June 20: Eric Dolphy Day

Eric Dolphy: June 20, 1928 – June 29, 1964

Eric Dolphy, master multi-instrumentalist

Eric Dolphy, master multi-instrumentalist. For more of his music, select the image.

Eric Dolphy was a true original with his own distinctive styles on alto, flute, and bass clarinet. His music fell into the “avant-garde” category yet he did not discard chordal improvisation altogether (although the relationship of his notes to the chords was often pretty abstract). While most of the other “free jazz” players sounded very serious in their playing, Dolphy’s solos often came across as ecstatic and exuberant. His improvisations utilized very wide intervals, a variety of non-musical speechlike sounds, and its own logic. Although the alto was his main axe, Dolphy was the first flutist to move beyond bop (influencing James Newton) and he largely introduced the bass clarinet to jazz as a solo instrument. He was also one of the first (after Coleman Hawkins) to record unaccompanied horn solos, preceding Anthony Braxton by five years.

Eric Allen Dolphy, Jr. was born in Los Angeles, California where his first musical experiences included plying harmonica and singing in the choir of a local church. He took formal instruction form music teacher Lloyd Reese and continued his studies after high school forat Los Angeles City College for a short period.

Gigging locally he would soon became proficient on alto and baritone saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute.

Free Jazz

Eric Dolphy first recorded while with Roy Porter & His Orchestra (1948-1950) in Los Angeles, he was in the Army for two years. Returning home in 1953 following military service, Dolphy started performing with Buddy Collette who suggested that he join Chico Hamilton in New York. in 1958. In 1959 he settled in New York, had the opportunity to perform with many legendary Jazz musicians including Freddie Hubbard, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, Max Roach, Oliver Nelson, Scott LaFaro, and Eddie Blackwell. He was soon a member of the Charles Mingus Quartet. By 1960 Dolphy was recording regularly as a leader for Prestige and gaining attention for his work with Mingus, but throughout his short career he had difficulty gaining steady work due to his very advanced style. Dolphy recorded quite a bit during 1960-1961, including three albums cut at the Five Spot while with trumpeter Booker Little, Free Jazz with Ornette Coleman, sessions with Max Roach, and some European dates.

Out to Lunch

He appeared on Ornette Coleman’s 1960 album Free Jazz and was also featured on four John Coltrane releases; Africa Brass, Impressions, Live at the Village Vanguard and Olé in 1961 and ’62. Their engagement at the Village Vanguard caused conservative critics to try to smear them as playing “anti-jazz” due to the lengthy and very free solos. During 1962-1963 Dolphy played third stream music with Gunther Schuller and Orchestra U.S.A., and gigged all too rarely with his own group. In 1964 he recorded his classic Out to Lunch for Blue Note and traveled to Europe with the Charles Mingus Sextet (which was arguably the bassist’s most exciting band, as shown on The Great Concert of Charles Mingus).

Dolphy would go on to record and tour with Charles Mingus appearing on the classic LPs “Mingus!”, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, and The Town Hall Concert and others. In addition to his extensive work as a side man Eric Dolphy performed and recorded as a leader beginning with the 1960 releases Out There, Outward Bound, Far Cry and “”Magic” with Booker Little. After the completion of his 1964 European tour with the “Charles Mingus Sextet” Eric had planning to settle down in Europe with his fiancé, but fate had other plans.

On June 29, 1964 Eric Dolphy suffered a stroke caused by an undiagnosed diabetic condition and died in Berlin at the young age of 36. That year he was inducted in Down Beat Magazine’s Hall of Fame.

“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.” – John Coltrane on Eric Dolphy

“When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” – Eric Dolphy

Virtually all of Eric Dolphy’s recordings are in print, including a nine-CD box set of all of his Prestige sessions. In addition, Dolphy can be seen on film with John Coltrane (included on The Coltrane Legacy) and with Mingus from 1964 on a video released by Shanachie.

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