Overshadowed for most of his career by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, and Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham's abilities as a composer and unique voice as an advanced bop trumpet player are underrated to this day.
McKinley Howard Dorham was born on August 30, 1924 on a ranch called Post Oak, near Fairfield, Texas. He attended Anderson High School in Austin, where he began teaching himself to play piano and trumpet, and spending much of his time on the school boxing team. He later enrolled at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, studying chemistry and minoring in physics. During this time he experimented with arranging, writing for the stage band, where he met such players as Wild Bill Davis, Harold Land, and Roy Porter.
He was drafted into the army in 1942 (spending some time with the army boxing team) and was discharged about a year later.
In late 1943 he joined the Russell Jacquet orchestra in Houston, and he spent much of 1944 playing the band of Frank Humphries. By 1945, Dorham had gained positions with Dizzy Gillespie's short-lived first big band, and then replaced Fats Navarro in Billy Eckstine's orchestra. In 1946 he recorded with the Be Bop Boys (aka the 52nd Street Boys, including Fats Navarro), and spent time playing in the bands of Lionel Hampton and Mercer Ellington.
During this time, Dorham continued to compose and arrange (he arranged "Okay for Baby" for Lucky Millinder and Benny Carter, and "Malibu" for Cootie Williams), ghosting arrangements for Walter 'Gil' Fuller which were sold to several name big bands, including Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa.
In 1948, Dorham studied composition and arranging at the Gotham School of Music under the G.I. Bill. On Christmas Eve of that year, Dorham performed for the first time as replacement for Miles Davis in the Charlie Parker quintet, where he would play for about a year (Davis had recommended Dorham for the job), including an appearance at the 1949 Paris Jazz Fair.
After a two-year hiatus starting in 1950, during which Dorham lived and worked day jobs in California, he settled in New York City and began a busy career as a free-lance musician, perorming with players such as Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt, Thelonious Monk, and Mary Lou Williams. In 1952 Dorham recorded with Monk and in late 1953 led his first recording as a leader, a 10-inch record on the Debut label.