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Content Note: discussion of racism

All jazz musicians have their own style, but some, surely, have more unique styles than others. Eric Dolphy’s sound continues to fascinate me because it was not just different, but radical in its refusal to bow to convention. Like pianist Thelonious Monk, he was an inspirational artist in the sense that he did not compromise this style for critical approval. His abrasive, unpredictable solos are exhilarating and endlessly inventive, but they did not please everyone. One high-profile critic was Miles Davis, who famously said Dolphy played saxophone like “someone was treading on his foot” (Davis softens the snub in his autobiography, saying Dolphy “could play; I just didn’t like the way he played”). Dolphy was an impressive multi-instrumentalist, too. As well as alto sax, he made some masterful recordings on the flute and bass clarinet, the latter being (up to that point) a rare feature in the jazz idiom.

I have been thinking of Dolphy lately because recent events have reminded me of the controversy surrounding his tragic death in 1964, cutting short his remarkable, if brief, career. Jazz musicians had always encountered widespread racism, but the case of Dolphy brings this to a whole other level, as such stereotyping literally left him for dead. While touring in West Berlin, he collapsed into a diabetic coma and was taken to hospital. The attendant doctors figured that, as a black jazz musician, Dolphy must have been a junkie, and so he was left in a hospital bed with the standard treatment for an overdose without having his blood sugars tested, never to emerge from the coma. Dolphy was, in fact, teetotal and took a dim view of drugs. We will never know what masterpieces he might have gone on to produce and, more tragically, what his life would have been like with the classical dancer to whom he had recently been engaged. What is certain is that, while short, his career was still long enough to have a lasting impact on a crowded jazz scene and in my view, he was one of the great originals of American music.

"Jazz musicians had always encountered widespread racism, but the case of Dolphy brings this to a whole other level"

Jazz critic Ted Gioia is right to point out that, unlike most free-jazz musicians, Dolphy’s aspirations were originally on becoming a classical musician, and his early penchant for Debussy, Ravel and Webern would remain influences for his compositions, if not his solo technique. He became more interested in jazz in the early 1950s, dedicating much of that decade to perfecting his technique and carving out his own musical voice. He cut his teeth in the Chico Hamilton group of the late fifties, a live performance of which is immortalised in the 1958 film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, and went on to achieve more prominence working alongside other giants of the day, from John Coltrane and Charles Mingus to free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. Nevertheless, his classical background occasionally made an appearance: Gioia notes that he was heard playing composer Edgard Varèse’s work for solo flute Density 21.5 at the 1962 Ojai Festival in California, for example. Dolphy was fortunate to appear in many sessions which have since become classics of the jazz canon, and I would venture that some of his most impressive solos are found in these recordings, rather than on those with him as leader. Personal highlights include his sensitive flute passages on “Stolen Moments” from the Oliver Nelson album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth (1961), and “Refuge” from Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure (1964), which captures his energetic virtuosity on alto. To have seen Dolphy live must have been a different experience altogether, but we are surely blessed to have his genius on these records, especially as most of them they have been remastered so superbly.

"Dolphy was fortunate to appear in many sessions which have since become classics of the jazz canon"

For me, the go-to Dolphy record has to be his most famous, Out to Lunch (1964), which was recorded shortly before his death and released posthumously. The Penguin Jazz Guide observes that this was the third time Dolphy had used the word “out” in his album title − the previous two were Outward Bound (1960) and Out There (1961) − which may give us an idea of its avant-garde pretensions. Out to Lunch showcases Dolphy as composer as well as musician, showing that, despite his tonal freedom as a soloist, he was still wedded to the fixed compositions of hard bop and bebop and did not go in for the whole free-jazz hog. Indeed, the album is characterised by an elaborate set of pieces which only occasionally skim the edges of musical freedom when the solo sections are long underway. “Gazzelloni”, the only vehicle for flute, still retains a hard bop swing to it for all its uneven structure and unusual harmonies. On the other hand, the duet between double bass and bass clarinet on “Something Sweet, Something Tender” seems to bring Dolphy’s classical origins to the foreground, although tenderness and sweetness are perhaps stretched to their harmonic limit. There is a certain playfulness about much of the album’s work, from the irregular 9/4 lilt of “Hat and Beard”, a Monk tribute, to the humorous “Straight Up and Down” which depicts a drunken gait in its slow rhythm and lurches in register. What makes Out to Lunch so appealing is its careful balance between ambitious compositional structure and a measured freedom during the solos. This is especially notable since jazz was being pulled in so many directions at the time − free jazz, hard bop, modal jazz − that this recording seems to resist identification with any single tendency, making it all the more original.


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Eric Dolphy’s influence was huge in the jazz community and beyond. John Coltrane was given his flute and bass clarinet upon his death, and according to his biography used to travel with a photograph of their owner. Charles Mingus, a man famed for his quick temper, remarked of him that he was a man “absolutely without a need to hurt”. We should all take inspiration from Dolphy’s audacity as an artist to pursue a style that won as many detractors as fans, while reflecting on the fact that ingrained racist attitudes brought about his tragic demise.

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