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The Amazing Eric Dolphy: Top Bass Clarinet Player

The Amazing Eric Dolphy: Top Bass Clarinet Player
The Amazing Eric Dolphy: top bass clarinet player

Alto saxophonist, flutist, and bass clarinetist Eric (Allen) Dolphy (1928-1964) was single-handedly responsible for introducing the bass clarinet to jazz as a viable solo instrument. Eric Dolphy and his bass clarinet was a key figure on New York’s early avant-garde scene, and he made formative contributions to the music of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. He did this through the sheer power and individuality of his playing: he simply made the instrument sound as it had never sounded before, making it his own personal voice in the process. His astonishing output in the four years before his death from diabetes in 1964, including the landmark Out to Lunch, inspires forward-looking musicians to this day.

Eric Dolphy: The Musical Prophet

How can you distinguish jazz from classical music? Whatever intellectual arguments might be summoned regarding different cultural traditions and performance values, let me suggest that jazzman Eric Dolphy presents an overwhelming spiritual and emotional case for why the two musical styles should not be separated. 

Dolphy’s style, years ahead of its time, was similar in certain respects to Ornette Coleman, yet unlike Ornette he was a fully schooled musician who arrived at his more atonal ideas from a complete grounding in earlier styles of jazz. This style, which included huge intervallic leaps at unexpected places, found its greatest expression on the bass clarinet. Dolphy had complete command of the instrument, regularly making 2- and 3-octave leaps with ease and often playing at frightening tempos. He also took advantage of the fact that the instrument’s tone can easily be distorted, and he could switch in an instant from a super-clean execution to blaring growls and shrieks and back again.

Dolphy’s innovations as an improviser can be heard on the songs “Straight Up and Down,” “Something Sweet, Something Tender” and “Gazzelloni.”

Saintly, Selfless and Under appreciated: Unfortunately, Dolphy’s experimentation with tone and dissonance would not forge for him the kind of career that would even keep his belly full. Colleagues remember him living in poverty in a loft in lower Manhattan in 1963, without heat, and with snow blowing into the room through cracks in the wall.

Eric Dolphy Biography

Early life

Eric Allen Dolphy was born on June 20th, 1928 in Los Angeles California. Dolphy began playing the clarinet at the age of seven and is remembered by those who knew him then (and since) as an ever ardent student of jazz. He was an only child of parents from the West Indies. His earliest musical experiences came when he attended the local church with his mother, who was a choir member. The boy also became a choir member of the People’s Independent Church of Christ. By the time he had turned eight he joined his school’s band playing the clarinet. 

In junior high school Dolphy started playing the oboe and the alto saxophone. Dolphy’s teen years were spent with the legendary L.A. jazz educator Lloyd Reese, who also nurtured the talents of Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Mingus, Horace Tapscott and others. The reed man also spent time playing classical literature with flute and bass clarinet professors. His parents converted their garage into a soundproof room so the young musician could practice. He learned the alto by imitating the sounds of Charlie Parker, his earliest influence.

Dolphy graduated from high school and enrolled in classes at Los Angeles City College. At the age of twenty, Dolphy joined a band, The 17 Beboppers, which was led by drummer Roy Porter. He performed with the group through the year 1950, when he enlisted in the United States Army at the height of the Korean war. Dolphy subsequently spent two years in the service and was stationed in Washington D.C. He briefly studied music at the United States Naval School in 1953.

After his return to Los Angeles Dolphy led his own group for several years. In 1958, he joined Chico Hamilton’s band. With tutelage from fellow bandmate and great flutist Buddy Collette, Dolphy made appearances on a handful of Hamilton’s releases, which included Chico Hamilton with Strings Attached. Eric first rose to public attention in Chico Hamilton’s group when it came east from California. It helped that Dolphy was an extraordinary musician by any standard. He was equally proficient on the clarinet, alto sax and flute. The group’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958 was subsequently released on the compilation album Newport Jazz Festival 1958-59, , which includes the track “Blue Sands.” Hamilton’s band broke up in 1959, and Dolphy stayed in New York City where he quickly found work.

