The Life and Career of Eric Dolphy

Eric Dolphy once said, “When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” But when he was playing his music everyone sat up and took notice and never forgot the feeling it gave them. Famous jazz musician, who was a virtuoso on three instruments (alto sax, flute and bass clarinet), Eric Dolphy was born June 20th 1928 in Los Angeles, California, the child of Sadie and Eric Dolphy Sr. both descendants of Western-Indian families. Young Eric spent his youth in Los Angeles, and he loved swimming, sports and tennis. Eric had a particular affinity for classical music. He started playing the clarinet at age seven, moved on to the oboe by middle school and saxophone by age sixteen.

Eric’s parents had hopes of their son achieving a more secure and respectable lifestyle, maybe even fill a chair in the local Orchestra. But they knew he was going to be a musician, no matter what. In an article by John Kruth he talks about the interview with Dolphy’s parents conducted by a young college student, Alan Saul. In the interview, Sadie, Dolphy’s mother, remembers the young days of Dolphy’s musical life. She said her son got up at five every morning to practice his music, then after school he would immediately come home to work on his tone.

Kruth recalls quotes from the interview, ““He'd blow one note all day long!" Sadie exclaimed.

"For weeks at a time!" Eric Sr. added. "Then he'd play it and put it on his tape recorder and listen to it. He'd say, 'Dad it's got to be right.' I'd say, 'It sounds right to me.'” But Eric, perfectionist that he was, would reply, “No. It's not right yet.”

“Sometimes,” Eric Sr. continues, “we'd be sleeping and hear him plunking on the piano, and I'd say, ‘Hey, what ya doin'?' He'd say, ‘I just got an idea.' And he'd be writing y'know?”

Dolphy worked hard mastering techniques and concepts and employing them in his own musical improvisations. He was discouraged at first, when he couldn’t find work, but was committed to his music, and found inspiration in Charlie Parker. Dolphy was fascinated by Parker's music and, in his early days playing in a bar band, was afraid he'd be written off as a Charlie Parker imitator. 

Dolphy had officially arrived during the be bop period of jazz and his avant-garde sound got him noticed. After years of playing with bebop bands, Dolphy got another big break when he became a member of Chico Hamilton’s quintet in the late 50s. The group grew in fame and toured extensively until 1959, when Dolphy and Hamilton split. Dolphy moved on to New York City where he made his first solo recording, Outward Bound, in 1960. Later that year Dolphy joined Charles Mingus and the two would play on and off 1964. It was during this time that Dolphy began developing his “entrances”. 

Jazz critic for National Public Radio’s daily show Fresh Air, Kevin Whitehead, wrote this in an article entitled Eric Dolphy: How to Make an Entrance, “Some soloists sneak into an improvisation, some loudly fling open the door, but alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist Dolphy tends to kick his off with !!!multiple! !!!!exclamation! !!points! like he's stumbled over the furniture only to land with his finger in an electric socket. The memorable effect is achieved via his signature combination of high energy, jagged lines comprised of leaping wide intervals and a rough and raspy tone.” 

Whitehead goes on to say that fellow friends and jazz radicals, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman “dug” Dolphy and hired him. Coleman had him play on his 1960’s Free Jazz recording and Coltrane gave Dolphy a place in his classic quarter in 1961.

Dolphy ,with his musical ingenuity and use of different instruments, became one of the founders of the 60s’ new music. Dolphy's fiery style had its critics. Some saying that he played “out of tune”, but even they couldn’t deny Dolphy was a musical force to be reckoned with when he broke onto the New York City scene. 

Dolphy’s recordings as a leader started with Outward Bound which featured trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, pianist Jake Byard, drummer Roy Haynes and bassist George Tucker. Another Dolphy album, recorded the same day in April 1960, Here and Now, included only Byard, Tucker and Haynes. Out There recorded in August 1960, featured cellist Ron Carter, drummer Roy Haynes, and bassist George Duvivier. Highlighted on the album were the title track and Serene

Far Cry, in December 1960, took Dolphy’s talent to a whole new level. Dolphy was accompanied by trumpeter Booker Little, pianist Byard, bassist Carter and drummer Haynes. Several of Dolphy’s recordings were considered futuristic by critics including in November 1960--Triple Mix, and in July 1960--Improvisations and Turkas, and Inner Flight 1 and 2, all three of which were released in the Other Aspects recording.

