Eric Dolphy Turns Eighty
Photo courtesy of All About Jazz
God Bless The Child, Part II
By John Kruth
An advocate of free jazz, Dolphy was a champion of free speech as well. Ultimately Eric believed that Tynan was entitled to voice his opinion, but he questioned the motivation behind the critic's terse words. Gentle as he was, Eric would not stand by idly while somebody made ignorant comments that were damaging to both his and Coltrane's career.
Meanwhile, Dolphy lived in a lower Manhattan loft with no heat while the winter snow blew through cracks in the bricks of his humble abode.
The criticism of Coltrane's Quintet continued in Down Beat with a holy war fervor. Eric Dolphy, Coltrane's controversial cohort, was blamed of inciting John to abandon his modal melodies and explore the outer reaches of the avant garde.
John immediately rose to his partner's defense, claiming Eric was a long time friend and a student of jazz with whom he freely exchanged ideas. Coltrane recalled the first time that Dolphy sat in with his group - "Everyone enjoyed it because his presence added some fire to the band," he said.
According to biographer Bill Cole, Dolphy had an enormous influence on Coltrane's music. "Trane made very few big musical decisions without first consulting with him," Cole claimed. "I was always calling him on the phone and he was calling me and we'd discuss things musically, so we might as well be together. Maybe we can help each other some. I know he helps me a lot," Coltrane told Benoit Querson.
"Eric is really gifted and I feel he's going to produce something inspired," Coltrane predicted in 1961. "We've been talking about music for years but I don't know where he's going and I don't know where I'm going. He's interested in progress, however, and so am I, so we have quite a bit in common."
"Eric was a very, very gifted musician and a very nice guy on top of it," McCoy Tyner told me in a recent interview. "He had a very personal approach to playing and enjoyed expanding the limits of imagination. Eric played so many instruments, his pockets were bulging with all these mouthpieces," McCoy said chuckling at the memory. "He was the first guy to come on as a guest with the band. At the time he came along he was doing his own thing and made a tremendous impression. We felt that the quartet was self-contained. Jimmy, Elvin and I felt that we had built something and were still on that journey. We didn't exactly understand where John was going in terms of adding Eric. We were like little kids in a sense like this is our band and we want to keep it that way. But then again it wasn't like we didn't want to share our experience. John was the leader and he was the one that made the final decisions. He decided that maybe if I do this, this will cause something else to happen. And it did! They played so differently. Eric added another dimension to the sound. John never rested on his laurels. He was like a scientist in the laboratory always searching for something new or different. By adding Eric he was expanding the music. John and Eric had a very different type of life experience. Eric had a very academic approach. He studied a lot. John coming from the South had that real gutsy approach. His father was a minister and his grandfather was a minister. He spent a lot of time in church and you could hear that in the music. At the same time there were points where the two met and could make something very interesting happen."
"Eric added a very interesting component to the music," McCoy continued. "John believed in what Eric was doing. He wanted to help him. At the same time he wanted to open the music up. It was a very good experience for Eric as well, being surrounded by the quartet. Ole was one of the highlights of Eric's presence. He had his own approach to the bass clarinet. He had personal things he would do on the instrument and got sounds out of it that you normally didn't hear on a bass clarinet. He was very animated and very enthusiastic."
Augmenting the Coltrane Quartet at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1961 was Eric Dolphy and guitar great Wes Montgomery for an hour long set which consisted of just three tunes, "My Favorite Things," Coltrane's transcendent ballad "Naima" and Miles Davis's "So What." The subsequent review in Down Beat offered praise to Montgomery's "rhythmic flair" while knocking John for making "animal sounds."
Once again it was open season on Eric Dolphy. "While his flute work was generally good, part of his solo sounded as if he were trying to imitate birds. His use of quartertone on ‘Things' led nowhere. And this seemed his greatest hang-up; none of his solos had a clear direction."
The idea of Dolphy enhancing "My Favorite Things" with bird songs on his flute, or in Coltrane's case, creating "animal sounds" on his soprano saxophone seems more playful than something to get bent out of shape about, after all the song's lyric mentions bees, kittens and dogs!
