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Eric Dolphy: A Retrospective

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"Mv lije was made much hater by knowing hint. He was one of the greatest people I've ever known, as a man, a friend, and a musician. " -John Coltrane If Eric Dolphy was alive today he would be 46, six years younger than Charles Mingus and two younger than Miles Davis. Like them he would find his oíd music re-discovered and his new eagerly consumed by a whole new generation of jazz listeners. In time someone would come along and write down his life story so that we, like Coltrane, might come to know Eric Dolphy the man as well as the musician. But Eric Dolphy died ten years ago leaving only a few recordings, the eulogies of fellow musicians, and a jazz community that has only recently begun to realize the depth of his achievement. Dolphy was born June 20, 1928 in Los Angeles, California. Picking up clarinet at" age 8 and alto sax at 1 5, he played in the school band and studied harmony. The time outside school was spent listening to all the jazz he could get his hands on - Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, the two Bennys (Goodman and Carter), Count Basie, and especially Charlie Parker ("the Bird was it!"). Determined to become a consummate musician, Dolphy, after graduating, continued his harmonie studies with Lloyd Reece. He soon found work in various clubs jamming with such L.A. 'regulars' as George Brown, Gerald Wikon, Eddy Beal, and Bud dy Collette. From 1958 to 1959 he toured with the Chico Hamilton quintet, a starting point for many innovative young players. In 1960 he moved to New York and joined the Charles Mingus quartet with Ted Curson and drummer Danny Richmond. The following year Dolphy fronted his own quintet at the Five Spot with Booker Little, a young trumpet player who at the time seemed most likely to fill the hole left by Clifford Brown. This near-perfect combination, however, lasted only two weeks, terminated by Little's tragic death. By this time Dolphy was beginning to build a fair sized reputation for himself, winning the 1961 Downbeat 'New Star' award for alto sax, flute, and miscellaneous instruments. He began to associate with many of the 'new jazz' players like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman with whom he recorded a historie doublé quartet album for Atlantic. Meanwhile, he formed various small groups of his own with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Jaki Byard, Richard Davis, and Elvin Jones, recording until 1964 on the FM, Prestige, and Blue Note labels. But just when Dolphy was in mand as both leader and sideman, he and several others were singled out as targets in a wave or reactionary jazz criticism. John Tyman of Downbeat (which carried considerably more clout in 1963 than today) accused him of being "anti-jazz". John Coltrane remembered, "as sweet as this cat was (Dolphy not Tyman), it hurt me to see him get hurt irr this thing." When the chance to tour Europe with Mingus - came in 1964, Dolphy took it saying, "I can get more work there playing my own music, and if you try to do anything different in this country people put you down for it." What was Dolphy's "own music"? As mentioned earlier most critics state that he carne from a Charlie Parker tradition which is about as meaningful as saying some playwright carne from a William Shakespeare tradition. Granted, much of Dolphy's alto work bore a 'Parkerish' rhythmic stamp but his arpeggiation was like Coltrane's and his harmonie sense owed a great deal to Art Tatum to whom he constantly listened. When asked what his musical influences were, Dolphy would often somewhat cryptically reply, New Orleans marching bands, the sound of birds, and Indian ragas. Listening to his music though, it all makes sense. His coloristic reed playing was executed with the same good-natured abandon characteristic of earlier clarinet players in bands like "Johnny Detroit and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra". As for birds, Dolphy once told Leonard Feather, "I can remember when the birds used to whistle along with me back home in California, and I'd drop whatever I was doing and play along with them. Sure it's delibérate; I've always liked birds and I like to sound like them." The horizontal orientation of Indian classical music appealed to Dolphy's strong melodie sense and from it he borrowed the ideas of extended thematic development and intervals smaller than a half step. It seems curious that critics should have singled out Dolphy a&.being "non-melodie" and "leaving the changes." Perhaps his frequent use of rapid register created this impression; but as he emphasized, "Every note I play has some reference to the chords of the piece ... I just hear other resolutions in thé basic harmonie pattern." Dolphy's most striking feature was not his technical facility but his sound. From the very start he played with a distinctive, full sound that spoke of a maturity beyond his years. Listening to his recordings one gets the impression, as with Miles Davis or ny Rollins, that everything he played be it a frenzie 1 chase chorus with himself or one simple note, was played exactly as he wanted it. His bass clarinet and alto sax work creates this impression more strongly than his flute playing which was in general less adventurous. Of his bass clarinet Don Heekman said, "In Dolphy's hands the bass clarinet was never an ward instrument, it possessed, in1 stead. a serpentine aliveness that { coiled with vitality." Contrasting screamlike glissandos, crisp articulation, bursts of smeared notes, and lyric passages, he found in his reeds a second voice, "I try to get the instrument to more or less speak." It is ironie that much of what was put down as "anti-jazz" in Dolphy's playing was actually a return to the very roots of jazz when men like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong made their horns 'talk'. Charles Mingus understood what the critics could not, "He (Dolphy) had a big sound ... inside that sound was a great capacity to talk about the most basic feelings ... We used to actually talk in our playing. He knew that level of language which very few musicians get down to." Dolphy was totally dedicated to his music. Several months before the reactionary furor and his subsequent exile he told Martin Williams, "It is really wonderful to feel I can make my living as a musician now because 1 never wanted to do anything else." He remained in Europe after the Mingus tour where he was recorded in concert with a Dutch and Scandinavian rhythm section. On June 29, 1964 Eric Dolphy died from diabetes or a possible heart attack, and the album was posthumously titled Last Date. Discography The foUowmg thrce albums present a good cross section ot' Eric Dolphy's brief career: Eric Dolphy Prestige 24008 This doublé album is a twot'er reissue of "Outward Bound" with Freddie Hubbard and "Out There" with Ron Carter. The Great Concert of E.D. Prestige 34002 A three record set recorded live at the Five Spot during the two weeks when Dolphy played with Booker Little. Out to Lunch Blue Note 84I63 Recorded shortly before Dolphy's death, this album shows the direction in which he was headed - unique to say the least. Additional Albums - This is only a partial listing. Check the Schwann catalog for a complete one. Copenhagen Concert Prestige 24027 Far Cry wBooker Little Prestige S-7747 Greatness of . . . Trip 5012 Iron Man Douglas Z-3O873 Last Date Limestone 86103 A book entitled Eric Dolphy by V. Simosko and B. Tepperman has just been published by the Smithsonian Institution. Eric Dolphy died ten years ago leaving only a few recordings, the eulogies offellow m'usicians, and a jazz community that has only recently begun to realize the depth o f his achievement.