Few musicians heard as much, and could play as much of what they heard, as Eric Dolphy (1928-64). His command stretched beyond the most advanced jazz of his time to encompass the cutting edge of composed music as well, he was the prototype multi-instrumentalist of the modern era, and both his playing and writing set standards for rigorous musicianship and emotionally probing invention.
Dolphy, a native of Los Angeles, spent the first three decades of his life in his hometown, save for two years in the Army. The leading California musicians employed him in their ensembles, including Roy Porter, Gerald Wilson, and Lee Young; and many of the major soloists of the period (including John Coltrane and members of the Clifford Brown/Max Roach and Ornette Coleman bands) had practiced and jammed at his parents' house. It was not until Chico Hamilton hired Dolphy in 1958, however, that his searing and technically audacious playing began to gain a wide audience.
Hamilton's quintet allowed Dolphy to display his multi-instrumental skills on alto saxophone, flute, clarinet (his first instrument), and bass clarinet (which he single-handedly popularized in jazz). Yet the chamber inclinations of Hamilton's music kept Dolphy's enveloping passion somewhat under wraps. This ceased to be a problem once Dolphy joined the Charles Mingus Jazz Workshop at the end of 1959. The following year brought increased freedom and exposure, through his work with the firebrand bassist and the first recordings to appear under his own name. Dolphy's jagged writing and playing and his innovative ensemble ideas quickly earned him a reputation as a leading figure in the so-called "new thing" movement led by Ornette Coleman. The identification was solidified at the end of 1960 when Dolphy participated in recording projects with Coleman; yet the link to bebop was clearer in Dolphy's playing, and he remained willing to address chordal improvisation where Coleman did not.
Several of the period's more visionary musicians were eager to work with Dolphy when he left Mingus early in 1961. Besides recording with Max Roach and George Russell, he made several studio sessions with trumpeter Booker Little, and worked a single stand at New York's Five Spot with Little and pianist Mal Waldron that yielded several influential live albums. Failing to obtain additional work for his own band, Dolphy chose to spend several months as featured soloist in John Coltrane's group, an association that yielded more classic live recordings (at the Village Vanguard) and tours of Europe. Dolphy also found occasional work on the continent with pickup rhythm sections, yet never succeeded in keeping a band together in his home country.
The few remaining years of Dolphy's life were musically rewarding yet professionally frustrating. The daring explorations that he and Coltrane pursued together led to claims that they were playing "anti-jazz," and the ensuing controversy made work opportunities even more scarce once Dolphy attempted to go out on his own again. While he received fewer offers to record his own music, he did demonstrate his skills in such unprecedented settings as John Lewis's Orchestra and one of Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. There were also several returns to the Mingus Workshop, including one that resulted in a tour of Europe in the spring of 1964. When the tour ended, Dolphy chose to settle in Paris and seek work as an itinerant soloist/leader. On June 29, while working in Berlin, he died, leaving a wealth of recorded music that has only increased in historical importance as Dolphy's influence has permeated jazz in the subsequent three decades.