Eric Dolphy - Biography

Eric Dolphy was a distinct and original voice at a time when jazz was in flux. A master of the alto saxophone, the flute, and the bass clarinet (which he introduced to jazz as a solo instrument), his solo style still has the capacity to startle with its wide intervallic leaps, a fiery tone on alto, the use of speech-like elements, and his own idiosyncratic logic. Widely considered an avant-garde figure, Dolphy’s work might better be considered as transitional, extending the lessons of bebop into new realms of expression as he continued to work with chord changes, albeit in an often abstract and angular fashion. His work, both as instrumentalist and jazz composer, remains a powerful influence.

Eric Alan Dolphy, Jr. was born in Los Angeles, California, on June 20, 1928. His parents, of West Indies ancestry, have reported that their son was already listening to music at the age of two. At the age of six or seven, he brought home a clarinet from school and quickly gained his life-long reputation for non-stop practicing. He played in school bands and had private lessons with a succession of teachers. At 13, Dolphy was a member of the Los Angeles City School Orchestra, and while still a junior high school student, won a two-year scholarship to the University of Southern California’s School of Music.

It was around this time that Dolphy became aware of jazz, beginning with the records of Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, and Coleman Hawkins. As he later told jazz writer Martin Williams, “I used to ask myself, ‘What is that?’ at things they played. I wanted to know how they did all of them.” He picked up the alto in high school and was soon playing gigs, sometimes in a jump-blues style quintet that included pianist Hampton Hawes. By 1946, Dolphy was a student at Los Angeles City College, taking lessons from renowned instructor Lloyd Reese. He began flute studies during this period as well, learning the classical repertoire under Socorso Pirrola and Elise Moennig. Dolphy made his first recordings in February 1948 as part of drummer Roy Porter’s 17 Beboppers. Tenor saxophonist Clifford Salomon recalled that Dolphy, the best reader in the band, was never too busy to help other musicians who were having difficulty. Dolphy continued to work in Porter’s groups until 1950, when he joined the Army. He was with the US Army Band at Fort Lewis, Washington, until 1953, then returned to Southern California at the end of his service, more determined that ever to pursue a career in music.

For the next five years, Dolphy continued to develop his skills on alto sax and flute, leading his own groups around Los Angeles as well as working in bands led by Gerald Wilson, Buddy Collette, and Eddie Beal. He also started playing bass clarinet, and hosting jam sessions in a little practice room that his father had built for him. In 1954, he met John Coltrane and the pair became life-long friends. Also that year, Dolphy heard and became acquainted with Ornette Coleman. Dolphy later told Martin Williams “I knew what [Coleman] was talking about, because I had been thinking the same things.” Both Coltrane and Coleman would be important associates years later in New York.

When reedman Buddy Collette left drummer Chico Hamilton’s group in April 1958, he recommended Dolphy for the job. Touring the United States with the group gave Dolphy his first taste of recognition. He appeared with the group in July at the Newport Jazz Festival in a performance immortalized by Bert Stern in his film, Jazz On A Summer’s Day, and was featured on several of Hamilton’s albums for the Pacific Jazz and Warner Bros. labels. Hamilton broke up the band after a November 1959 tour of one-night stands. Dolphy elected to stay in New York. He joined the house band at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. Dolphy had met bassist and composer Charles Mingus in Los Angeles, and at the beginning of 1960, he joined Mingus’ group for his regular gig in Greenwich Village. As trumpeter Ted Curson tells it, he could never be sure who would be on the bandstand when the show started, but most often it was a quartet of Curson, Dolphy, Mingus, and drummer Dannie Richmond.

