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Artist Profiles

Impressions of Eric Dolphy

By Published: March 12, 2008
Depending on whom you ask, Dolphy is remembered for a number of things. Certainly, his work on bass clarinet is vastly important, for he created a unique language on the instrument never thought possible. Mengelberg says that "finally what remained is the bass clarinet, in my opinion. I listen to some bass clarinet playing that is very authentic and very much Eric Dolphy, very much fun, for every saxophone tries to sound like a bass clarinet nowadays."

Indeed, in Europe, players like Rudi Mahall, Theo Jorgensmann, Michel Portal and Denis Colin have expanded on the instrument to no end. Trumpeter Ted Curson, who worked alongside Dolphy in the Mingus band of 1960-1961 notes the following: "I loaned Dolphy the money to buy the bass clarinet, and Mingus said 'oh, don't play that shit in my band, man!' This went on, and when it first started, it was almost as if Eric didn't hear him. Every time Eric pulled it out, Mingus would go crazy. Mingus didn't like it until we played in Antibes and the people trashed us; then he liked it. Every time Eric pulled it out—oh, man! Eric was amused by it, though."

His kindness and strength of character was a quality that was universally felt by all his colleagues. Nathan Davis relates an incident after his [Davis'] pregnant wife was injured in a car accident on the way to Germany, "Eric came back to the apartment and said, 'Nat, the best thing you can do is play. Don't worry, it's gonna be all right.' When the other cats were going out after the gig, he put his arm around me and said, 'no, you guys go ahead. Nat needs me here.'" Yet when Miles reamed Dolphy's playing in a 1964 Down Beat interview, Nathan Davis relates that it upset the reedman greatly. As much an intrepid explorer as he was, he was serious about his art and pained by the lack of acceptance he sometimes felt, especially in America.

At the end of Last Date, there is an audio clip tacked on of Dolphy making the following statement: "When you hear music, after it's over it's gone in the air. You can never capture it again..." Dolphy was wrong on two counts—the recordings live on, and there are people like Russ Johnson, who merges the spirit of his forebears with his own at Merkin Hall.

Selected Discography

Otomo Yoshihide New Jazz Orchestra, Out To Lunch (Doubt Music, 2005)
Eric Dolphy & Nathan Davis, Naima/Unrealized Tapes (West Wind, 1964)
Eric Dolphy, Last Date (Fontana, 1964)
Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch (Blue Note, 1964)
Eric Dolphy, Conversations (FM, 1963)
Eric Dolphy, Iron Man (Douglas, 1963)

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