Eric Dolphy Bass Clarinet.001

Eric Dolphy and the flute

Eric Dolphy Flute

Classical music was a huge part of Dolphy’s early education and continued to be important to him. Dolphy recorded and performed Edgard Varese‘s Density 21.5 for solo flute. Equally adept on alto saxophone and flute, Dolphy was also one of the few jazz musicians ever to wield the flute and bass clarinet with any fluency and expression. You can hear an unmistakable striving and yearning for perfection in the manifold talents of this extraordinary reedman. 

Eric purposely reinvented how to each instrument could sound. This reinvention went on to influence Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull fame and scores of other flutist. Eric Dolphy dazzled all who heard him on the flute with amazing intervallistic speed.

If you were studying classical flute with an irascible coot from a Symphony of the time, they would not have been impressed. Much like the old geezers who shot down Van Gogh or the cubists, it was outside the parameters of their world view. Not thirty seconds into “Like Someone in Love” (from the Five Spot sessions), a professor would laughing aloud at Dolphy’s tone, pitch and general technique. Indeed, even bass great Ron Carter complained at times that when Dolphy overblew, his pitch was at best a variable affair. But the forest that the old goats were missing for the trees was the great freedom and aggressive swing of Dolphy’s improvisations that were to inspire generations.


After moving to New York at the end of the ’50’s, Dolphy had fruitful associations with three major musicians: Charles Mingus (whom he had known years earlier in Los Angeles), Ornette Coleman, and his close friend John Coltrane.

Charles Mingus

He joined bassist Charles Mingus’s group in late 1959, and the pair formed a close musical bond. In 1960 He appeared on the Mingus album Pre-Bird and Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus. Featured on the latter were the songs “All the Things You Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother” and “Original Faubus Fables.”

Mingus recalls being at a party in Germany with him in ’64, where, while others socialized, Dolphy stood next to the stereo playing along with the fast-flowing lines of a Charlie Parker record.

From 1962 to 1964, Dolphy primarily performed and toured with Charles Mingus. In October of 1962, Dolphy appeared at New York’s Town Hall with a group assembled by Mingus. The concert was recorded and issued on Blue Note as The Complete Town Hall Concert. In 1963, Dolphy appeared on the Mingus album Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus and is heard on the songs “Hora Decubitus” and “II B.S.

Mingus was certainly a volatile character: see the video of Last Date for an example of Mingus physically moving the mic from in front of Dolphy to signal the end of a solo. The mercurial bassist was deeply affected by Dolphy’s passing however; with the Mingus group or not, the chemistry between the two was undeniable (see “What Love” for example).

But Eric wouldn’t travel much with Mingus, a good gig at the time, because of encounters with the bassist’s legendary bad temper. One sideman has recalled always packing a gun when traveling with Mingus. And you thought Tupac was bad. Mingus once dropped his bass, walked over to the horn player in his band and yelled “PLAY SOMETHING!!” in his ear­­ mid-solo!

John Coltrane

1961 was the year that Dolphy began his relationship with John Coltrane. Dolphy’s playing on the Coltrane albums Africa/Brass and Ole Coltrane, both recorded in May, cemented the reputations of both players. Joined by pianist McCoy Tyner, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and bassist Reggie Workman, the pair can be heard on “Aisha” and “Ole.” Dolphy performed with Coltrane’s group throughout the year, including at the tenor saxophonist’s four-night engagement at New York’s Village Vanguard in November, which became the album Live at the Village Vanguard. Among the recordings from these sessions are “India,” “Spiritual” and “Chasin’ Another Trane.”

While playing with Coltrane, Dolphy also performed in July of 1961 with trumpeter Booker Little at New York’s Five Spot and can be heard on the song “Fire Waltz” from the album Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot. Dolphy’s November, 22nd concert with Coltrane in Helsinki can be heard on the track “Impressions.”

