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Friday, August 27, 2010

"Kenny Dorham - Major BeBop Trumpet Stylist" (1971 interview)

Interview, New York City, November 12, 1971

From the book, Notes and Tones, Musician-to-Musician Interviews, by Arthur Taylor, DACAPO PRESS. Excerpted and compiled by Dr. Larry Ridley, jazz artist, professor of Music Emeritus, at Rutgers University, and, AAJC executive director.


Arthur Taylor: Would you tell me how you became interested In music?

Kenny Dorham: "Well, my sister heard Louis Armstrong in about 1936, and she mentioned the fact that they called him "Gabriel", saying he must be the Gabriel written about in the Bible. I was about eight or nine years old at the time, and when I was playing the piano, my sister used to say to my mother, "See how he jumps around when he plays? Maybe he's going to be a great musician like Louis Armstrong." Then I got a chance to listen to "Pops" on some records, and it kinda started from there.

In 1936, 1 moved to Austin, Texas, with my uncle and went to high school there. It was at high school that I really got into the trumpet. I had a friend who lived down the street from me, and he played the trumpet. He used to go to East St. Louis every summer, and he knew Clark Terry and Miles Davis. He would tell me how those guys could really play the trumpet. Texas was pretty well known for having good trumpet players, because they had a lot of football games and competitive band meets.

In 1939, my sister persuaded my father to buy me a fourteen dollar trumpet. I had it for a week or two, and the bandmaster suggested I ought to have a better trumpet which would at least play in tune, so that I wouldn't get discouraged before I learned something. Well, they got me a silver Conn trumpet. It took me a half-hour to even get a sound out of it. Then I began going to band practice, where they start you right out in the books. After you learn the fingering you start to play etudes and concert stuff. After two days in rehearsal I was sent home by the bandmaster, who was very stern about music. He didn't allow you to play jazz or anything until you had learned all the fundamentals of music. I was sitting in the band and I started playing "Dipsy Doodle," which I had heard Larry Clinton's orchestra play. I was stomping my foot, and the guys were behind the curtain urging me on. The bandmaster looked over his glasses, pointed at me and hollered, "Leave the bandstand! Leave the music room and don't come back." He spoke to my parents, and I got my discipline together for the music room. From then on I was just a student and not trying to do anything special.

Whenever I wanted to do a little extracurricular stuff like jazz, I did it in our barn, which was a great resonator for music. You blew in there and you had all this good wood, it really made a great sound. I sometimes used to practice in that barn for five or six hours a day. After learning all the band music at marches and playing like Louis Armstrong in the barn, I heard Roy Eldridge, and he was a big influence on me. Later I heard some Charlie Parker, because my friend who lived down the street had all the hip records. I first heard Charlie Parker on a Jay McShann record; I think he was playing "Swingin' the Blues Away", and it sounded so great that I learned the solo. I started to try and play the trumpet like Bird. After listening to Walter Fuller, who used to play with the Earl Hines band, I started playing like him, too. He played a strong punctuation style. Finally I got to listen to some Dizzy, and that was the most fantastic trumpet I had ever heard. Although Louis Armstrong's music was beautiful and melodious, Dizzy's was something else. So I started to play Dizzy's solos, too. I was playing like all these different trumpet players: Walter Fuller, Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie.

When I started going to college, I was too late to get into the band, so I worked in the kitchen, washing dishes and helping prepare food for the students. I got to know a lot of guys there like Russell Jacquet and Wild Bill Davis. Davis wrote music for the college band, and they played in the style of Jimmy Lunceford and Milt Larkin.

AT: Would you tell me about the period In your career when you were playing with Bird and Dizzy?

KD: When I first came to New York, I was working in the house band at the Savoy Ballroom. I would always go in and out of the bands with another trumpet player from Texas called Henry Boozier, because they needed a first trumpet player and a soloist. At that time I played a lot of first trumpet and I also soloed, but Boozier was mostly a first man with a big, pretty sound like Freddie Webster.

