Eric Dolphy: The ‘Prophet’ of Freedom


Recordings that make up Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions sat in a Long Island home, untouched, for decades.

(Photo: Jean-Pierre Leloir)

The other is a 15-minute track titled “A Personal Statement.” Recorded on March 2, 1964, at a radio station in Ann Arbor, Michigan— where the composer, pianist Bob James, was an adventurous student—the piece is the collection’s longest. It’s also the most wide-ranging sonically, with each of Dolphy’s three instruments assuming a distinct profile amid a shifting soundscape of woodblock accents, pianistic clusters and ensemble passages in a kind of fractured waltz time—all framed by a classically rendered libretto centered on a vocal line: “Jim Crow might one day be gone.”

A version of the piece also appears on Other Aspects, on which Newton—uncertain of its name or composer at the time of that album’s release—provisionally titled it “Jim Crow.”

Still another side of Dolphy is offered in the single solo outing—three takes, actually—of the Ned Washington-Victor Young tune “Love Me.” Those tracks, the shortest in the collection at less than four minutes each, find Dolphy in full flight, pushing his alto saxophone to the limit and beyond. In its risk-taking, Newton said, Dolphy nods to piano titans—Thelonious Monk (for his counterintuitive leaps) and Art Tatum (for his harmonic and technical range).

“He went to the edge of the cliff and he jumped off,” Newton said of Dolphy. “He was falling and he had to fly.”

Dolphy’s artistic courage has had a profound impact on other players, too. Newton, who has topped the Flute category in the DownBeat Critics Poll 23 times, acknowledges the debt on his album Romance And Revolution (Blue Note). The album was released in 1987—as was Other Aspects—and Dolphy was clearly on his mind.

Newton’s soaring solo version of the Walter Gross-Jack Lawrence ballad “Tenderly” was, he said, “highly influenced by Eric,” who had done the piece solo on alto saxophone on Far Cry. “A lot of [Romance And Revolution] was.”

Newton’s friend and colleague Bennie Maupin, known for his horn work on albums by Miles Davis (Bitches Brew) and Herbie Hancock (Head Hunters and Mwandishi), similarly was taken by Dolphy’s work. His fascination began with an encounter with Dolphy at the Minor Key lounge in Detroit. Following a particularly ferocious set, the youngster got up the nerve to engage Dolphy.

“I told him what I was doing,” Maupin recalled. “He was just standing there, holding a flute, and said, ‘Play something for me.’” Maupin did, and an impromptu lesson ensued in which Dolphy spent 45 minutes explaining how to hold the instrument, improve one’s embouchure and the like. “They were key things only somebody who really knew the instrument could have shown me. He was very patient and very kind.”

Inspired by that experience, Maupin bought a bass clarinet, which he ultimately used on dates with both Davis and Hancock. After Maupin moved from his native Detroit to California, he began using the instrument in gigs with Newton. And when Newton came into possession of the Dolphy sheet music, Maupin used the instrument in a band, Dolphyana, created to play that music.

The group was short-lived, but it brought Maupin and Newton together for a concert at the 2008 Healdsburg Jazz Festival in California. The band covered a variety of material from Out To Lunch!, Outward Bound and Last Date—the last represented by “The Madrig Speaks, The Panther Walks,” which, appearing on Musical Prophet as “Mandrake,” serves as a platform for Dolphy’s alto at its most agitated.

“It was definitely a challenge,” Maupin said. “We worked through the music measure by measure to see what kind of blend we could get.

“Dolphy’s music speaks for itself. He was involved in making things sound beautiful. He was always trying to be himself. A lot of people compare me to him. He’s one of my mentors, even from the grave.”

Dolphy’s influence was felt beyond wind players. The late pianist Geri Allen analyzed Dolphy’s music for a master’s thesis, incorporating what she learned into her writing, in tunes like “Dolphy’s Dance.” Another pianist, Diane Moser, drew on Dolphy’s predilection for winged creatures—he was said to transcribe the chirping of birds—with her “Birdsongs For Eric,” which had its premiere in 2014 at a commemoration of Dolphy’s music at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

That year, the 50th anniversary of Dolphy’s death, saw a tribute in Berlin, at Rickenbackers Music Inn, featuring a group led by Gebhard Ullmann on saxophone, flute and bass clarinet. Ullmann, who formed the group Out to Lunch in the 1980s, remains a central figure among veteran Dolphy enthusiasts in Germany’s capital.

Dolphy also counts enthusiasts among a younger generation. At The Bop Stop, a listening room in Cleveland with a reputation for offering eclectic fare, the new-music ensemble No Exit presented an all-Dolphy program in May 2017. The set offered fresh takes on familiar tunes, including a version of “Hat And Beard,” from Out To Lunch!, reimagined for string trio, trumpet, alto saxophone and drums.

Recorded tributes to Dolphy began to appear in the years after his death. The late Frank Zappa, who listed Dolphy as an influence on the Mothers of Invention’s first LP, Freak Out!, included “The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue” on his 1970 recording, Weasels Ripped My Flesh.

Closer to Dolphy’s aesthetic home, small groups led by saxophonist Oliver Lake offered homages on 1980’s Prophet and 1996’s Dedicated To Dolphy, which includes the Hale Smith composition “Feather.”

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