As good as the soundtrack album is, the Oscar it won was more deserved by Dexter. As Tavernier said, no specialist actor could have brought “one millionth of the truth” that Dexter did – not to mention his overflowing humanity, whether blowing into a saxophone, or just being: the shambling walk, the hand gestures, the slow, rumbling voice with which he makes Dale’s lines sing. “You don’t just go and pick a style off a tree one day,” he says. “The tree’s inside you growing naturally.”
“I’m dying of everything except music,” he says later, and when asked why he seems so on edge, he voices every artist’s fear: “Because I keep wondering if I still have something to give.”
Some critics suggested Dexter was merely playing himself. One might reasonably expect them to know this is what most actors do most of the time – just not as well as Dexter.
Dale also tells us that there’s not enough kindness in the world, although Dexter’s massive, warm tenor sound helps redress the balance. In the 1940s it was he who softened the spikiness of bebop with his unique combination of that sound, loping phrasing, tenderness and unstoppable drive. To hear him in his absolute pomp, listen to such 1960s albums as Go, or the version of A Night in Tunisia on Our Man in Paris (where he lived for many years). Yet on certain levels he was never greater than during Round Midnight, four years before he died. On Autumn in New York the sound doesn’t so much infiltrate your ears as wrap itself around you, and on Body and Soul he digs as deeply into that melody as anyone.
It’s a life lived fully that comes sprawling from the saxophone’s bell. The son of a doctor who counted Duke Ellington among his patients, Dexter encountered highs and lows commensurate with his size, like some sleepy river that dries to cracked mud in a drought, and irrigates whole valleys when in flood. After his initial burst of 1940s glory he fell out of fashion in the cool-jazz ’50s, and fell into heroin. Back in action in 1960, he had his first taste of acting when also composer/musician for an LA production of a play called The Connection. This moved to New York, and the next thing Dexter knew he had a five-album contract with Blue Note Records.
At the end of the last day of shooting Round Midnight he quietly asked Tavernier, “How long will it take me to get over this movie?” Some of us are still trying.
The Round Midnight soundtrack streams on Spotify and Apple Music; on disc from Birdland Records.