By the fall of 1944, I had started going to Minton's, and Lockjaw Davis invited us to play there one night. He liked our playing, and he gave us an open invitation to come and play anytime we wanted. I met Dizzy, Fats Navarro and Miles at Minton's. I had met Miles before on Fiftysecond Street. I had also met Dizzy before, because when I first came to New York, I really came looking for him. He was going to start a big band, and he invited us to audition for it. The next day we went to the big band rehearsal at Minton's Playhouse, and we got the gig.

We stayed with Dizzy during the whole time he had his first big band, and I learned a lot playing with him. I sang a couple of tunes in the band, but later I got him a singer from Fort Worth called Dexter Armstrong. When we were on tour, I learned a lot of things Dizzy did that I could kind of duplicate, and from that point on I really started to grow musically. I was writing Basie arrangements. I would try to get the sound of Ellington arrangements without much success, but I knew what I was doing.

Bird used to come to Minton's, and he was so great that everybody would leave the bandstand when he played. All the bad saxophone players showed him respect and let him have the bandstand. They would sit down and listen. Dizzy would usually play with him, or sometimes Miles or Fats. Dizzy, Lorraine Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan and I used to hang out at Minton's and play a lot at that time.

After being in Dizzy's band I took Fats Navarro's place in Billy Eckstine's band. Later I played in about twenty other big bands in New York, for anywhere from one day to three weeks or a month. I was living up on Sugar Hill at 157th Street, and Harry Belafonte, who was working at the Royal Roost with Bird, came by one day to let me know that Bird wanted to speak to me. So I went down to see Bird, and he told me that Miles was leaving to form his own band and that I could have the job if I wanted. I went there the following night; that was on Christmas Eve, 1948. I played with Bird from then on at the Royal Roost through the spring of 1949, when we went to Paris for a French festival. I was with him for about a year after that. Then he started doing things with strings where he didn't use a trumpet, so I started to play with various people again.

In the fifties I started to do things on my own. I made my first record date as a leader in 1954 for Charles Mingus. I was writing a lot of songs; in fact, I wrote some for your record date and for Freddie Hubbard. I have between seventy-six and eighty songs registered as a BMI publisher. But I had a family, and it was hard to do a lot of different things, so I got an advance on the publishing company and later sold it.

AT: Would you tell me more about Bird?

KD: Well Bird was a real happy person, and it never seemed like he had any acute traumatic grievances. He knew our society wasn't right, and he would talk about it sometimes. His thing was like he'd just get high and blank that other part out. I guess he saw it wasn't going to get together in his lifetime.

We made a lot of nice trips together. Just before going to Paris, we worked in Milwaukee, and Bird had to go back to New York one day for something. He returned to the job at twelve o'clock that night. The job started at nine or nine-thirty and we played until two a.m. The place was jammed. Bird came in, perspiring. He had on that black pinstripe suit. . .he was famous for that suit! He was happy and he came up on the bandstand. Although we had missed him, we had been having a lot of fun, and we had everything rolling. This was in the early spring, and it was a little warm that night.

He called a tune I had never heard before called "Painting the Town Red". He played that for about half an hour, and each chorus was more fantastic than the one that had preceded it. After he had been playing for about ten minutes, I said to myself, what is he going to do next? Because, everything was flawless; it was perfect. I sat down in a corner of the bandstand, crossed my legs and just listened to him play. Max Roach, Al Haig and Tommy Potter were in the rhythm section, and it was beautiful. Bird really painted Milwaukee red that night!

When it was over, Bird asked me what I wanted to play and I said, "Do you know "Circus?" And he started singing it. I said "Yeah, that's it." He said, "Okay let's play some 'Circus'." He let me play the melody and the first solo on it. This kind of triggered my feeling for the song. Although I had never played it with Bird, I knew that Al Haig was familiar with it. Bird just played his can off on that.

