Dolphy, Eric

Eric Dolphy was one of the most creative and interesting figures in jazz history. Composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, and highly influential musical pioneer, in his 36 years he left behind a legacy that embodied a forward looking experimental free-jazz ethos seriously grounded in a uniquely applied traditional foundation.

Eric Allan Dolphy, Jr. was born 89 years ago today in Los Angeles, on June 20, 1928. Growing up in a family that seriously encouraged his musical inclinations, it should come as no surprise to those familiar with his career that by high school he was playing clarinet, oboe, flute, and multiple saxophones. He grew up worshiping Charlie Parker, and he became a revolutionary in similar fashion, inventing new ways to relate to musical changes and form. He played in various big bands and led one at Los Angeles City College, becoming widely noticed while playing with Chico Hamilton, and he was in New York City by 1959.

He soon became part of Charles Mingus's group, and this was to be the longest and most fruitful musical relationship of his career. When one views the partnerships Dolphy enjoyed and the personalities he played with in his incredibly short roughly half decade on the scene, one quickly senses the remarkable depth and breadth of his musical abilities. He both pushed his contemporaries and was motivated by them. He recorded several times with John Coltrane, and also worked with Booker Little, John Lewis, Clifford Brown, Ornette Coleman, Gil Evans, Gunther Schuller, George Russell, Oliver Nelson, and many more; in other words, with a huge number of the brilliant musical minds who were at the forefront of jazz innovation in the early 1960s. All of these composers and leaders knew well that Eric Dolphy was someone who always had fresh ideas to bring into any setting. Oliver Nelson surely understood that when he was assembling the supergroup that resulted in the classic The Blues and the Abstract Truth that Dolphy was the ideal multi-instrumentalist to help fully realize his vision. As did forward looking visionaries like Mingus, Evans, Schuller, and Russell.

Dolphy also recorded a series of fantastic leader sessions, two of which are a great place to begin to appreciate his brilliance. 1960's Outward Bound, which featured Freddie Hubbard and Jaki Byard, is a record which beautifully illustrates the early era of Dolphy's voyage, with his finding inventive new ways to explore bebop ideas. 1964's Out to Lunch, also featuring Hubbard along with Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis, and Tony Williams, is widely considered to be Dolphy's masterpiece. It's free jazz, it's avant-garde, it's hard/post bop - and it's so much more. Recorded a mere four months before his death, this album is aptly named and playful, and it simultaneously gives us endless rewards while reminding us of the undoubtedly amazing catalog of music which we might have seen from Dolphy had he lived long enough to more fully document his ideas.

Our good friend the late Nat Hentoff, who worked with Dolphy on Booker Little's Out Front and was very close to Mingus, was very touched by Dolphy's joyous and inquisitive nature. Nat told me how Dolphy was always searching for new sounds; this was part of why he became so proficient on so many different instruments. Nat also confirmed how highly Mingus always spoke of Dolphy; and Mingus was a most critical voice when it came to other musicians. He summed up the essence of Dolphy pretty ideally on the liner notes from Last Date when he said that Dolphy: "...was a complete musician. He could fit anywhere. He was a fine lead alto in a big band. He could make it in a classical group. And, of course, he was entirely his own man when he soloed...He had mastered jazz. And he had mastered all the instruments he played. In fact, he knew more than was supposed to be possible to do on them."

While touring Europe with Mingus in 1964, Dolphy collapsed into a diabetic coma. Details are still disputed, but it seems as though the hospital where he was brought had no idea what to do for him as they did not discover his diabetes and had attitudes toward jazz musicians typical of the time. Dolphy tragically passed away in Berlin on June 29 at age 36. He had recently told Mingus that he was planning on settling in Europe with his fiancée.

Some do try to categorize Dolphy as a part of the "free" jazz school, while musicians who played with him state that just about everything was arranged, orchestrated, and thought out. This is perhaps the essence of what made Dolphy so unique-he just conceived of musical ideas in ways that others had not; fulfillment of what he heard in his head was often so different and so new that to some - ranging from critics to Miles Davis - his ideas used in the context they were could be confusing. But it all makes perfect sense. And it is indeed interesting that Miles's great second quintet did employ a rhythm section of Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams - all of whom had played with and been influenced by Dolphy at early points in their careers.

Eric Dolphy left behind a singular legacy as have other jazz greats who left us at such tragic young ages. As huge fans of rock and rap can testify to, some analagous figures who died young did not leave behind remotely the volume of artistry as some of their jazz counterparts did; the music left behind by, say, Dolphy, Oliver Nelson, and Lee Morgan before their passing at the respective ages of 36, 43, and 33 is truly remarkable. Dolphy's career is documented by a series of leader albums, many posthumous compilations, and dozens of sideman sessions with the wide variety of musicians discussed above. He was one of the great figures who pulled jazz from the bebop era and pushed it into the future, shaping the music to come with his complex visions of not only what harmony, melody, rhythm, and time were, but by what they could be as well. The intensity of his art existed side-by-side with his gentle personality - it seems as though nobody who knew him ever had a bad thing to say about him. When one surveys jazz of the incredibly fertile 1960s, one is viewing a landscape whose primary architects most definitely include the great Eric Dolphy.