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Eric Dolphy

Eric Dolphy's visionary spirit left an indelible impression on jazz, especially in shaping the earliest phases of the free jazz movement, but it also affected many facets of how the artform evolved through the early '60s. A composer and multi-instrumentalist who primarily played bass clarinet, flute, and alto sax, Dolphy is often credited with bringing bass clarinet into the jazz arena, and his approach to soloing on all of his instruments pushed the boundaries of bebop until the sounds resembled something new altogether. With improvisation characterized by wide intervals, contorting notes into non-musical or speech-like sounds, and unbridled, ecstatic expression, Dolphy's playing had a huge influence on John Coltrane as he moved away from structure and into free sounds. In addition to extensive work with Chico Hamilton, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and others, Dolphy was a bandleader in his own right, creating new levels of excitement and abstraction on his groundbreaking Blue Note debut, 1964's Out to Lunch! Dolphy's life was tragically cut short that same year when he was just 36, his brief time on the planet impacting the entire timeline of jazz yet leaving so much unfinished. Dolphy was born in Los Angeles in 1928. He became interested in music early in life, starting out on clarinet and receiving a scholarship to study the instrument at the University of Southern California School of Music while he was just barely into his teens. At this point he had taken up oboe and saxophone as well, and his love of classical music had him working toward a future as a symphonic musician. His earliest recordings were made in 1949 when he played flute, clarinet, and alto and baritone sax on various sessions with drummer Roy Porter. After several years in the army, Dolphy returned to Los Angeles in 1953, where he played music in various incarnations throughout the rest of the '50s. His first big break came in 1958 when he joined Chico Hamilton's band. After a year of heavy touring, Dolphy left California for New York City, where he joined Charles Mingus' band and began accelerating the development of his distinctively curious and multifaceted instrumental voice. Dolphy quickly integrated into the New York scene, playing on multiple important records and live dates with Mingus, but also contributing to landmark albums from Oliver Nelson, Ron Carter, Gunther Schuller, Booker Little, and many more, all between 1960 and 1961. Dolphy played bass clarinet on the collective improvisation that became Ornette Coleman's 1961 album Free Jazz, giving a title to the burgeoning movement. In 1961 he officially joined John Coltrane's band after sitting in on many occasions, contributing to albums like Africa/Brass and Live! At the Village Vanguard, and playing a major influential role in Coltrane's shift from hard bop to more unrestricted sounds. Dolphy also came into his own as a leader during this time, recording a series of albums for the Prestige label beginning with formative sets such as 1960's Outward Bound and 1961's Out There. On these albums and others where he acted as a leader, Dolphy's innovations were at the fore. In addition to an uncommon fluidity between his various instruments and a playing style that was at times jarringly un-musical for its time, Dolphy was also one of the first to record unaccompanied horn solos on record, pre-dating other notable examples of this by several years. The love of classical music that had inspired him early on showed up as an influence on his compositions as well, setting him even further apart from his more traditionalist contemporaries. After playing with Coltrane for several years, Dolphy returned to working with Mingus, playing on 1963's Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus and joining the band on tour in 1964. The same year, he signed on with Blue Note and recorded his masterwork Out to Lunch! After the completion of a European tour with Mingus in early 1964, Dolphy opted not to return to the United States, hoping to find a better reception for his music, which was often rejected or misunderstood by American audiences. While getting his bearings in Europe, he recorded, wrote, and also performed occasional gigs with friends from the states who were passing through like Donald Byrd. He made plans to join Albert Ayler's band, and to start work with Cecil Taylor and others. In June of 1964, however, Dolphy became severely ill while performing in Berlin. He was hospitalized after collapsing on-stage. Reports vary, but one account posits that when he was admitted to the hospital, doctors assumed Dolphy was suffering a drug overdose, going on the stereotype of the time that jazz musicians were largely addicts. Because of this, he was treated for an overdose and left to ride the experience out. Not only was Dolphy not a drinker, smoker, or drug user of any kind, but he was also diabetic, and he died in the hospital on June 29, 1964, after slipping into a diabetic coma, a potentially avoidable fate brought on by neglect and prejudice. Dolphy's legacy consistently echoed throughout jazz and other circles of music long after his death. Sessions he recorded during his lifetime were released posthumously, as were a wealth of archival recordings. Peers like Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Tony Williams, and many others all leaned into progressively further out playing styles pioneered by Dolphy, and subsequent generations of avant-gardists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Anthony Braxton used Dolphy's influence as a jumping off point for exploration of their own. Even experimental rock musicians like Frank Zappa found inspiration in Dolphy's innovative body of work, translating his irrepressible style into non-jazz idioms. It's impossible to know what Dolphy would have accomplished had he lived into his forties, but what he did leave behind, in just a sort time, comprises multiple lifetimes' worth of monumental creation.
© Fred Thomas /TiVo


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