© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
By 1962 when the following article was written, trumpeter Kenny Dorham had been an active jazz musician for more than two decades and one of the first trumpeters to fuse the innovations of bop into a personal style. In this interview with Gene Feehan, Kenny reflects on his long and varied career in jazz.
For much of his career, Dorham was somehow considered a “second-tiered” trumpeter when compared to the playing of Dizzy, Miles, Clifford Brown and other modern Jazz trumpet luminaries.
Kenny’s name is still rarely mentioned today which is surprising given the number of high profile groups that he performed with, the huge discography he was involved with both under his own name and with other significant Jazz musicians, and the fact that he created a style or sound on the trumpet that is as instantly recognizable as Diz’s, Miles’ or Brownie’s.
Rummaging around a loaned collection of Down Beat magazine's recently, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles found Gene’s piece about Kenny and thought thought it might serve to enhance the body of writings about Kenny that have appeared on the blog as a way of remembering him or, if you will, memorializing him.
“TRUMPETER Kenny Dorham is not mentioned in Barry Ulanov's History of Jazz in America. He is not pictured in the Orrin Keepnews-Bill Grauer Pictorial History of Jazz. No reference to him and his 23 years of participation in jazz appears in Marshall Stearns' Story of Jazz, although Bo Diddley, Reb Spikes, and Snake Hips Tucker find a niche in the listings.
In short, if one were to be introduced for the first time to the story of contemporary jazz trumpet, one might well surmise that the horn is played almost exclusively by Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Yet at least one important critic has emphatically stated, "Dorham has become a consummate and masterful trumpeter, one of the key voices in modern jazz."
Yet it would appear that the 38-year-old Dorham is still a relatively unknown quantity to many jazz fans, despite his clearly felt impact on today's music. "I've always gone my own way," he maintains stoutly. "I don't know how you can play jazz and not be yourself."
Dorham would not describe himself as a reticent man, but like anyone else with a long story to tell, he must find a keenly tuned and attentive ear. This may explain why his role in the bop movement is so little appreciated, except by musicians he's worked with and a few fans and critics.
"You know," he recalled, "my love of jazz was motivated as a little kid by my sister. She used to sing commercials for Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper, and one day she came home when I was about 7 or 8 with some records by Louis Armstrong [he pronounced it Lou-iss]. When I was 15, in 1939, she bought me a trumpet. My father was already a guitarist, and my mother and sister could play piano real well. My sister encouraged me to learn the horn. I'd been fooling around with piano since I was 7, so I knew chords at least. So, when I took up the horn, I had a basic grounding in music."
When Dorham went into Anderson High School in Austin, Texas, he had three idols on the horn: Bix Beiderbecke, Roy Eldridge, and Bunny Berigan.
He said he liked Beiderbecke's overall musicianship, adding, "Bix sounded like a piano player, because he knew all the changes. However, Roy had more happening than anyone else. Others I dug were Harry Edison, Ziggy Elman, Buck Clayton, Basie's brass, and Erskine Hawkins' band."
He really got his start in 1939, he said, with the school's marching band. One of his friends in that band was Bo Rhambo, who played both trumpet and tenor saxophone, and when they weren't jamming together, Rhambo was busy writing arrangements for the group in a Count Basie or Glenn Miller vein.
Dorham tried the West Coast between October and December, 1943, and though it was a good way to break in, he was back in Houston with Illinois Jacquet's big band by early the next year. About that time he was playing a lot of growls and used mutes made of hats with the brims cut off for other effects. In July, 1944, he decided to try New York City, and one of the first places he checked into was Minton's.
"After I'd taken my first solo," he recalled, "Lockjaw Davis, the bandmaster, came over and said, 'You've got a standing invitation here, man.' From then on, it was like a dream, playing every night with guys I'd only heard about: Bud, Fats, Dexter, Serge, Wardell, Lips, and many others."
In the spring of 1945, Gillespie let out the word that he was holding auditions, and a houseful of guys turned out including Henry Boozier and Dorham, who'd been working as a team for some time. When it got down to Dorham, he said to Gillespie,
"I don't go unless Henry comes along, too. And that's how Diz got two trumpets for one chair."
After that, which was about October, 1946, he went with Billy Eckstine's big band, in its time, as Dorham recalled, "the best band in the country. It had a tremendous rhythm section: Art Blakey, Tommy Potter, and Richard Ellington on piano. It had excellent soloists, too, like Gene Ammons and Leo Parker. Those six months I was with Eckstine were a groove. Billy brought me in as trumpet soloist to replace Fats Navarro, who had replaced Diz. I was only 22, but already I was accepted on my merits. Billy was a great leader; he'd always let you go when you were having a great night."
Dorham's memories of Charlie Parker reflect Parker's diversity as a human being and an artist, in that they seem to have no particular line of development or follow any logical line of growth. But fragments, as an archeologist will testify, offer their own story:
"Bird knew a lot about the strangest things, like how a car's engine is put together and how it functions. . . . He never was a big one for rehearsals. In fact, in all the years I played with him, he called only one, and that was for a couple of new guys who'd just joined the band. . . . I had heard Bird long before I came to New York, and right from the start he was my favorite soloist. His speed especially influenced me, but even today I can't get anywhere near it. ...
