Born: June 20, 1928 | Died: June 29, 1964 Primary Instrument: Reeds
Eric Allan Dolphy was a jazz musician who played alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet.
Dolphy was one of several groundbreaking jazz alto players to rise to prominence in the 1960s. He was also the first important bass clarinet soloist in jazz, and among the earliest significant flute soloists; he is arguably the greatest jazz improviser on either instrument. On early recordings, he occasionally played traditional B-flat soprano clarinet. His improvisational style was characterized by a near volcanic flow of ideas, utilizing wide intervals based largely on the 12-tone scale, in addition to using an array of animal- like effects which almost made his instruments speak. Although Dolphy's work is sometimes classified as free jazz, his compositions and solos had a logic uncharacteristic of many other free jazz musicians of the day; even as such, he was definitively avant-garde. In the years after his death his music was more aptly described as being too out to be in and too in to be out.
Dolphy was born in Los Angeles and was educated at Los Angeles City College. He performed locally for several years, most notably as a member of the big band led by Roy Porter. Dolphy finally had his big break as a member of Chico Hamilton's quintet, with Hamilton he became known to a wider audience and was able to tour extensively through 1958, when he parted ways with Hamilton and moved to New York City.
Dolphy wasted little time upon settling in New York City, quickly forming several fruitful musical partnerships, the two most important ones being with jazz legends Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, musicians he'd known for several years. While his formal musical collaboration with Coltrane was short (less than a year between 1961-62), his association with Mingus continued intermittently from 1959 until Dolphy's death in 1964. Dolphy was held in the highest regard by both musicians - Mingus considered Dolphy to be his most talented interpreter and Coltrane thought him his only musical equal.
Coltrane had gained an audience and critical notice with Miles Davis's quintet. Although Coltrane's quintets with Dolphy (including the Village Vanguard and Africa/Brass sessions) are now legendary, they provoked Down Beat magazine to brand Coltrane and Dolphy's music as 'anti- jazz.' Coltrane later said of this criticism they made it appear that we didn't even know the first thing about music (...) it hurt me to see (Dolphy) get hurt in this thing.
The initial release of Coltrane's stay at the Vanguard selected three tracks, only one of which featured Dolphy. After being issued haphazardly over the next 30 years, a comprehensive box set featuring all of the recorded music from the Vanguard was released by Impulse! in 1997. The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings carried over 15 tracks featuring Dolphy on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, adding a new dimension to these already classic recordings. A later Pablo box set from Coltrane's European tours of the early 1960s collected more recordings with Dolphy for the buying public.
During this period, Dolphy also played in a number of challenging settings, notably in key recordings by Ornette Coleman (Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation), Oliver Nelson (The Blues and the Abstract Truth) and George Russell (Ezz- thetic), but also with Gunther Schuller and Max Roach among others.
Dolphy's recording career as a leader began with the Prestige label. His association with the label spanned across 13 albums recorded from April 1960 to September 1961, though he was not the leader for all of the sessions. Prestige eventually released a nine-CD box set containing all of Dolphy's recorded output for the label.
Dolphy's first two albums as leader were Outward Bound and Out There. The first is more accessible and rooted in the style of bop than some later releases, but it still offered up challenging performances, which at least partly accounts for the record label's choice to include out in the title. Out There is closer to the third stream music which would also form part of Dolphy's legacy, and reminiscent also of the instrumentation of the Hamilton group with Ron Carter on cello. Far Cry was also recorded for Prestige in 1960 and represented his first pairing with trumpeter Booker Little, a like-minded spirit with whom he would go on to make a set of legendary live recordings (At the Five Spot) before Little's tragic death at the age of 23.
Dolphy would record several unaccompanied cuts on saxophone, which at the time had been done only by Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins before him. The album Far Cry contains one of his more memorable performances on the Gross-Lawrence standard Tenderly on alto saxophone, but it was his subsequent tour of Europe that quickly set high standards for solo performance with his exhilarating bass clarinet renditions of Billie Holiday's God Bless The Child. Numerous recordings were made of live performances by Dolphy, and these have been issued by many sometimes dubious record labels, drifting in and out of print ever since.
20th century classical music also played a significant role in Dolphy's musical career, having performed and recorded Edgard Varèse's Density 21.5 for solo flute as well as other classical works, and participated heavily in the Third Stream efforts of the 1960s.
In July 1963, Dolphy and producer Alan Douglas arranged recording sessions for which his sidemen were among the leading emerging musicians of the day. The results were his Iron Man and Conversations LPs.
In 1964, Dolphy signed with the legendary Blue Note label and recorded Out to Lunch (once again, the label insisted on using out in the title). This album was deeply rooted in the avant garde, and Dolphy's solos are as dissonant and unpredictable as anything he ever recorded. Out to Lunch is often regarded not only as Dolphy's finest album, but also as one of the greatest jazz recordings ever made.
After Out to Lunch and an appearance as a sideman on Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Dolphy left to tour Europe with Charles Mingus' sextet (one of Mingus' most underrated bands and without a doubt one of the most exciting) in early 1964. From there he intended to settle in Europe with his fiancée, who was working on the ballet scene in Paris. After leaving Mingus, he performed with and recorded a few sides with various European bands and was preparing to join Albert Ayler for a recording.
On the evening of June 28, 1964, Dolphy collapsed on the streets of Berlin and was brought to a hospital. The attending hospital physicians, who had no idea that Dolphy was a diabetic, thought that he (like so many other jazz musicians) had overdosed on drugs, so they left him to lie in a hospital bed until the drugs had run their course.
The notes to the Prestige nine-disc set say he collapsed in his hotel room and when brought to the hospital he was diagnosed as being in a diabetic coma. After being administered a shot of insulin (apparently a type stronger than what was then available in the US) he lapsed into insulin shock and died.
Dolphy would die the next day in a diabetic coma, leaving a short but tremendous legacy in the jazz world, which was immediately honored with his induction into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame that same year. Coltrane paid tribute to Dolphy in an interview: Whatever I'd say would be an understatement. I can only say my life was made much better by knowing him. He was one of the greatest people I've ever known, as a man, a friend, and a musician.
Dolphy's musical presence was deeply influential to a who's who of young jazz musicians who would become legends in their own right. Dolphy worked intermittently with Ron Carter and Freddie Hubbard throughout his career, and in later years he hired Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson and Woody Shaw at various times to work in his live and studio bands. Out to Lunch featured yet another young lion who had just begun working with Dolphy in drummer Tony Williams, just as his participation on the Point of Departure session brought his influence into contact with up and coming tenor man Joe Henderson.
Carter, Hancock and Williams would go on to become one of the quintessential avant-garde rhythm sections of the decade, both together on their own albums and as the backbone of the second great quintet of Miles Davis. This part of the second great quintet is an ironic footnote for Davis, who was not fond of Dolphy's music yet absorbed a rhythm section who had all worked under Dolphy and created a band whose brand of out was unsurprisingly very similar to Dolphy's.
In addition, his work with jazz and rock producer Alan Douglas allowed Dolphy's unique brand of musical expression to posthumously spread to musicians in the jazz fusion and rock environments, most notably with artists John McLaughlin and Jimi Hendrix. Frank Zappa, an eclectic performer who drew some of his inspiration from jazz music, paid tribute to Dolphy's style in the instrumental The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue.