Newly-remastered SACD reissues of Eric Dolphy's albums for the Prestige label mark the 90th anniversary of his birth.
The recording sessions that Eric Dolphy
led in the last four years of his life advanced the evolution of jazz. It was a tragedy that Eric Dolphy gave himself so completely and unselfishly to art that he neglected to attend to the mundane demands of bodily health. The impact of his death on June 29, 1964 at age 36 is immeasurable. The sudden loss traumatized his closest friends and deprived the world of his gifts. Dolphy's musical conception was seen by some critics as destructive and incomprehensible, though he affirmed the highest standards of jazz tradition. His most passionate supporters were fellow musical innovators, and his most hostile detractors were complacent musical conservatives. Eric's playing rose up above the din and distractions, like the songs of the birds in his parents' garden.
ACT ONE: preparation
The entrance of Eric Dolphy onto the jazz stage of New York was delayed so long that it could be said the play of his life had only two acts.
The first act was set in Los Angeles, where Eric Allan Dolphy was born on June 20, 1928. Eric's musical journey initially followed the same road as many jazz musicians of his generation: instrument study in high school with additional private lessons; then college or conservatory classes in music theory. Dolphy's technical perfectionism and precocious mastery of Charlie Parker
's alto saxophone style brought him into contact with composer-bassist Charles Mingus
. Eric performed on "The Story of Love," a large-ensemble session in 1949, one of relatively few recordings Mingus made prior to his departure from the West Coast.
In 1952, after a two-year stint in the Army, Dolphy faced the choice of moving to New York with the hope of distinguishing himself in a highly competitive pool of talented bebop players, or staying in Los Angeles and pursuing commercial session work. He chose neither option, and it was a consequential decision. His father improvised a rehearsal studio for him on their property, and for the next six years Eric Dolphy rehearsed privately, and with local and touring musicians. John Coltrane
, while on a West Coast tour with the Miles Davis
Quintet, visited Eric's studio. Coltrane had only recently emerged from a decade-long rigorous and lonely practice regimen; he understood what Eric was seeking to achieve. The two entered into a close friendship that lasted for the rest of Dolphy's life.
In the 1950s professional jazz musicians paid their dues night after night in smoke-filled clubs. They toured with big bands and small combos, learned how to play to an audience's expectations, and slogged through charts that barely challenged their abilities but earned them a paycheck. For several years, Eric Dolphy paid hardly any of those dues. He found local nightclub work, sometimes in projects with his friends Buddy Colette and Gerald Wilson. What he was hearing had little to do with the West Coast "cool jazz" sound. In long hours rehearsing in his room, he studied the bass clarinet, an orchestral instrument with a four-octave range. Bass clarinet was prominently featured in the work of 20th century Russian and Second Vienna School composers, and brought to a wide listening audience in recorded performances by Harry Carney
, a member of the Duke Ellington
orchestra. Dolphy's practice regimen allowed him to master this difficult instrument, and to develop a saxophone-like style of playing over the entire range. To Eric, all sounds were beautiful: he listened to the birds in his parents' garden and sought to evoke their songs on his third instrument, the flute.
ACT TWO: performance
At age 30 Eric was propelled out of his rehearsal room onto the wider stage of professional music. Eric's friend Buddy Collette
, also a multi-instrumentalist, was leaving the Chico Hamilton
band. On Collette's recommendation, Hamilton hired Dolphy and took him on the road and into the studio. Hamilton recorded for nationally-distributed record labels; for the first time, Dolphy's Parkerian alto and distinctive bass clarinet sounds were heard by fellow musicians, critics and jazz listeners. Eric's earliest recording with the Hamilton group was a set of Duke Ellington compositions recorded in August 1958 that producer Dick Bock at Pacific Jazz, reportedly displeased with Eric's distinctive alto saxophone playing, pulled from release. (Chico Hamilton with Eric Dolphy: The Original Ellington Suite
was sourced from an LP test pressing located in England and sent to producer Michael Cuscuna, who oversaw its long-belated release in 2000). The setback was a disturbing omen of the critical obstacle course Eric would confront in subsequent years.