Between times I never saw Bird. He was very mysterious. The only time I would see him was on the job. I had only one rehearsal during the whole time I was in the group, Because, I knew all the tunes Bird played and just how he played them, which I guess is one reason I got the gig. I could play the ensembles so that if on some nights he didn't feel too well and might falter a little, I could hold the group together. When we did a record date, he would come to the date with some of the music written down; then he would write the rest of it at the date. We would run it down once or twice, look at it and play it off the sheet. Then we would record. It was really nice playing with Bird!

AT: Do you think musicians should use their music for political ends?

KD: I'm not sure, because music is one thing and politics is another. Sometimes people manage to blend them, but most musicians look upon it as a gimmick. People from the world of politics look upon it as some kind of rabble-rousing weapon, especially in this country The politics are used just to obtain some kind of recognition, to get some credit for what one is doing. They don't really want to give you too much credit here for what you do, so they're quick to holler on anything that sounds political, whether it's a song or a poem.

I've always had a feeling that it may not be a good thing to only want to be in the music, but that was the thinking of musicians who came up in the Louis Armstrong era. Pops wasn't political; he was all music. Maybe one can't afford to be all musical today, because politics have a lot to do with the economic situation musicians find themselves in. Maybe putting politics into music is okay if it's advantageous to the musician. Musicians usually never benefit from anything. They can't borrow money or get any kind of economic satisfaction. Recently there have been some endowment grants and humanities, and a few musicians have gotten a little money. The amount of money you get is kind of insulting. Musicians like myself and a few others I know, get such meager amounts. You figure, well, what was it all for? Maybe I should just have made bombs and have belonged to the destructive side of society. That may be why people mess with drugs; they feel it's a way out, at least for as long as they're high.

Politics could be useful in music. The music business itself is a political machine. If you're not managed by someone who is on the inside, you can float around out here for a lifetime and nothing ever happens. You see people come up who are less qualified, and everything is all rosy for them. Musicians will probably have to be more political in the future. They will certainly have to be businessmen, because they mustn't leave it up to the guy in the booking agency. He's their real enemy. Originally the booking agent was working for the musicians. He was like a secretary, who would keep their appointments and set things up. But somehow it got turned around. Instead of the booking agent working for the musician, the musician works for the booking agent. That's all wrong! The musician now has to call the booking agent to find out when he can work. In the meantime, the booking agent is double-dealing, taking money under the table and on top of the table and looking out for his own interest, not the musicians'. That's political!"

AT: What do you think about electronics?

KD: I think electronics is a part of automation, and it's removing the human aspect of the work. It's eliminating the effort of the man who owns the hand. It's not a natural thing and it can never be as good as the human element. It's the kind of thing which defeats itself. That's political, too, because they try to eliminate people from different walks of life. Then the people are controlled by just a few elements. You get ready for music, you go to the machine. You get ready for milk, you go to the machine. Everything is going to the machine, and it's losing that natural thing. It will probably affect the physiology of man. It's got to change his chemistry, and we may develop into monsters or freaks.

AT: Do you do any kind of physical exercise?

KD: I haven't done much recently, but I used to do a lot. When I was in the army, I did boxing. I started in high school because I was playing the trumpet and I was getting roughed up a bit. When I was living in Oakland, I used to box at John Henry Lewis's gym with some of the pros who fought out of Oakland. I don't know if you remember John Henry Lewis, but he fought Joe Louis and got knocked out. He had two brothers who would box at the gym. In Oakland, I used to do a lot of exercising, and I would run halfway around Lake Merritt. My trainer's name was Al Moore. He had a fighter named Lenny Morrow from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who was the light heavyweight champion of California at one time. He knocked out Oakland Billy Smith, who later became known as Boardwalk Billy Smith. He also knocked out Archie Moore, though he was later knocked out by Archie. Al Moore had a lot of good fighters who used to fight in Nevada and California back in the fifties.

