Eric Dolphy Turns Eighty
Photo courtesy of Concord Music Group
God Bless The Child
By John Kruth
Eric Allan Dolphy was born eighty years ago on June 20th 1928. An only child, of parents of West-Indian heritage, Eric grew up in L.A.. He loved sports, swimming and tennis in particular. Eric also adored classical music, the French impressionists, Ravel and Debussy and later on, Webern, as his tastes expanded. By age seven, Eric began playing the clarinet, then took up saxophone by the time he turned sixteen. Dolphy also loved the oboe and his folks, Eric Sr. and Sadie, hoped their son might one day fill a chair in the Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra. But his music teacher, Lloyd Reese led the impressionable teenager down the primrose path to a life in jazz, crushing Eric's parent's plans of a more respectable and secure lifestyle for their son.
"Lloyd Reese taught Eric Dolphy; Harry Carney also studied with him and so did Ben Webster and Buddy Collette, to name a few," Charles Mingus wrote in the liner notes to his album Let My Children Hear Music.
"Lloyd Reese was a master musician," Mingus said. "He knew jazz and all the fundamentals of music from the beginning. He used to be the first alto player in Les Height's band. And he could play anything."
Shy and introspective as a teenager, Eric spent nearly every waking hour cloistered away in his backyard studio, practicing and studying music. Dolphy fed his voracious musical appetite with everything from field recordings of pygmy yodeling to modern composers like Schoenberg.
Viewing a rare videotape of an interview with Eric Dolphy's parents conducted years ago by Alan Saul, a college student at the time, supplied enormous insight into the multi-instrumentalist's personality and supplied this article with many of the quotes from his folks. There were long awkward silent pauses as Alan, a self-conscious, well-intentioned young hippie, held a legal pad, as he nervously looked over a long list of questions while Dolphy's parents sat on the sofa graciously obliging. Eric Sr. was reserved and thoughtful. He let his wife and his polka dot shirt do most of the talking.
Dolphy's mother Sadie recalled how he got up each morning by five to practice until breakfast and then left for school. After classes, he'd hurry back home again to work on his tone.
"He'd blow one note all day long!" Sadie exclaimed.
"For weeks at a time!" Eric Sr. added. "Then he'd play it and put it on his tape recorder and listen to it. He'd say, "Dad it's got to be right."
I'd say, "It sounds right to me."
But Eric, perfectionist that he was, replied, "No. It's not right yet."
"Sometimes we'd be sleeping and hear him plunking on the piano," Eric Sr. continued. "And I'd say, ‘Hey, what ya doin'?' He'd say, ‘I just got an idea.' And he'd be writing y'know."
"He was gonna be a musician. He wasn't gonna do anything else!" Sadie said.
"He became discouraged when he couldn't get any work. But he kept on working at it because he figured some day, somehow he'd make it."
Like every saxophonist of his generation Eric was heavily inspired by Charlie Parker. Dolphy spent years mastering Bird's technique and concepts, employing them as the foundation for his own imaginative improvisations. Lillian Polen, a close friend of Eric's at this time recalled that Dolphy wholeheartedly "worshipped Bird." She recalled regularly "falling by the Oasis," a small club on Central Avenue in LA to check out Dolphy's band. At the time, Eric worried that people would write him as just another Charlie Parker imitator.
Years later, Eric explained his inspiration for his album title Far Cry: "The title's meaning is that it's a far cry from the impact Bird had when he was alive and his position now. I wrote this to show that I haven't forgotten him or what he's meant to me. But the song also says that as great as he was, he was a far cry from what he could have been. And, finally, it says that I'm a far cry from being able to say all I want in jazz."
Eric came to prominence during a transitional period in jazz. In the evolution of the alto saxophone, his horn bridged the gap between Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and helped usher be bop into the uncharted realm of the avant-garde or the "New Thing." His unique sense of harmony and jagged melody lines had more in common with the fractured piano of Thelonious Monk than any horn player of his time. His lyrical leaps from one register to the next spanned a broad range of emotion and expression that few musicians then or now have been capable of. Dolphy's vocabulary ranged from a gentle whisper to a full-blown anxiety attack. Like Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, Eric also battled the grim existential atmosphere of cold war era with an irrepressible howl.
