Who Was Eric Dolphy? The Life And Impact Of The Legendary Jazz Artist


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In his short life of only 36 years, jazz musician and band leader Eric Dolphy made quite a mark on the world of jazz. He was lauded for his skills on the alto saxophone, bass clarinet, and the flute, as well as his avant-garde approach to jazz. He played with icons such as Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and Booker Little. Dolphy was a pioneer of utilizing the bass clarinet as a solo jazz instrument, and he was one of the first musicians to record unaccompanied horn solos. As we come up on the 60 year anniversary of Dolphy’s death, we take a look back on his career as a highly skilled improviser and musician.

Dolphy was born in Los Angeles, California in 1928. In his early life, he played the clarinet, the alto saxophone, and the oboe. He attended Los Angeles City College before he joined Roy Porter’s big band in 1948. In 1949, he went on the road alongside Art Farmer, Jimmy Knepper, and of course Porter himself. He also played in the U.S. Army band, and after a few years went to the U.S. Naval School of Music.

In 1958, Dolphy joined the Chico Hamilton Quintet in what many would consider his first big break. In 1959, he moved to New York and joined the Charles Mingus Quartet, which led him to gain widespread attention. He recorded regularly with Prestige, where he first began his career as a bandleader. From 1960 to 1961, he recorded with people like Booker Little, Max Roach, and Ornette Coleman.

In 1961, he joined the John Coltrane Quintet, a group that caused a stir with their very free and lengthy solos, which some critics referred to as “anti-jazz.” In February 1964, Dolphy recorded his famous album Out To Lunch! with Blue Note. To this day, Out To Lunch! is regarded as a legendary album in the world of free jazz. Soon after, he traveled Europe to go on tour with Charles Mingus’ sextet, but tragically died in June of 1964 due to complications of diabetes.

It’s hard to overstate the impact Eric Dolphy has had. You can experience a small piece of that impact at Seed Artists’ Eric Dolphy: Freedom of Sound on June 1st and 2nd at The New School’s John L. Tishman Auditorium. Join us as we honor Dolphy and his work with performances by nearly 40 brilliant artists, including NEA Jazz Master Reggie Workman, Nicole Mitchell, James Brandon Lewis, the Don Byron Bass Clarinet Quartet, Eugene Chadbourne, and Angelica Sanchez.

This story originally appeared on Seed Artists and was syndicated by MediaFeed.

Featured Image Credit: Seed Artists / Peter Bodge.