Gordon's height was 6 feet 5 inches (about 196 cm), and so consequently he was also known as 'Long Tall Dexter'.
Gordon's father, Dr. Frank Gordon, M.D., is one of the first prominent African-Amercian physicians and a graduate from Howard University.
Dexter's maternal grandfather is Captain Edward L. Baker, one of the 5 Medal of Honor winners (9th Cav.) in the Spanish-American War and served in the 9th and 10th Cavalries - in the group known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Between 1940 and 1943, Gordon was a member of Lionel Hampton's band, playing in a saxophone section alongside Illinois Jacquet and Marshall Royal. In 1943 he made his first recordings under his own name, alongside Nat Cole and Harry Edison. During 1943-44 he featured in the Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson bands, before joining Billy Eckstine.
By 1945, Gordon had left the Eckstine band and was resident in New York, where he was performing and recording with Charlie Parker, as well as recording under his own name.
Gordon was a virtuoso particularly famous for his titanic saxophone duels with fellow tenorman Wardell Gray, that were a popular live attraction and that were documented in several albums between 1947 and 1952.
Many would characterise Gordon's sound as being 'large' and spacious (a feature partially owed to his big'n'tall physical stature), and his tendency to play behind the beat is discernible. One of his major influences was Lester Young. Gordon, in turn, was an early influence on John Coltrane during the 1940s and 1950s. Coltrane's playing, however, during his early period from the mid to late '50s or early '60s influenced Gordon's playing from then onward. Similarities in their styles include their clear, strong, metallic tones, their tendencies to bend up to high notes, and their abilities to single-tongue and still swing. One of Gordon's idiosyncrasies was to recite the lyrics of each ballad before playing it.
Less well-known, but of similar quality, are the albums he recorded during the same period for the Danish label SteepleChase (Something Different, Bouncin' With Dex, and a few dozen others). They feature American sidemen but also such Europeans as Spanish pianist Tete Montoliu and Danish bassist Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen.
Gordon found Europe in the 1960s a much easier place to live, saying that he experienced less racism and greater respect for jazz musicians. Furthermore in America he had experienced drug addiction and imprisonment (twice), and must have found the change of location helpful.
From 1965-1973 he switched from Blue Note to Prestige Records but stayed very much on the hard-bop track, while the rest of the jazz-world was getting funky Gordon was making classic bop albums like 1972's Tangerine with Thad Jones, Freddie Hubbard, and Hank Jones. Some of the Prestige albums were recorded during visits back to North America while he was still living in Europe, others were made in Europe including live sets from the Montreux Jazz Festival. The American recordings included The Chase a tenor battle with Gene Ammons cut in Chicago in 1970.
Gordon finally returned to the United States for good in 1976. He appeared at the Village Vanguard, NY, for a gig that was dubbed as his 'homecoming;' and was recorded and released under that title. He noted 'There was so much love and elation; sometimes it was a little eerie at the Vanguard. After the last set they'd turn on the lights and nobody would move'.
After this appearance, Gordon recorded several more albums that proved he was as good if not better than before his years in Europe, and he finally gained appreciation as one of the great jazz tenors. The increased attention that he received because of Columbia Records promotions has been seen as a turning point in jazz because they focused on acoustic jazz rather than the commercial cross-over styles which had been heavily promoted during the first part of the 1970s.
Gordon made several notable film appearances. The first occurred, oddly enough, while he was in prison for possession of heroin. He portrayed an inmate playing in the prison band in Unchained, though the soundtrack was later overdubbed. In 1986, Gordon starred in the movie Round Midnight as 'Dale Turner', an expatriate jazz musician much like himself; the role might even be a thinly veiled biography of him, though Lester Young and Bud Powell were its main inspirations. Gordon received a nomination for Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. In addition, he had a non-speaking role in the film Awakenings, which was released after his death. Between these two roles, Gordon made a guest appearance on the Michael Mann series Crime Story.
Gordon died of kidney failure on April 25, 1990, at age 67. He was voted musician of the year by Down Beat magazine in 1978 and 1980, and in the latter year was inducted into Down Beat's Jazz Hall of Fame.