"To me, jazz is like part of living, like walking down the street and reacting to what you see and hear. And whatever I react to, I can say immediately in my music," he once said.
"It was evident he had his Charlie Parker together, but little did I realize that he would become one of the groundbreakers of the new music of the Sixties," critic Ira Gitler exclaimed after witnessing Dolphy with Chico Hamilton's Quintet at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.
At the time, Hamilton's group typified West Coast cool. Their soft tasteful chamber jazz, comprised of guitar, cello and woodwinds, was a forerunner to future New Age bands like the Paul Winter Consort and Oregon. In this setting, Dolphy's fiery approach to improvisation was rather risky. At any moment, Eric could suddenly bust Chico's groovy mood wide open with just a few slurs and squawks from his bass clarinet. Critics that just didn't get it heard Eric's joyous squeals as amateurish, shrill and offensive.
Earlier that year Buddy Collette left Chico Hamilton's Quintet, suggesting Eric Dolphy as his replacement. Eric played in the group a short time before re-locating to New York in the autumn of 1959 when he joined forces with his old friend from L.A., the volatile bassist Charles Mingus.
Back in California, Dolphy had been harshly criticized for playing out of tune.
"The public in general wasn't ready for Eric when he was in my band," Hamilton later admitted. Many complained, suggesting that Chico fire him and find someone more suitable to his smooth sound. "But Eric was such an original type player. He had a legitimate background in music to the extent of the classics and he studied with [William] Kincaid. He did everything correct. He was total music," Hamilton said in his former sideman's defense.
Chico believed it a coincidence that Dolphy became a jazz musician in the first place. He felt Eric's exceptional technique and diversity would have allowed him to pursue any style of music he desired, from classical to R&B.
Eric Dolphy arrived in Manhattan at a time when the revolutionary concepts of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor had turned jazz on its ear. The term avant-garde no longer belonged exclusively just to painters, sculptors and experimental musicians with classical backgrounds (read white Europeans, like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen).
Ornette, in his highly personalized mission to redefine beauty, had unleashed a strange new theory of music on the world he dubbed "Harmolodics" (one part harmony/one part motion/one part melody) although his bleating tone on a white plastic alto sax was considered anything but beautiful by many. Meanwhile Cecil's scrambled madcap piano extrapolations were demolishing traditional song structures with a tremendous force known only to a Stravinsky symphony or an atomic blast.
On April Fools Day, 1960 Eric recorded his first album under his own name in for the New Jazz label. The cover painting for Outward Bound by an artist simply known as "The Prophet" presented a desolate green twilight zone where space and the future met. Dolphy's eyes are shut in deep concentration. Planets glow above his head. The album's title immediately identified him with the likes of Sun Ra, Coleman and Taylor. Now in hindsight, it's clear that Dolphy's musical concepts were far more conventional. His cohort and roommate at the time, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard was certainly no match for the likes of Don Cherry when it came to bending the perimeters of jazz. Once Eric played a solo and stepped back from the microphone, his band sounds ten years behind him. Although the rhythm section provided superb support and propelled the music onward and outward, there's little trace of invention or innovation in their playing.
Dolphy employed traditional song structures as his foundation for expression and exploration while Ornette's approach came straight out of Planet X. The kind of freedom practiced and encouraged by members of Coleman's quartet shook the very foundations of jazz at its core. Unless the listener was willing to approach the complexity of Ornette's music with an unbiased mind and open ears, allowing the sound to wash over them without analysis, they would never grasp its full impact.
Coleman's image as the era's premiere iconoclast may have overshadowed many of his peers but Dolphy's role in the avant-garde was unquestionably integral to its development. One listen to his contribution to such milestone recordings as Coleman's Free Jazz and Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth and John Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard will immediately set the record straight.
For whatever reason, many of Eric's best solos were recorded as a sideman. Free from the pressures of leading his own band, Dolphy may have been able to express himself on a deeper level, embellishing his cohort's compositions with his lyrical and explosive reed work. Or perhaps it was the camaraderie that inspired to reach a little deeper. Yet Dolphy's music stands alone as an entirely valid expression unto itself, with or without his association to Mingus, Coltrane and Coleman.