Beginning with a January date backing Sammy Davis, Jr., 1960 proved to be the year of Dolphy’s big breakthrough. He recorded Outward Bound (1960 Prestige/New Jazz), his first session as a leader, on April 1, 1960, with a quintet of Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Jaki Byard on piano, George Tucker on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums. Sessions in May for Mingus’ Pre Bird album (1960 Mercury) were followed by the first of several collaborations with prominent saxophonist and arranger Oliver Nelson (Screamin’ the Blues, 1960  Prestige/New Jazz), and a session with a quintet led by fellow alto saxist Ken McIntyre (Lookin’ Ahead, 1960 Prestige/New Jazz). His first trip to Europe came that summer with Mingus, where the group played the Antibes Jazz Festival with guest pianist Bud Powell. On his return to New York in August, Dolphy recorded his second Prestige album Out There (1961 Prestige/New Jazz), with a quartet featuring Ron Carter on cello, George Duvivier on bass, and Haynes on drums. Significant recording sessions with Mingus for Candid and pianist John Lewis for Atlantic, plus several albums fronting the Latin Jazz Quintet, kept him busy that fall. The year culminated in two days of intensive recording, with Dolphy performing alongside Ornette Coleman on a Gunther Schuller session for Atlantic on December 20. The next day started in Atlantic’s New York studios as a member of Coleman’s Double Quartet on the seminal Free Jazz (1961 Atlantic) album. After two takes of Coleman’s lengthy piece, Dolphy went to Van Gelder’s studio to record his own Far Cry album with a quintet featuring the new trumpet sensation Booker Little, plus Byard, Carter, and Haynes.

The New Year brought more work and opportunities for Dolphy. An Abbey Lincoln session in February (Straight Ahead, 1961 Candid), where Dolphy was joined in the reed section by Coleman Hawkins and Walter Benton, was followed by his featured role on Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961 Impulse). Further sessions with Nelson (Straight Ahead, 1961 Prestige/New Jazz), Little (Out Front, 1961 Candid), and pianist/composer George Russell (Ezz-thetics, 1961 Riverside) came along in the spring. At the same time, he was working on a series of orchestrations for John Coltrane. Dolphy’s charts for “Greensleeves,” “Africa,” and “Blues Minor” were recorded by the Coltrane orchestra for the Africa/Brass album (1961 Impulse) in May and June 1961, sandwiched around a late May session that produced Coltrane’s Olé album (1961 Atlantic). Two more powerful albums were made later in June, Ron Carter’s Where? (1961 Prestige/New Jazz), which again featured Carter’s cello with George Duvivier on bass, and pianist Mal Waldron’s The Quest (1961 Prestige/New Jazz), a sextet date with tenor saxophonist Booker Ervin, and Carter once again on cello.

The Five Spot was a well-known jazz club in lower Manhattan. Monk had a long residency there in 1957, and Ornette Coleman’s controversial debut took place there in 1959. Dolphy got a well-deserved two-week engagement in July 1961, where he led a quintet of Booker Little, Mal Waldron, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Ed Blackwell. Prestige Records recorded one night of the stand, originally issued on three separate albums. In spite of a seriously out-of-tune piano, these legendary albums remain brilliant examples of Dolphy and frequent partner Little stretching out on stage. Little would live only a few months more, making this documentation of a master improviser at work all the more valuable. (All of Dolphy’s work for Prestige as leader and sideman was collected in the 9-CD The Complete Prestige Recordings [1995 Prestige].)

Dolphy won the New Star award for alto saxophone in the 1961 DownBeat International Critics Poll. His reaction was to ask “Does this mean I’m going to get work?” Unfortunately, there was little or no work to be had for him as a leader. The balance of 1961 found him working on Max Roach’s Percussion Bitter Sweet album (1961 Impulse), then traveling to Europe for a concert tour as a single, assembling a rhythm section in each city. Performances in Berlin, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Uppsala, Sweden, were recorded and issued over the years. Dolphy’s bass clarinet solo version of “God Bless the Child” from Stockholm, which appeared on Eric Dolphy In Europe, Volume 1 (1964 Prestige) is perhaps his best-loved performance. He was continually expanding his musical vision. As he told an interviewer at the time, “I keep hearing something else beyond what I’ve done...I’ll never stop finding sounds I hadn’t thought existed until now.”

