Eric Dolphy Biography

20 June 1928, Los Angeles, California, USA, d. 29 June 1964, Berlin, Germany. A fluent performer on several reed instruments, Dolphy began to play clarinet while still at school. On the west coast of America in the second half of the 40s he worked with Roy Porter’s band, before spending a couple of years in the US army. After his discharge, he played with several leading musicians, including Gerald Wilson, before becoming a member of the popular Chico Hamilton quintet. The stint with Hamilton brought Dolphy to the attention of a wide audience and many other young musicians. In New York in 1959 Dolphy joined Charles Mingus, all the time freelancing at clubs and on recording sessions with such influential musicians as George Russell and John Coltrane.

In the early 60s, Dolphy began a hugely prolific and arduous period of touring and recording throughout the USA and Europe. He played in bands led by Ornette Coleman (on the seminal Free Jazz sessions), John Lewis, Ron Carter, Mal Waldron, Oliver Nelson, Max Roach, Gil Evans, Andrew Hill, Booker Little, Abbey Lincoln, Mingus and Coltrane, with whose quartet he toured Europe in 1961. He also recorded a series of albums as leader, perhaps most notably the At The Five Spot sessions, with the brilliant young trumpeter Booker Little (later reissued as The Great Concert Of Eric Dolphy), and his Blue Note Records debut Out To Lunch! The latter, with its dislocated rhythms and unusual instrumental textures (Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes sharing front line duties with Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet and Dolphy’s reeds), is a landmark of modern music, and was voted best post-war jazz LP in a 1984 poll of Wire magazine critics. Shortly after recording Out To Lunch! Dolphy left the USA to live in Europe because, as he told writer A.B. Spellman, ‘if you try to do anything different in this country, people put you down for it’. He was working in Germany when he suffered a complete circulatory collapse caused by too much sugar in the bloodstream (he was diabetic), and died suddenly on 29 June 1964.

A major influence on jazz, and especially on alto saxophone players, Dolphy was a remarkably gifted musician. During his short career he established himself as a significant force, playing alto, flute and bass clarinet, an instrument before and since unusual in jazz. He was comfortable in the varied idioms of the bands in which he played, from the relatively orthodox Hamilton to the forward-thinking Coltrane and the Third Stream innovations of Gunther Schuller. He was, however, very much his own man, creating strikingly original solo lines, frequently dashed off at breakneck tempos and encompassing wide intervallic leaps. Although he is rightly associated with the concept of free jazz, Dolphy brought to this area of music his own carefully reasoned attitude, and he is perhaps better thought of as someone who stretched bebop to its very limits. Nearly 40 years after his death, the importance of Dolphy’s contribution to jazz is still being explored by musicians.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.