In 1960, pianist Sy Johnson played a two-week stint with Mingus at the Showplace in Greenwich Village. According to author Janet Coleman, Johnson recalled that once a night Mingus would inevitably chase trumpeter Ted Curson down Fourth Street in a rage. The explosive bassist also frequently scolded Dolphy to "play with taste."
Eric soon found a fitting, yet temporary position in the Mingus Jazz Workshop, in a piano-less quartet that Charles led with Ted Curson and long-time drummer Dannie Richmond. Their rendition of "Stormy Weather" on The Candid Recordings recorded in the fall of 1960 is a prime example of the group's dynamics, telepathy and imagination.
"He had such a big sound, as big as Charlie Parker's," Mingus claimed. "Inside that sound was great capacity to talk in his music about the most basic feelings. He knew that level of language which very few musicians get down to."
"Near the end of ‘What Love' Mingus and Dolphy (on bass clarinet) have a long and different kind of conversation on their instruments, apparently about Dolphy's intention of quitting the band," Whitney Balliett revealed in Night Creatures. "Eric Dolphy and I were having a conversation about his leaving the band. Mainly it was curse words, except for Eric. Eric didn't curse until the very end of his solo," Mingus joked. "He was absolutely without a need to hurt," Charles explained. The duets at the Five Spot with Mingus playing bass and Dolphy on bass clarinet are among the greatest musical dialogues in the history of the music. "We used to talk to each other, and you could understand – and I mean understand in words – what he was saying to me," Mingus said.
Friction continued to develop between the two and by the end of the 1964 tour Dolphy had grown weary of Mingus' outrageous antics. True to form, Charles lived up to his myth as the mad, sexy genius he was, busting microphones, telephones and doors. He was also arrested for wielding a knife.
"Eric played with Mingus after I did," Composer/multi-instrumentalist David Amram told me in a recent interview. "I played French horn with Mingus in '55. Mingus loved Eric's bass clarinet. Both instruments were unusual in a jazz setting. Mingus could hear these instruments in a different way and adjust his music to what they could do. I was particularly interested in Eric's bass clarinet as I had a part for one in my opera, Twelfth Night. I told him, ‘Some of the registers you're playing on the bass clarinet, I wouldn't dare write because nobody could stay in tune or make it sound good, playing that high.' He said, ‘They should either check me out or practice,' David laughed. "He believed there were no limitations in music, that if you wanted to do it enough, you would find a way. He had a great sense of adventure and daring. He was a true improviser. Remember he had a real foundation in music. There are a lot of free jazz players these days that don't have that kind of background. He could play within the mainstream but he just followed how he felt."
Seldom does a musician's search for a new mode of expression culminate in a riotous response from their audience. The most notorious instance in the twentieth century was Igor Stravinsky's premiere of "Sacre du Printemps" in 1913. A little over fifty years later, Bob Dylan suddenly shed his Woody Guthrie/weary dust bowl bumpkin balladeer guise, put on his black leather jacket and plugged in his Stratocaster at the Newport Folk Festival. The crowd erupted in outrage and anger. In the heat of the moment, the banjo-strumming King of Sing-Along, Pete Seeger was said to have grabbed an ax with the intent of whittling the soundboard into kindling but was thankfully subdued. The folkies felt betrayed by their boy wonder. Before them stood Bob Dylan, like Judas in Beatle boots, defiantly flailing his Fender while crowing, "I ain't gonna work on Maggie's Farm No More!" His message came across loud and clear. He had turned his back on "the cause." Dylan may have sold out to rock and roll as many claimed, but he also happened to be playing some of the best damn music of his career.
With the release of My Favorite Things in the spring of 1961, John Coltrane experienced a wave of popularity unlike anything he'd ever known. With his soaring soprano saxophone, Coltrane transformed Julie Andrews' little ditty from the popular Disney film The Sound of Music into a lilting waltz that was at once romantic, accessible and cool. In the process, Coltrane had unwittingly hipped an entire generation of tweed-clad, flat-topped college kids to jazz. Even girls liked it!
Suddenly reporters from Newsweek scurried down the narrow, red-carpeted stairs of the Village Vanguard to cover the story. But it wasn't long before Rogers and Hammerstein's lovely tune became a vehicle for some of Coltrane's most torrid improvisations.
