Kenny Dorham: Bird Painting the Town Red in Milwaukee

June 1949, The Continental Theater Bar, Milwaukee, WI. From left to right: Tommy Potter on bass, vocalist Art Daniels, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Charlie Parker on alto sax, Max Roach on drums. Al Haig (not visible) is on piano.

When Art Taylor set out to record the interviews with his colleagues that were later published as Notes and Tones, he says, “[I] made it a point to discuss Charlie Parker and Bud Powell extensively with everyone I interviewed because I was trying to get as much accurate information about them as possible.” Here are Kenny Dorham’s reminiscences of Bird as published in the book.

“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.

“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 were 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 “[I’m] Painting the Town Red.” He played that for about half an hour, and each chorus was more fantastic than the one that 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 the whole time I was with 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.”

Kenny mentions a couple of songs during his story and I’ve included links to versions that the musicians were likely to have known. Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday recorded “I’m Painting the Town Red” in 1935 when it was a brand new tune written by Sam Stept, Charles Tobias, and Charles Newman. I assume that a teenage Charlie Parker in Kansas City would have heard and dug this recording with fiery trumpet from Roy Eldridge and the hip, modern NYC rhythm section of Teddy Wilson, John Kirby, and Cozy Cole. That’s alto saxophonist Hilton Jefferson playing the bridge during the first chorus. The sophisticated standard “Circus” would definitely have caught the ears of jazz musicians when Louis Alter and Bob Russell wrote it in 1949. Tony Martin’s recording was one of many versions in the air that year.

Also, note that the Miles Ahead Charlie Parker Chronology places the Milwaukee gig in June of 1949, after the Paris trip in May.

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