Dolphy fully embraced his avant-garde side in the July 1963 with the release of Conversations featuring Wood Shaw and Bobby Hutcherson. Also in July 1963, Iron Man, was released with Dolphy playing alongside Hutcherson and Shaw on the title track and Burning Spear

Dolphy reached full musical maturity with his release of Out to Lunch in February 1964, in which he was accompanied by Hutcherson, drummer Tony Williams, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and bassist Richard Davis. Critics raved about Dolphy’s success.

The Out to Lunch masterpiece included the tracks Straight Up and Down, Out to Lunch, Gazzelloni, Something Sweet, Something Tender, and Hat and Beard. Dolphy was at his full free-jazz stride on this album and he would be known for it to this day.

Steve Huey, All Music Guide critic, shares his thoughts of Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, “Out to Lunch stands as Eric Dolphy's magnum opus, an absolute pinnacle of avant-garde jazz in any form or era. Its rhythmic complexity was perhaps unrivaled since Dave Brubeck's Time Out, and its five Dolphy originals -- the jarring Monk tribute "Hat and Beard," the aptly titled Something Sweet, Something Tender, the weirdly jaunty flute showcase Gazzelloni, the militaristic title track, the drunken lurch of Straight Up and Down -- were a perfect balance of structured frameworks, carefully calibrated timbres, and generous individual freedom.”

Dolphy’s last recording was in June 1964, and would be appropriately named, Last Date. The album featured Dutch drummer Han Bennink and Ukrainian pianist Misha Mengelberg. Dolphy died in Berlin, Germany on June 29, 1964. According to doctors at the hospital where he was treated, he was a diabetic with too much sugar in his bloodstream which caused a complete collapse of his circulatory system. It was rumored that doctors initially gave Dolphy a strong shot of insulin and he went into a diabetic coma and died. It was also rumored that his illness was a result of a drug overdose and that, rather than treat him, the doctors waited for the drugs to leave his system. Dolphy’s funeral took place on July 9 in Los Angeles California, where he was also buried.

"Whatever I 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 as a musician," John Coltrane said after hearing of the death of his close friend. Sadie, Dolphy’s mom, later gave Coltrane Eric’s bass clarinet. She claims to have had nightmares about her son playing the instrument.

Friend and frequent collaborator, Charles Mingus, thought that Dolphy had been murdered, as he had gone to the doctor before his European tour and had no signs of diabetes or poor health.

Dolphy was quickly recognized for his influence, contribution and legacy to the world of jazz and was posthumously inducted into Down Beat magazines Hall of Fame in 1964.

A biography from All About Jazz says “In addition, his work with jazz and rock producer Alan Douglas allowed Dolphy's unique brand of musical expression to posthumously spread to musicians in the jazz fusion and rock environments, most notably with artists John McLaughlin and Jimi Hendrix. Frank Zappa, an eclectic performer who drew some of his inspiration from jazz music, paid tribute to Dolphy's style in the instrumental The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue.

  • Outward Bound: Dolphy discography, pictures, and other information pertaining him.

  • Young Saint with a Horn: An article about the life and times of Eric Dolphy.

  • Eric Dolphy Biography: Covers his early years through his death. Links to articles on Dolphy and videos of him playing.

  • Jazz Miscellany, Eric Dolphy: Reviews of five of Dolphy’s performances and albums.

  • Eric Dolphy, Last Date: About Dolphy’s last recording session and the tracks that came from it.

  • God Bless the Child: A tribute article to Dolphy on what would have been his 80th birthday. Covers biographical information and stories from his life.

  • Eric Dolphy’s Playing Style: Discusses Dolphy’s unusual playing style, how the Vienna Art Orchestra played Dolphy’s compositions in their own performance style.