In no time, the critics attacked Coltrane like a pack of rabid hounds, tearing him apart for blowing half hour solos over a repetitive two-chord vamp. Leonard Feather believed this latest development in John's music was "retrogressive in terms of development in jazz." Feather also complained that Coltrane's endless soloing was monotonous when compared to the lush harmonic complexity of an Ellington arrangement.
"You see, that is another complexity in itself, of playing on 1 or 2 changes." Dolphy countered. Eric actually found it more challenging for a creative musician to play over a sparse framework. The simple repetition laid bare the musician's technique and intent for all to hear. With no place to hide, their shortcomings were certain to become obvious after just a few choruses.
"This automatically gives him more time to think, and it gives him the chance to unfold a lot more. Like in Indian music they only have one [chord], in our Western music we can usually hear one minor chord, but they call it a raga or scale and they'll play for twenty minutes."
Eric understood the rigorous path of discipline and practice that Indian classical musicians must endure to perfect their technique and build a musical vocabulary diverse enough to successfully improvise over a single chord without becoming redundant.
"Music contains like, rhythm and pitch, time, space and all these elements go into improvisation," Dolphy once said. "You have to take that into consideration. It's not a question of running notes, running notes in random."
Eric was deeply inspired by the hypnotic beauty of Indian music, not as a superficial trend but as a form of discipline and expression similar to his own. Years before Beatle George Harrison and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones employed the sitar's exotic twang as a condiment to their catchy pop tunes, Coltrane and Dolphy could be heard improvising within the framework of these scales on John's haunting composition "India."
As fate would have it Eric met the spectacular sitarist Ravi Shankar on his first tour of the U.S. It was a great opportunity for the multi-instrumentalist to learn about ragas, talas and other intricacies of Indian music directly the master of the form.
As Dolphy later explained it: "Classical Indian music is the music of [Indian] people and jazz is the music of the American people, especially the American Negro. Quite naturally, there's something of a connection there, of people expressing themselves in the same way [ancient blues of variable hues]. To the listener that doesn't pay close attention to the notes, the sound will get monotonous. But to the person that listens to the actual notes and the creation that's going on and the building within the players and within themselves, they'll notice that something is actually happening."
In November 1961, Trane toured England bringing Eric Dolphy along to augment his classic quartet. Jazz writer/photographer Val Wilmer believed their performance had "an enormous impact, particularly on local musicians."
Regarding the classic quartet, pianist McCoy Tyner once remarked, "That group was like four pistons in an engine. We were all working together to make the car go." If that was indeed the case, many critics and fans alike looked at the addition of Eric Dolphy as an extraneous fifth wheel.
The reaction in the press to Dolphy joining the group was second only to the Spanish Inquisition. On November 23, Down Beat published a scathing review by John Tynan, who claimed that "melodically and harmonically" the group's collective improvisations sounded like "gobbledygook."
Suddenly John and Eric were perceived as a pair of charlatans, plotting "an anarchistic course," and playing a defiant brand of "anti-jazz" that didn't swing. Both Coltrane and Dolphy were stumped by Tynan's term. Eric found the accusation confusing and absurd. "In fact, it swings so much I don't know what to do – it moves me so much," he replied. "I'd like to know how they explain ‘anti-jazz'. Maybe they can tell us something."
"There are various types of swing," Coltrane theorized. "There's 4/4, with heavy bass drum accents. Then there's the kind of thing that goes on in Count Basie's band. In fact, every group of individuals assembled has a different feeling, a different swing. It's a different feeling than in any other band," John said, regarding his quintet. "It's hard to answer a man who says it doesn't swing."
"It's kind of alarming to the musician when someone has written something bad about what the musician plays but never asks the musician anything about it. At least the musician feels bad. But he doesn't feel so bad that he quits playing," Eric countered. "The critic influences a lot of people. If something new has happened, something nobody knows what the musician's doing, he should ask the musician about it. Because somebody may like it; they might want to know something about it. Sometimes it really hurts, because a musician not only loves his work but depends on it for his living. If somebody writes something bad about musicians, people stay away. Not because the guys don't sound good but because somebody said something that has influence over a lot of people."
See Part II of the Eric Dolphy article
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