the famous New York City jazz club. When he got to the location, he said, “This looks like Birdland.” I told him, “It’s a movie set.” He said, “You mean I flew all this way to play the blues? No one told me.” Years later, whenever I would see Freddie, he would recall how the whole experience had felt like a flashback to his early days playing in New York.
Freddie’s scene with pianist Cedar Walton (1934–2013) and drummer Tony Williams (1945–1997), two more musician-performers we have lost, reminds us at once of the beauty of jazz and the fragility of life. I can still recall hearing these musicians play live when I was a teenager going to the Village Vanguard and Birdland, sitting in the listening session, acting very grown up, and being ever so anxious about the day when I could sit with them up close.
Round Midnight was a remarkable achievement for Tavernier. His idea to cast real musicians and record all the music live brought an authenticity unmatched by any other musical film—an authenticity that extends to the dialogue as well. When Tavernier first showed Dexter the script, the dialogue sounded nothing like the language jazz musicians actually used. But during the course of filming, the director listened closely to his musicians on set, and every day before shooting he made small adjustments to the script.
The film’s humor and irony all came from Dexter; he had a way of seeing the world that could change the grimness of a situation into laughter. In one scene, on the beach in Normandy, Dexter’s character, Dale, says to his friend Francis (François Cluzet), “It’s funny how the world is inside of nothing. I mean you have your heart and soul inside of you. Babies are inside of their mothers. Fish are out there…in the water. But the world…is inside of nothing.” Then he adds, “I don’t know if I like this or not, but you’d better write it down.” Dexter was just like Dale: He was dead serious but he didn’t take himself seriously.
The costar of the film, François has since become a very popular actor in France, best known for his roles in Tell No One (2006) and Intouchables (2011). He had a marvelous relationship with Dexter while filming, and Dexter predicted that François would become famous and rich. Last year, when I saw François in Paris and we began reminiscing about the film, he said, “Eh bien, Dexter était presque correct. Je suis célèbre mais je ne suis pas riche.” (“Well, Dexter was almost right. I am famous, but I am not rich.”)
Dexter and François also made changes to the script to make their relationship feel more genuine. In one scene, Dale, a self-destructive alcoholic, asks Francis, “Is there water in this wine?” In the original dialogue, Francis lies and says no. In the final cut, however, Francis answers yes. Dexter and François agreed that two characters as close as they were supposed to be wouldn’t lie to each other.
When the film was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1986, the audience stood and cheered for what seemed like an eternity. At that moment, Dexter and Tavernier realized that what they had made was not only a tribute to jazz, but a work of art. I have traveled with Round Midnight as far as Madagascar and throughout Europe and to universities across the U.S., and in its 30th year, the travels continue. As I write these words, I am attending the 30th-anniversary screening of the film in Copenhagen, Denmark, where Dexter lived from 1962 to 1976 before his triumphant return to the United States and his almost unthinkable Oscar nomination for best leading actor in 1986. When Martin Scorsese (who plays Goodley in the film) told Dexter, long before Round Midnight was finished, to pack his bags because he was going to the Oscars, he knew what he was talking about.
Maxine Gordon is the author of the upcoming biography Dexter Calling: The Life and Music of Dexter Gordon (University of California Press) and the president of the Dexter Gordon Society. Learn more about the Dexter Gordon Society at www.dextergordon.org and follow on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/dextergordon.official/.