"Bird never practiced that I know of, but he was always able to hit the bandstand like a ball of fire. It's funny, but he never got disturbed when the rest of the band couldn't keep up with him. . . . He always said something sweet about Diz. . . . He'd play themes from The Rite of Spring (just a quarter or a half-step off) on the 12th chorus or so. The musicians dug it, but I don't think the audience knew what was going on. . . .
"No one today plays as fast as he did. In fact, Max Roach developed his own speed by playing with Bird. Max would challenge him by laying down a real fast beat on an opening chorus and, by the second, Bird would be pulling away. . . . He believed in what I call 'bandstand mileage': that is, to put together on the bandstand things you might not have practiced at home — kind of a trial-and-error process. What he meant was — know how to reach the audience and still be able to play yourself at the very top of your ability."
On the next point Dorham was firmly insistent: "Today, Bird would be as much out in front as he ever was. You'd have to change the sax before anyone could play it like he did. . . . Actors, performers, and musicians, when they're up on a stage, know the principle of 'the fourth wall.' What it means is that you're aware of the audience and yet you have to preserve a sense of detachment so you can create a piece of music or a role internally. Bird knew that concept best of all. It's an idea that may seem incomprehensible to some performers, but it's absolutely necessary for peak performance. ... To develop that concept a bit further, Bird would become inspired by a person in the audience, and direct his playing accordingly, whether humorous or sarcastic or whatever. We called those things he did nursery rhymes. Once, back in the spring of 1949, at the Royal Roost, a real beat-looking chick yelled, ‘Pay My Wild Irish Rose.' Bird glanced at her and threw in an out-of-key phrase from The Lady Is a Tramp. We all broke up."
MEMORIES OF Parker are not Dorham's sole stock in trade. He has a wealth of observations on other aspects of today's music, from jazz in movies to advice to young musicians.
"Movies are starting to offer opportunities to jazzmen to play and write, and, of course, so does TV," he said. "I collaborated with Duke Jordan, Kenny Clarke, and Barney Wilen on the score of the French film, Witness in the City, as far back as 1959. I actually got on screen in the current Les Liaisons Dangereuses."
Some years ago, a critic observed that the trumpet had taken a subsidiary position to the saxophone in modern jazz and cited the Chet Baker-Gerry Mulligan and Miles-Bird playing relationships as major evidence. Dorham doesn't agree with the theory and maintains that the trumpet is secondary only in terms of the playing ability of any given musician compared with another in his group.
"For another thing," he said, "the trumpet has only three valves, while the sax has at least seven times more keys or, as I call them, referent points. Also, you've got to remember that the trumpet has been explored more; it's a much more antiquated instrument, you might say."
Dorham, something of a singer, too, though his singing is not equal to his playing, had a few things to say on that subject as well:
"Singing has always been important to me. I still study to keep my pipes open. My band experience included some nine months of vocal work with Diz in 1945, until Dexter Armstrong came in on my reference. My major influence was Charles Brown, who, in turn, has had an impact on Ray Charles — a lot of impact! When you come from the Southwest, as I did, you develop a kind of echo, which is evident both in your horn and your voice."
In the area of composing, Dorham has been working steadily over the years. More than a year ago, he composed and arranged a 25-minute work that he submitted to (and hopes will be performed by) the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He wrote the first two parts, Fairy Tale, a 10-minute ballad, and Lotus Blossom, an Oriental melody, and has been trying to get trombonist J. J. Johnson to do the final section.
Working conditions for jazzmen are a controversial topic, but Dorham doesn't take as dim a view as some others.
"Since I came to New York," he said, "I'd say the general quality of conditions has improved. The appeal of a leader's name is very important, which is why I worked as often as I could with Bird, Max, and the big bands. . . .
"But in today's music world, I'm just as likely to end up talking about my work before the UN Jazz Society — that's how much the business has changed. You'll generally find that where guys are making real money today they're only playing background. I've discovered that everybody's looking at me for a bargain, but I'm still optimistic."
"One last key point: club owners should know how, when, and where to showcase new talent. On the average, a band hits a club three times a year. It plays the same repertoire, and this becomes tiresome to the listener. If the band and its writers can't come up with some new charts, the public is being cheated, I think. And that means that, sooner or later, the club owner is going to lose his audience.
Dorham is aware of "the kiddies," as Jo Jones so often refers to young musicians, and their problems: "I don't care whether you want to learn trombone, tympani, or tuba, my best advice is to start off by studying piano. I did it, and it helped me enormously. It's the yardstick in music because of its voicings, its blends of sounds and, over-all, because it expresses more than any other instrument. . . . It leads you to a better theoretical foundation, and it gives you a chance to play more than one note at a time. Then you can move on to develop your playing of the instrument of your choice.
"The future of jazz may well come from such establishments and experiments as the Lenox, Mass., School of Music [now inactive], the Berklee School in Boston, and the North Texas State University bands and groups. A student is able to acquire this formal type of education in music rather than to have to hunt for it, hit or miss. He can concentrate his energies into a relatively small span of time, thus getting the greatest benefit out of it.”
September 27, 1962