This is high praise coming from someone as beloved and respected as Coltrane. Dolphy, ever supportive of fellow musicians, helped Coltrane out while the saxophone legend was “stranded” in California. Dolphy and Coltrane “answer the critics” on Impulse’s Complete Village Vanguard and Trane’s Ole on Atlantic.


Dolphy’s recorded output in 1960 is quite astonishing. He played with Rat Pack vocalist Sammy Davis Junior on his 1960 release for Decca, I Gotta Right to Swing. Also in 1960, Dolphy released his first album as a leader, Outward Bound, which featured pianist Jaki Byard, drummer Roy Haynes, and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Among the tracks on this album which made listeners sit up and pay attention are “On Green Dolphin Street” and “Glad to be Unhappy.”

1960 was only halfway through, and Dolphy was not done yet. He recorded another album as a leader, Out There, on August 15th. Four days later, he stepped back into Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio to record with the Latin Jazz Quintet for the joint release Caribe. In late 1960, Dolphy recorded a duo album with bassist Ron Carter and performed on Gunther Schuller and John Lewis’s album Jazz Abstractions, which featured contemporary classical music. As if this weren’t enough, Dolphy recorded the album Far Cry, which featured the song “Tenderly.”

Eric Dolphy and Free Jazz

The early ’60s belonged to musical pioneers like Dolphy and Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. It was one thing to strum guitars and preen and quite another to wrest expressive noise from those beastly conglomerations of wood and metal­­ saxophones and clarinets. Of course, by 1960 Ornette Coleman was also in New York, and experimenting with the style that became known as “free jazz.” Dolphy can be found on Coleman’s album for Atlantic which consecrated this movement, Free Jazz. Among the musicians who collaborated on this landmark recording, which featured two quartets, each recorded in a separate stereo channel, are trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Scott LaFaro, drummer Billy Higgins, trumpeter Don Cherry, and bassist Charlie Haden. They are featured on such songs as “First Take.”

In 1961, Dolphy recorded with bandleader Oliver Nelson on his album The Blues and the Abstract Truth, which contained the now famous jazz standard “Stolen Moments” and “Hoe Down.” Dolphy also made a memorable appearance on pianist George Russell’s album Ezz-thetics, which featured Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.”

By 1964, “the new thing” movement (another name for free jazz) was in full-swing. Even a freedom naysayer like Miles Davis infused his group with young musicians influenced by uncompromising artists, such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Tony Williams (this teenage drummer powered any unit he recorded with—including Miles’s sixties quintet) were able to achieve a synthesis, so organic and dynamic, that it holds up against any combo in jazz history. In 1963, Andrew Hill (whom Davis would hire on his visits to Hill’s hometown of Chicago during the 1950’s) debuted as a leader on Black Fire, along with Joe Henderson, Richard Davis, and Roy Haynes. Hill followed Black Fire with the recording Judgement, in early 1964 with Richard Davis, Bobby Hutcherson, and Elvin Jones.

Shortly after the recording of Out To Lunch!, Eric Dolphy joined an adroit group of musicians to record Andrew Hill’s third album for Blue Note. The rhythm section included Richard Davis and Tony Williams (again providing maximum propulsion—Davis shining with his powerful and moving bass lines). Joe Henderson provided Coltrane inspired tenor for the session—proving he would become a musical force in his own right. Kenny Dorham (already a bop veteran, who worked with Hill and Jackie Mc Lean previously) was on trumpet. The result (Hill’s Point of Departure), was an imaginative recording, very close in spirit to the “controlled freedom” that Miles Davis would achieve on several mid-decade albums (eg. Miles Smiles).

“Refuge” is an excellent workout for the group, with all of the soloists in excellent form: Eric on alto, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, and Joe Henderson laying it down on tenor. Hill uses chords on the piano in a rhythmic fashion, similar to Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes (see Hill’s previous effort Judgement with Hutcherson on vibes). With the exception of a miscue by one of the sax players on the ensemble section before Henderson’s own solo (and a minor flub by Tony Williams at the end of his solo—but he was only 18 at the time, so we can forgive him), the take is perfect: rhythmically dynamic and vibrant.

The next three pieces achieve a cohesive perfection that exhibit the creative strides happening in jazz at the time. The playing on these tracks sound as exquisite today as it must have at time. “New Monastery” displays Hill’s understanding of Thelonious Monk’s jaunty composing style. Durhams’s solo here is superb and Hill’s comping “works” in the space of this number. Eric Dolphy’s playing is tunefully angular for his alto solo. “Spectrum” with the surprising turns of its structure: from its opening theme (with Dolphy on bass clarinet), to the almost “funky” ensemble break (with Durham, Henderson and Dolphy all providing tone colors), to the wonderful flute interlude (I appreciate how the flute is used to pique the overall “mood”—Dorham’s bluesy trumpet doesn’t hurt either). “Spectrum” is an apt title considering the range of the composition. “Flight 19” is another rhythmic piece with the group echoing an inside-out version of the “Hat and Beard” theme from OTL. Both takes on the Blue Note CD reissue are exceptional. Richard Davis, along with Hill, provide the pivot for the other players to stretch out during their respective flourishes.

The dirge-like “Dedication” closes the session on a surprisingly mournful tone. At one point, Hill even considered naming the composition “Cadaver”. The piece is nonetheless quite emotional (especially taking Eric’s imminent fate into consideration). You may want to choose your favorite take (of the two) and program your CD accordingly. Fans of Dolphy’s bass clarinet should appreciate his sensitive solos.

All in all, Andrew Hill’s third recording as a leader (it’s a shame that a working, collective group could not have come from these sessions) is a quiet success. Consider looking into some Hill’s other Blue Note recordings of the era (the aforementioned Judgement, with Richard Davis, Bobby Hutcherson, and Elvin Jones) and Black Fire, featuring Joe Henderson, R. Davis, and Roy Haynes. You won’t be disappointed.

Eric Dolphy out to lunch

Increasingly, Dolphy began to favor the bass clarinet, as can be heard on his 1963 release Iron Man. This album contained some riveting solos which are extremely unpredictable and yet vulnerable. In February of 1964, Dolphy entered Van Gelder Studios to record his first album for Blue Note, Out to Lunch. Adored by fans, musicians, and critics, this magnum opus album was one of the first to be recorded entirely of free jazz, yet also offered Dolphy’s intervallic approach as an alternative to Coleman’s motivic, gestural approach to free improvisation.

For a full review of this album click here.

Eric Dolphy as a Leader

All who knew Eric Dolphy loved him and had nothing ill to speak of him as a person. Everyone reports that he was kind, contemplative, calm, sharp witted, and unpresuming. Charles Mingus, The temperamental band leader and bass player, was known as being pretty cynical toward people’s character called Eric Dolphie a “saint.” 

Dolphy required the inner bravery to stand firm in his musical vision against the opposition his music encountered. It was not just the general public who did not understand but even the larger jazz world rejected much of what he was trying to accomplish. Eric Dolphy never “hit it big” in his lifetime. He was always hustling for the bare necessities of life and had to work hard to find gigs that paid the rent. Eric Dolphie had no vices and avoided alcohol and even medicine. His only addiction was his drive for perfection. Between performances on the stage, instead of relaxing, he would be in the bathroom practicing.  Instead of enjoying a social life at a party he would stand next to the record machine and practice along with it.

Eric Dolphy’s forehead

People could see that something was physically wrong with Eric. Though His diabetes was not diagnosed in his lifetime, the symptomes were getting worse, as he was unable to afford to eat properly. By the time 1964 rolled around he had sores on his leg that wouldn’t heal. Even prior to his last tour in Europe, he was noticeably not looking well. A knot appeared on his forehead, and after getting it drained at Bellevue Hospital, the hospital did not analyze it. Tragically this lack of diagnosis ultimately led to his untimely death.

Dolphy’s Final months

Dolphy’s tour with Mingus the spring and early summer of 1964 would be his last. He had intended to settle down in Europe with his fiancé, Joyce Mordecai, who was working as a ballerina in Paris. Before his plans could be realized, Dolphy lost consciousness in Berlin, Germany and crumbled on stage. The doctors at the hospital had no clue that Eric was diabetic and so decided based on the stereotypical idea that as a  jazz musician, this was probably a substance abuse case, and assumed that it was a drug  overdosed. So he was left alone in a hospital bed to let the drugs to work their way out through his system. He died on June 28th of that year in Berlin, Germany, of complications from diabetes believed to be brought on by malnourishment.

The density of Dolphy’s contributions to the advancement of jazz in his short career stand unmatched by almost any musician. His efforts helped put the free-jazz movement on a firm musical foundation and point it towards the future.

Influence of Eric Dolphy

Dolphy’s influence was wide-ranging in that all who ever play bass clarinet must come to terms with him.  Musicians such as Gunter Hampel, David Murray, Marty Ehrlich and Don Byron, however, have all found their own form of expression on the instrument.  And Dolphy’s influence reaches beyond his chosen instruments; his disjunct improvisational style had a strong effect on musicians such as Woody Shaw.

In a 1964 Down Beat “Blindfold Test”, Miles Davis who was not a fan of Dolpy’s style or quipped: “The next time I see [Dolphy] I’m going to step on his foot.” Oddly enough, the New Miles Davis  quintet’s rhythm section all came from working under Dolphy and as the backbone of Miles Davis‘ group become one of the decade’s archetypal rhythm sections.

In 2014, Pianists Aki Takase and Alexander von Schlippenbach created a Berlin music festival to celebrate Dolphy’s music titled So Long, Eric!, marking the 50 years since Eric Dolphy’s death. 

A subsequent album was released from recordings at the festival to wide critical acclaim: “Music is rarely this richly festooned with brilliance and hyper-real personality.”Down Beat Magazine. The Daily Telegraph wrote “Everything is brilliantly re-imagined, and infused with quick-witted humour. Most importantly the music-making keeps touching base with Dolphy and the tradition he sprung from, however wild and free it often becomes.”

Jerome Harris‘ Hidden In Plain View: No contemporary jazz performer has Dolphy’s sound. So bassist/guitarist Jerome Harris made a smart move by assembling an ace band — including clarinettist Don Byron, reed player Marty Ehrlich, drummer Bobby Previte, trombonist Ray Anderson — and letting the musicians improvise on seven Dolphy-composed tunes. The result on Hidden in Plain View (New World Records) is a lively reworking of Dolphy’s legacy that adds to his new harmonic thinking and tonal colors a sense of humor he rarely displayed. Dolphy’s recording of “Out to Lunch” toyed with hints of a conventional march figure lurking around a highly irregular rhythmic form. Harris and friends have fun quoting a Sousa march in their version, proving that irreverence toward Dolphy can also be a form of noteworthy tribute.

Dolphy’s compositions continue to inspire many tribute albums: 

  • Oliver Lake’s Prophet and Dedicated to Dolphy
  • Otomo Yoshihide‘s re-imagining of Out to Lunch! 
  • Silke Eberhard’s Potsa Lotsa: The Complete Works of Eric Dolphy 
  • Aki Takase and Rudi Mahall’s duo album Duet For Eric Dolphy.
  • The Vienna Art Orchestra, In 1997, released “Powerful Ways: Nine Immortal Evergreens for Eric Dolphy.”

Awards and Honors

In 1964,Eric Dolphy was posthumously admitted into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame. 

LeMoyne College, a Jesuit institution, has an annual event called “Dolphy Day.” This day is on the first beautiful day of Spring a time to be with friends outdoors to symbolize carefree, college fun. On April 7, 2010, they unveiled a life-size bronze sculpture to honor Eric Dolphy.

Dolphy, whose sensitivity to all sounds was legendary (he was known at one stage for playing with the birds outside his window), is one of the great forgotten artists of that period. His playing had a plaintive, speechlike quality that is one of the great artistic achievements of that era. He was also a saintly and selfless figure to those who knew him well, and deserves a place, if not in posterity, at least on the shelves of discriminating music lovers.


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