"Eric told me that one morning that when he got up, the birds were singing outside his window and he said, ‘Oh!' and that became part of his music," journalist Nat Hentoff said in a recent phone interview. "This musician embodied what I call the life-force of jazz. You could feel the intensity of his need to express himself in everything he did. But it was always himself. He was one of the true originals in the field."
The basis for Dolphy's approach to improvisation rarely relied on the song's chord progression alone. "They're based on freedom of sound. You start with one line and you keep inventing as you go along. And you keep creating until you state a phrase," he explained to Leonard Feather.
"You use other notes in the chord to give you certain expressions to the song, otherwise you'd be playing what everybody else is playin'. The thing only happens at the moment when you do it, and quite naturally it might change," Eric said, hoping to shed some light on the elusive process of improvisation.
When Eric Dolphy moved to Manhattan in 1960, he first joined the Mingus Workshop, then later that same year he began playing with Ornette Coleman.
"I heard about him and when I heard him play, he asked me if I liked his pieces and I said I thought they sounded good," Eric told Martin Williams. "When he said that if someone played a chord, [he said] he heard another chord on that one. I knew what he was talking about, because I had been thinking the same things."
Dolphy soon signed on as a member of Coleman's double quartet, which featured two drummers, two bassists, two trumpets and Dolphy and Ornette on reeds and yielded the watermark recording Free Jazz.
"I had known Eric back in the fifties when I shared some music that I had been working on with him," Ornette Coleman told me recently. "He was very open to the things that I was doing. I think that he thought I was not in his class of perfection because I had just come to California from the South. But it didn't bother me. There was an appreciation from one musician to another. I invited him to play on my Free Jazz record and he asked me, ‘Which instrument would you like for me to play?' I said, ‘It doesn't matter. I wasn't concerned about him being the worst or best or whatever. I was concerned about him expressing the things he wanted to."
In retrospect, it's surprising that Coleman's music caused such a maelstrom. Many of his compositions have an almost child-like, singsong quality while others reveal a West-Indian calypso feel. His drummers, Eddie Blackwell and Billy Higgins always swung hard. In his unorthodox approach to group soloing, which had its roots in traditional New Orleans music, Ornette would forge a fresh, new, dimension of sound. No matter how radical his concept of Harmolodics, Coleman never completely abandoned changes that chords (if they had been employed) inferred.
"You CAN play every note you like," Dolphy told Leonard Feather, in a desperate attempt to convey the essence of the new music. "Of course, you can only play what you can hear, and quite naturally... more or less I guess what I hear is not your hearing."
"As I play more and more, I hear more notes to play against the more common chord progressions. And a lot of people say they're wrong. Well, I can't say they're right, and I can't say they're wrong. To my hearing, they're exactly correct," Eric mused.
It seems that Dolphy was simultaneously cursed and blessed with, as he put it "a whole different type of hearing." Ultimately it was Eric's refreshingly open and inquisitive nature to life and sound that allowed him to utilize a wider range of expression than many of his peers.
"Eric Dolphy is a hell of a musician, and he plays a lot of horn. When he is up there searching and experimenting I learn a lot from him," John Coltrane commented.
"He was just brimming over with ideas all the time," Elvin Jones said. "In fact that was probably his biggest problem… he just had too much to say, and this occasionally would get in the way of his saying it."
Jones felt Dolphy lacked the "self discipline" needed to express all his ideas clearly. Although the last time Eric played with Coltrane's group Elvin felt Dolphy "was better organized in his musical thinking."
Jones also admired Eric's confidence on the bandstand, claiming he "never heard him hesitate" in the heat of the moment. "He was always ready – if you wanted to play, he was there," Elvin declared.
"Eric never stood still with his music," George Avakian once said. The pianist/producer believed one day Dolphy would get his props as "the father of the new thing."
"He was very influential in the avant-garde movement," close friend, bassist Richard Davis said in a phone interview. "He was one of the forerunners in that area. I was fortunate to work with him," Richard said, claiming that Eric was a major inspiration on his musical development.
