Born in 1928 in California, Eric Dolphy was a prominent jazz multi-instrumentalist. While he played the flute and clarinet, he is perhaps best known for playing alto saxophone.
Dolphy’s compositions have been categorized as free jazz, but in reality they are generally firmly rooted in conventional jazz theory. His melodies have led some to suggest that he was influenced by modern classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky.
Dolphy began his career playing locally in Los Angeles for several years after graduating from college before joining Chico Hamilton’s group. The band would become a success, exposing Dolphy to audiences nationwide with its frequent touring. Dolphy left the group in 1959 to move to New York City, where he would go on to collaborate with John Coltrane.
While the duo produced work that is now considered classic, the popular jazz magazine Down Beat called the music â€œanti-jazz.â€ It was not until 1997 that all of Coltrane’s and Dolphy’s collaborations were released.
At the same time as his partnership with Coltrane, Eric Dolphy led his own band and produced 13 of albums for Prestige Records between 1960 and 1961. Dolphy also recorded a number of saxophone recordings without accompaniment, a rare move at the time.
His solo performances were highly regarded, helping to popularize the form in coming years. Dolphy also performed several classical pieces in the early 1960s, including a song for solo flute at the 1962 Ojai Music Festival.
Dolphy signed with the famous Blue Note Records in 1964 and recorded Out to Lunch!, widely considered to be his greatest work. Songs from the album are famous for incorporating an unprecedented level of dissonance and avant-garde composition techniques.
Following the release of Out to Lunch!, Dolphy joined Charles Mingus in 1964 on a tour of Europe. The band was considered one of Mingus’s best, producing a number of popular live recordings.
During the tour, Dolphy resolved to eventually settle in Europe with his soon-to-be wife and remained there after the completion of the tour to collaborate with several European musicians.
Dolphy died in Berlin in 1964, although the precise nature of his death remains a point of contention among jazz historians. Some claim he collapsed on stage and was brought to a hospital, where doctors assumed he had overdosed on drugs and failed to take appropriate action. Others insist that Dolphy fell into a diabetic coma in his hotel room and was rushed to the hospital. Here, Dolphy was apparently administered insulin that was stronger than that in the United States, causing him to die due to insulin shock.
Regardless of the circumstances around his death, Dolphy’s prolific repertoire influenced many artists of diverse styles, including Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Jimi Hendrix and even Frank Zappa. Dolphy was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1964.
This is a clip of Dolphy playing Alto Sax with the George Russell Sextet on “Round Midnight”: