A Bebop Bio of Kenny Dorham

Dave Oliphant knows jazz. And he knows the work of Texas trumpeter Kenny Dorham well enough to riff on it, translating Dorham’s life and music into literature in his latest book, KD: A Jazz Biography. More homage than biography, the book makes use of the interpretive, improvisational style of bebop to pay tribute to one of jazz music’s brilliant but lesser-known sons.

Kenny Dorham was born in Fairfield, Texas, in 1924. He learned to play the trumpet and went on to record with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Thelonious Monk, Art Blakely and Sonny Rollins. Though he is counted among the vanguard of mid-20th century jazz musicians, Dorham never enjoyed the fame achieved by many of his contemporaries and collaborators. Like so many jazz musicians of that era, Dorham died young, at the age of 48.

But you won’t get any of this from KD, at least not so straightforwardly. Just as bop musicians pushed back at musical convention, KD tests literary orthodoxy, eschewing linear narrative and standard biographic form. Instead, Dorham’s life is rendered in a modern-day epic poem, which might seem off-puttingly high concept to readers who prefer linear structure and the digestibility of prose. But Oliphant’s decision to tell Dorham’s story in verse is appropriate for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is that the author is an award-winning poet. Too, the relationship between music and poetry is longstanding, and the influence of jazz on the Beat Poets was especially significant. Defiantly punctuated and jam-packed with the patois and argot of jazz music, KD appropriately reads like the poetry of Dorham’s era.

What Oliphant does best is distill jazz into words that turn back into music when they’re read. The book is separated into 17 cantos that are less like chapters than musical changes. Subtle variations in the poem’s structure are shifts in time signature, giving each canto its own sound, and in places the rhyme scheme thumps like a double bass or ticks like a hi-hat.

But where jazz music is collaborative and conversational, KD sometimes feels like a 200-page solo without any set breaks. It isn’t the kind of book you’re likely to read on your morning commute on the bus, just like you probably wouldn’t listen to Kenny Dorham on your iPod at the gym. It’s a complex work, and reading it requires concentration—and maybe a glass of wine. But for jazz enthusiasts and literary epicureans, the results are worth the effort: an enriched understanding of both Dorham’s music and his milieu.