I also worked for the United States naval ammunition depot. I helped make rocket shells with yellow powder. That's the powder which goes into those 54 pound rocket heads for ships. They had black powder and yellow powder. I worked in the rooms where all those powders were. We put the powder in the shells with compressors. We didn't put the detonators on. We just inserted a fuse, and the rest was added on when it got to where it was going or when they were ready to use it. I also did a lot of boxing in New York, where I used to go to the Uptown Gym on 116th Street with John Lednam, "Skippy". Do you remember Skippy?

AT: Yeah, I remember Skippy.

KD: I used to go to the gym with Skippy and keep time for him. Artie Towns was in Sugar Ray Robinson's stable, and I used to keep time for him, too. Miles also used to come and work out. I never did go into the ring. I used to just work on the bags. The guys would always be pushing you up to box because they liked to dust you if they got the chance. I stayed out of that because I was trying to lay with the music. So I've done a lot of exercise over a long period of time, but for the last year or two, I haven't done much except for riding a bike and things like that.

AT: Are you religious?

KD: That's quite a question to try and answer. When I was growing up, I used to ask my father about religion, and he would tell me about God. He was not very educated, but he knew about the Bible and he had some sense about it. I wondered why we were so poor if God had all these powers. We were supposed to be good people, so why were we poor? And there were people who were bad and were very rich. So I sort of lost my faith in religion then. Religion is also political. It's used to keep world order. If people didn't have something to believe in, it would be impossible to keep order on this earth. It would be suicidal. But believing in something that you can't see, believing that there is a hereafter, believing all these things can make life on earth tolerable, if not worthwhile.

AT: Do you think our music stems from Africa?

KD: Maybe instinctively! A lot of it is instinctive. We learned our tools here, but it probably came from Africa, because we inherited something that goes from tribe to tribe. It has to do with how we are put together. Although we are similar to everyone else on earth, we are still different. We have something that's unique, just as every other race has something that's unique. So our African roots underlay the historical evolution of our music, but the rest was developed from our trials and tribulations on the plantation. And we're still on the plantation!

AT: Do you change your technique in any way when you're playing in a studio, as compared to when you're working in a club?

KD: In a studio I try to concentrate more on finesse, to play flawlessly. I might not be as inventive as I would be in a club, because there I can try to straighten it out while I'm doing it. It takes a lot of nerve to do that when you know you're going to hear it played back. It's not as loose when you're playing in a studio as it is when you're playing in a club. In a recording you really want to turn it on. You lean in wherever your position is from the microphone and try to take care of it from there. Whereas in a club, anything goes!

AT: What do y ou think about the stigma that's been put on musicians regarding their use of drugs?

KD: Usually it's upper-middle-class people who put a stigma on musicians. Unfortunately a few of them happen to be black. This stigma has a political angle. When you have a stigma on you, it affects your earning power - you can't make money. Drugs have always been on the scene, and musicians are noticed because they are always in the public eye. Whereas, other people who are not in the spotlight, can slip and slide around for their whole lifetime. Whatever a musician does is known, because people like to talk about musicians.

AT: To wrap it up, would you tell me what you plan for the future?

KD: Musically, I will probably end up working for the Board of Education. That's what I've been working toward. I have been going to school to get my degree. A degree is your ticket to something that's fairly stable. It's much more stable than being a musician. I always knew this, so I always went to school; but I never took music before I got to New York, because I was a science major. I plan to teach at the University of Connecticut or else I might go to the New England Conservatory in Boston. I'm going there as a resident for two weeks. Richard Davis will be there, too. I plan to lead a quiet life while still playing and writing music, doing the things I want to do and just trying to live like people. I might occasionally make some concert tours to Japan, South America or Europe, but my main goal is to be in education. I can teach a lot of subjects, like English, music or chemistry.

1 comment:

  1. Kenny was a wonderful man proud to say he was my friend and as a young aspiring trumpeter he looked out for me.......thanks Kenny.