Eric Dolphy: A Deeply Dedicated Musician
“ As an African American intellectual Dolphy enjoyed a status more far reaching in its implications than that of the jazz musician alone ”
In the forty years since his death Eric Dolphy's career has taken on a kind of substance that it never had in his lifetime. Partly this is due to the course jazz has taken within those forty years, one of the end results of which is a scene that in many ways is more conservative now than it was then.
Brian Morton has referred to Dolphy's career as a series of transitions1 and there is something in this, hinting as it does at a more fundamental truth about Dolphy's music, namely that it didn't stay in one place. Certainly Dolphy underwent a relatively public process of musical evolution the like of which recordings were and continue to be too capricious to capture fully, and as such his legacy on record represents perhaps too deterministic a picture of his work. The nature of his music is also perhaps reflected in the scant attention it has received from writers and commentators in the decades since his death.2
He remains an elusive figure, and this is due in some part to the leaders with whom he recorded. Whilst the likes of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus are mentioned in any roster of the music's greats, Dolphy remains awkwardly placed by comparison, and considered perhaps only as some kind of iconoclast for whom death came too early for rational evaluation. This does not of course address one of the central characteristics of his life -as an African American intellectual Dolphy enjoyed a status with far greater implications than that of the jazz musician alone.
If he is dealt with in purely stylistic terms things are no easier. Two of his three principal horns of choice -the flute and the bass clarinet- had and continue to have only the most cursory histories within the music, and Dolphy's approach to both of them was always quirkily inndividualistic. His alto sax playing was more firmly rooted in the jazz continuum, and like so many others he drew from the deep well of inspiration that was Charlie Parker.
But as was his way Dolphy took that influence and fashioned something from it that was his. This is well exemplified by Curtsy from an album he cut in partnership with Ken McIntyre, where it's Dolphy whose work seems somehow the more secure within the post-bop idiom whilst at the same time it also hints strongly at where the music might have gone.
If with the questionable benefit of hindsight Dolphy's work seems like some kind of artistic cul-de-sac this is due in no small part to the fact that his influence has never been as deeply entrenched as, say, that of Coltrane. That aside, the sheer awkwardness of his oeuvre renders it far from being the easiest thing to navigate a way around. The old standby about some given musician being his own man -or her own woman- can only too readily be applied to Dolphy. But this again falls well short of an evaluation of his work.
To hear his clarinet work on Mal Waldron's "Warm Canto"3 for example is to hear the work of a musician with more than a passing acquaintance with the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, hardly the most obvious points of reference for the improvising jazz musician, and the point is underlined by the way a musician like Freddie Hubbard comprehended Dolphy's music. If nothing else, Hubbard proved by default that Dolphy's concerns lay with things other than technically flawless musicianship.
Perhaps the nearest thing we have to a present day Eric Dolphy is Greg Osby, although Dolphy's influence has been heard in the work of both Anthony Braxton and Oliver Lake. Osby has proven himself similarly willing to question the forms of jazz at the same time as he goes about the task of assembling a distinctive body of music on record with no little intellectual rigour. Ultimately, however, what the passing of time has revealed is just how awkward a figure Dolphy remains. In times when individual Coltrane albums are subject to commemorative froth, the neglect of Dolphy suggests an unwillingness to grapple with his uneasy legacy.
1 Gone In The Air, Article in Jazz Review , March 2004
2 To the best of this writer's knowledge Vladimir Simosko and Barry Tepperman's Eric Dolphy. A Musical Biography & Discography (1971) is the only extended work devoted to Dolphy and his music.
3 On Looking Ahead (Original Jazz Classics OJCCD 252-2)
Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings