Born and brought up in Los Angeles, Gordon was the first musician to develop a convincing individual bebop style of modern jazz on the tenor saxophone. He combined the facility and invention of Charlie Parker with many of the traditions of swing tenor-playing, notably the lightness of Lester Young and the bluesiness of the Texas school, but in due course developed this into a hard-toned original style of his own.
He was a key influence on both Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. After playing with many musicians in the Central Avenue area of his home town, including Charles Mingus, he left to join Lionel Hampton at the age of 17, and after three years with that band, went on to work with Louis Armstrong and Billy Eckstine.
By now hooked on modern jazz, he spent 1944-6 in New York, and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie and Bud Powell. Gordon had made his reputation in the West for winning 'battles' against other tenorists, in an ever more complex stream of improvisation, and after staging such events with Hampton's band, he was featured in many other such duels - notably with fellow tenorist Wardell Gray.
Drug addiction interrupted his career in the 1950s but in the 60s he went on to make an impressive series of discs for Blue Note, and relocated to Europe, where for 15 years he was one of the key US expatriates to influence the local scene. He moved back to New York in 1976, touring and recording with vigour, but continuing to be popular in Europe, where he starred in the film Round Midnight in 1986.