"I rate him as a genius. I knew what was inside his music; I was familiar with it and how he put it together." Davis believed that whether or not people understood Dolphy's music they could still "appreciate the tremendous feeling in his playing."
Their interpretation of "Come Sunday," Duke Ellington's wistful ballad was their finest of many duets. Notes from Dolphy's bass clarinet sputter and bubble up like black tar on a hot July afternoon while Davis serenely bows the melody. Eric's clarinet suddenly leaps registers in a single bound, reeling and collapsing like Ray Bolger's weak in the knee scarecrow until finally catching up to Richard and taking over the melody, allowing Davis to stretch out.
On classic recordings like Dolphy's own Iron Man and Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth, Eric's alto sax can be heard zigzagging like a crazy figure skater, carving figure eights into your brain. Sound splashes and sloshes around in your ears like Jackson Pollock spilling his drink. Perhaps to some Dolphy's playing comes off as a bit of sonic slapstick at times, but he knows how take it right to the edge, like a carnival clown riding a unicycle on a tight-rope wire who appears out of control. But just before falling to his certain death, he suddenly regains his balance, much to the crowd's relief. If you think for a moment that Eric Dolphy is lost, the joke is on you. His intent was to stretch musical boundaries, not to deliberately shatter them.
"Eric was, first and foremost a person who respected the tradition and wanted to extend the tradition or extend the creativity in accordance with the most positive aspects of what he brought forth from the tradition," Anthony Braxton once said.
"Many musicians did not understand Eric and were critical of his work," Third Stream composer Gunther Schuller claimed. "I could never understand, for example, how perfectly respectable musicians could say that Eric didn't know his changes," Schuller said, sighting Dolphy's inspired soloing on the Mingus arrangement of "Stormy Weather."
"I play notes that would not ordinarily said to be in a given key, but I hear them as proper. I don't think I ‘leave the changes' as the expression goes; every note I play has some reference to the chords of the piece," Eric offered.
In a Down Beat Blindfold Test, Miles Davis once famously quipped that Dolphy sounded "like somebody was standing on his foot."
Avant-garde guitarist/reedman/composer Elliott Sharp had a different response altogether. "It was pure mystery. When I heard Dolphy's bass clarinet playing, it was like a voice from Mars. It was so vocal. It was like he was speaking in tongues," Sharp told me. "I knew I had to get one at some point."
Surprisingly, the daddy of dada rock Captain Beefheart (a neophyte at best on the bass clarinet) found Eric's music "real limited." "It didn't move me," he complained to Lester Bangs years ago in Musician magazine.
"Dolphy didn't MOVE you?" Bangs replied incredulously. "Well he moved me," Beefheart allowed, "but he didn't move me as much as a goose, say. Now that could be a hero, a gander goose could definitely be a hero, the way they blow their heart out for nothing like that."
"Like any mature, creative musician, Eric was not unduly disturbed by such comments," Gunther Schuller countered. "It was his nature to turn everything – even harsh criticism – to some positive, useful purpose. In the seven or eight years I knew Eric, I never heard him say a harsh word about anything or anybody connected with music. This was a sacred territory to him and I think he sincerely believed that anything as beautiful as music could only produce more beauty in people."
"He was always real modest," his mother Sadie recalled. "We never realized either how well thought of he was. He was always a happy person. Even if things weren't going well you'd never notice. He was always happy and always helping someone else, even though he didn't have too much money. He'd always be takin' somethin' to somebody else, some musician, if they were out of work. When musicians came to town and he found out they had a family he would give them his job. He'd take them to the job sometimes because he always had a car. He'd tell them, ‘you have kids while I live at home where I can always eat.'"
Tales of Eric Dolphy's gentle, compassionate nature are almost as legendary as his musicianship. Richard Davis remembered Eric as "a beautiful person." "Even when he didn't have enough for himself, he'd try to help others," he said, recalling Eric's generosity and concern for others. "I remember how he once bought groceries for a friend who was out of work, though he was just as much in need himself."
Mingus simply referred to Eric as "a saint," and named his son the singer, Eric Dolphy Mingus in his honor.
