Eric Allan Dolphy was a jazz musician who played alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet.

Dolphy was one of several groundbreaking jazz alto players to rise to prominence in the 1960s. He was also the first important bass clarinet soloist in jazz, and among the earliest significant flute soloists; he is arguably the greatest jazz improviser on either instrument. On early recordings, he occasionally played traditional B-flat soprano clarinet. His improvisational style was characterized by a near volcanic flow of ideas, utilizing wide intervals based largely on the 12-tone scale, in addition to using an array of animal- like effects which almost made his instruments speak. Although Dolphy’s work is sometimes classified as free jazz, his compositions and solos had a logic uncharacteristic of many other free jazz musicians of the day; even as such, he was definitively avant-garde. In the years after his death his music was more aptly described as being “too out to be in and too in to be out.”

Dolphy was born in Los Angeles and was educated at Los Angeles City College. He performed locally for several years, most notably as a member of the big band led by Roy Porter. Dolphy finally had his big break as a member of Chico Hamilton’s quintet, with Hamilton he became known to a wider audience and was able to tour extensively through 1958, when he parted ways with Hamilton and moved to New York City.

Dolphy wasted little time upon settling in New York City, quickly forming several fruitful musical partnerships, the two most important ones being with jazz legends Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, musicians he’d known for several years. While his formal musical collaboration with Coltrane was short (less than a year between 1961-62), his association with Mingus continued intermittently from 1959 until Dolphy’s death in 1964. Dolphy was held in the highest regard by both musicians – Mingus considered Dolphy to be his most talented interpreter and Coltrane thought him his only musical equal.

Coltrane had gained an audience and critical notice with Miles Davis’s quintet. Although Coltrane’s quintets with Dolphy (including the Village Vanguard and Africa/Brass sessions) are now legendary, they provoked Down Beat magazine to brand Coltrane and Dolphy’s music as ‘anti- jazz.’ Coltrane later said of this criticism “they made it appear that we didn’t even know the first thing about music (…) it hurt me to see (Dolphy) get hurt in this thing.”

The initial release of Coltrane’s stay at the Vanguard selected three tracks, only one of which featured Dolphy. After being issued haphazardly over the next 30 years, a comprehensive box set featuring all of the recorded music from the Vanguard was released by Impulse! in 1997. The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings carried over 15 tracks featuring Dolphy on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, adding a new dimension to these already classic recordings. A later Pablo box set from Coltrane’s European tours of the early 1960s collected more recordings with Dolphy for the buying public.

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