Back in the States, Dolphy joined the Coltrane group for a date at the 1961 Monterey Jazz Festival with special guest Wes Montgomery. That November, he recorded with Coltrane at the Village Vanguard in New York. Originally scattered across a number of album releases, the results of four nights were later gathered on The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings (1997 Impulse). In mid-November, Dolphy began a tour of Europe as a member of the Coltrane quintet with Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Elvin Jones. The quintet was filmed playing three songs in a German television studio in December, and the program is available on the Coltrane entry in the Jazz Icons DVD series.          

The pace slowed in 1962 and 1963. There was occasional work with Coltrane on both coasts, and in May, after a personal consultation with the composer, Dolphy performed Edgard Varèse’s difficult “Density 21.5" for solo flute at the Ojai Festival in Ojai, California. Dolphy continued to work on his own music, but there wasn’t much work for his band, which now included Herbie Hancock on piano. There was a brief period of big band work, with Charles Mingus at the poorly organized Town Hall concert in October, on record with Freddie Hubbard on The Body and The Soul (1963 Impulse), with pianist John Lewis’ Orchestra U.S.A., and with his own band and arrangements for a show at the University of Illinois, subsequently issued as The Illinois Concert (1999 Blue Note).

Although the final eighteen months of Dolphy’s life were marked by a deterioration in his health, due in part to his strained financial circumstances, he kept working as much as ever. Starting in the spring of 1963, he began sessions for the producer Alan Douglas, using a younger crew of musicians like trumpeter Woody Shaw, saxophonists Clifford Jordan, Sonny Simmons, and Prince Lasha, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson , and drummers J.C. Moses and Charles Moffett. This high energy music has been released on a bewildering array of labels over the years, with album titles like Music Matador (FM), Iron Man (Douglas), and Conversations (FM).

With work for his own group still sparse, Dolphy rejoined the volatile Charles Mingus in September, in time to work on Mingus, Mingus, Mingus (1963 Impulse). In February 1964, Dolphy recorded his only Blue Note album as a leader, Out To Lunch (1964 Blue Note). This much acclaimed collection is often cited as one of the best jazz albums of any era. It features five of Dolphy’s excellent compositions, fully realized by an all-star quintet of Hubbard, Hutcherson, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Tony Williams. A month later, Dolphy was back at Van Gelder’s, this time in an ensemble led by iconoclastic pianist and composer Andrew Hill. Point Of Departure (1964 Blue Note), with Dolphy joined in the front line by trumpeter Kenny Dorham and tenor saxist Joe Henderson, is one of Hill’s most highly regarded albums.

After a brief warm up tour (which includes the recently unearthed Cornell 1964 [2007 Blue Note]), Mingus and company left for Europe in April 1964. The group started out as a sextet, with trumpeter Johnny Coles joining Dolphy, Clifford Jordan, Byard, Mingus, and Richmond, but Coles got sick in Paris and the band left him behind. The music was thoroughly documented across Europe, often by clandestine tapers. Three television broadcasts have since surfaced, from Belgium, Norway, and Sweden, collected on the Charles Mingus entry in the Jazz Icons DVD series. Dolphy, depressed by the lack of opportunity in the US, had already decided to stay in Europe, at least for a while. He settled in Paris, after the tour with Mingus concluded at the end of April. He got a few gigs on the Continent, and managed a couple of record dates with pianist Misha Mengelberg, bassist Jacques Schols, and drummer Han Bennink in The Netherlands on June 2 (Last Date, 1964 Limelight) and with trumpeter Donald Byrd and saxophonist Nathan Davis on June 11 (Unrealized Tapes, 1989 West Wind). Despite feeling ill, he traveled to Berlin on June 27, 1964, to perform with pianist Karl Berger at a club. According to one report, he played two sets, but then returned to his hotel room. Another account has him collapsing on stage before being transported to a hospital. He died on June 29, at the age of 36. There are conflicting stories of his death, but everyone agrees that the world lost an important musician far too early.

Although Dolphy’s innovative sound and style had its share of detractors among critics and musicians alike, he was embraced by the most progressive jazzmen of the day. After his death, John Coltrane called him “one of the greatest people I’ve ever known, as a man, a friend, and a musician.” Charles Mingus, a man not given to undeserved praise, said that “Eric Dolphy was a saint - in every way, not just in his playing.”

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