Eric Dolphy
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Jazz, Music

Even though diabetes foreshortened the legacy of revered jazzman ERIC DOLPHY (1928-64), it remains imposing. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Dolphy’s musical enthusiasm was encouraged both by his parents and Westminster Presbyterian pastor, Hampton Hawes Sr., father of the immensely talented pianist Hampton Hawes (1928-77). Dolphy’s education continued with Lloyd Reese at Jefferson High School — then an extraordinary incubator of young black talent — and L.A. City College. Though Dolphy made important 1949 big band dates with senior Angeleno modernists Roy Porter and Charles Mingus, it’d be nine years before he again recorded, this time under the leadership of fellow Jefferson alum, drummer Chico Hamilton (b. 1921), to whose ‘chamber jazz’ stylings Dolphy added three bracing voices: alto, bass clarinet, flute. Now acclaimed, Dolphy moved east, settling in trombonist Slide Hampton’s (b. 1932) Fort Greene, Brooklyn brownstone, whose Carlton Avenue address he celebrated in “245” (below). Though Dolphy’s technique — he was seemingly fluent in all jazz and classical idioms — impressed everyone, his character (“One of the sweetest, most thoughtful people I’ve ever met,” recalled saxophonist Harold Land), humor and artistic empathy were also extraordinary: in 1960-61 alone, Dolphy made crucial contributions to the music of Mingus, Ornette Coleman, George Russell and John Coltrane (below). In February 1964, Dolphy recorded his masterpiece as leader and composer, Out to Lunch. That spring he toured Europe with Mingus, with plans to stay abroad for a year afterwards. When the bassist wrote “So Long Eric” (below), it wasn’t meant to be a eulogy.

Dolphy “245”

Coltrane “Impressions”

Dolphy “So Long Eric”

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Kurt Schwitters, Brian Wilson.

READ MORE about the Postmodernist Generation (1924–33).

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.