In the spring of 1964, Dolphy left Mingus' band while on a tour of Europe and planned to live in Paris where quite a number of expatriate musicians found themselves welcome with open arms. But that June, Dolphy suddenly died due to complications from diabetes. Two months earlier Mingus had composed and recorded a blues entitled "So Long Eric" which he maintained was not a "eulogy" but a "complaint."
Eric Dolphy died in Berlin, on June 29, 1964 just nine days after his thirty-sixth birthday. He'd arrived two days earlier to play a new club called the Tangente. Seriously ill, he barely made it through the first two of the evening's three scheduled sets before having to leave the bandstand. The next day, wracked with pain and delirious, Eric could barely utter the words "Take me home… Take me home..."
The next day Eric Allan Dolphy got his hat. According to doctors at Berlin Achenbach, Hospital the brilliant multi-instrumentalist was a diabetic with too much sugar in his bloodstream. They claimed that Eric was unaware of his condition. He had also suffered a complete collapse of his circulatory system as well.
Sadie Dolphy said her son never suffered from heart disease or diabetes. "He never complained about anything," she lamented. Mrs. Dolphy believed her son died so young as a result of always pushing himself too hard. The funeral took place on July 9, in Los Angeles.
"Whatever I say would be an understatement. I can only say my life was made much better by knowing him. He was one of the greatest people I've ever known, as a man, a friend, an as a musician," a shocked John Coltrane murmured after hearing the news of his friend's death.
"So close was their relationship that Dolphy's mother gave Trane Eric's bass clarinet because she claims that she had nightmares about Eric playing the instruments," Bill Cole recalled in his biography of John Coltrane. Mingus and Eric's relationship was of a far more complex nature. "There was not a lot of conversation; at times it seemed as though Charles disliked him but at the same time it was also the feeling that he loved him dearly," Danny Richmond surmised. "And there were times when they dueled musically with each other on the bandstand. So that Eric's death I know it affected Charles very, very deeply. I have a feeling that there was something left unsaid between the two of them."
Mingus maintained that Dolphy had been murdered. Charles recalled that a Manhattan physician named Finklestein had given Eric a thorough check-up and a clean bill of health before leaving on their tour of Europe. Before departing Eric had undergone an operation to remove the egg-shaped tumor from his forehead. "This would not have been done if Eric had been a diabetic," Mingus protested.
At the time, drummer Sunny Murray had also been touring Europe with saxophonist Albert Ayler, playing their unique brand of spiritual free jazz in an explosive quartet featuring bassist Gary Peacock and Don Cherry.
"See I was getting strange vibrations all the time we was in Europe," Murray said. "We were getting very in tune with the spirits when the Free Jazz group was over there – we were the most spiritual band in Europe at the time. Eric Dolphy, who had come over earlier with Mingus had remained in Europe to play with us, with the Free Jazz group. He wanted to bust loose and really play free. But he died suddenly. Rumor was that he was poisoned. That set me off and I began to realize that a lot of people were doing things to me to hang me up and I started to get very nervous."
As we know, the sixties was a politically volatile era. Everywhere, the air was rife with revolution and conspiracy. It has been said time and time again of that highly romanticized decade - if you weren't paranoid, you weren't paying attention. Eventually, Coltrane and Dolphy's devotion to music developed into a relentless quest to find God. They began living on a steady diet of honey, and conversation was reserved for all things holy.
"Eric Dolphy died from an over dose of honey," arranger/band leader Gil Evans believed. "Everybody thinks that he died from an overdose of dope but he was on a health kick. He got instant diabetes. He didn't know he had it. He's eating nuts and a couple little jars of honey every day [and] it killed him. He went into a coma and never came out of it."
At the end of Alan Saul's video, he sits on Dolphy's sofa asking if they ever feel bitter about the way things all went down.
"He wasn't that big," Eric Sr. lamented. "Just before he died he was just getting up; just coming into his own, but he passed away."
"No... No..." Sadie answered with a sigh. "It could have been better but life is a struggle and we are people that are used to strugglin'."
ED NOTE: A shortened version of this piece ran in SOUND COLLECTOR magazine
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