Trumpeter Kenny Dorham (1924-1972) was famous throughout his career for not being famous enough. Overshadowed by Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, and Lee Morgan, Dorham’s accomplishments tended to be underrated and overlooked during his lifetime. But now, with the hindsight of history, it is easy to note that he was one of the most significant trumpeters of the 1945-1965 period, a distinctive stylist and a fine composer who had a musical message of his own.
Originally a pianist, Dorham switched to trumpet when he was in high school. He served in the Army during 1942-1943 and worked with trumpeter Russell Jacquet in Houston before moving to New York. Twenty-one at the time that bebop exploded on the jazz scene in 1945, Dorham was part of the modern jazz scene from the beginning, playing with the orchestras of Dizzy Gillespie (his first unrecorded big band) and Billy Eckstine. He also worked with the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Mercer Ellington, but more significant were his recording dates with the Be Bop Boys in 1946, groups that included altoist Sonny Stitt, pianist Bud Powell, and trumpeter Fats Navarro.
In December 1948, Dorham replaced Miles Davis with the Charlie Parker Quintet, playing with Bird regularly for a year. His lyrical sound, warm tone, and ability to think fast on his feet made him a standout even if the flashier trumpeters tended to grab the headlines.
After leaving Parker, Dorham freelanced for a time, recording his first album as a leader for the Debut label. The Kenny Dorham Quintet is a strong straightahead set that co-stars tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. The trumpeter’s tone was quite personal and he was emerging as an important transitional force between bop and hard bop. That role became more apparent when Dorham became an original member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, led the Jazz Prophets, and was the late Clifford Brown’s replacement with the Max Roach Quintet. He was also emerging as a fine composer. In his career his best-known compositions would be the standard "Blue Bossa,” "Lotus Blossom,” "Minor Holiday,” "Prince Albert,” and "Una Max.”
During 1957-1959, Dorham led four memorable projects for Riverside and one for New Jazz, all of which have their own personality and purpose. On Jazz Contrasts, his sidemen are the immortal tenor Sonny Rollins, pianist Hank Jones, bassist Oscar Pettiford, and drummer Max Roach, each of whom join together to help define hard bop on such numbers as "I’ll Remember April” and "Falling in Love with Love.” Three selections without Rollins have harpist Betty Glamman adding an atmospheric touch to the ensembles. 2 Horns, 2 Rhythm is a pianoless quartet date with altoist Ernie Henry which includes the trumpeter’s "Lotus Blossom” and a delightful reworking of "Is It True What They Say About Dixie?” This Is the Moment! is a unique project for it is Dorham’s only vocal album, a pleasing affair. On Blue Spring, the trumpeter’s band includes a jubilant Cannonball Adderley on alto, baritonist Cecil Payne and David Amram on French horn. Quiet Kenny puts the focus on ballads and Dorham’s playing in a quartet setting.
Kenny Dorham’s career was at its height during 1961-1964 when he recorded for Blue Note and helped to introduce the promising young tenor Joe Henderson. But despite only being 41 in 1965, he stopped leading record dates and played only on a part-time basis during his final seven years, losing a battle with kidney disease. Despite being constantly overlooked during his prime years, Kenny Dorham is remembered today as one of the most vital trumpeter-composers of the bebop and hard-bop eras.