If the obvious titans of 1960s jazz—Miles, Coltrane, Mingus, Ornette—are fingers that point the way forward, Eric Dolphy is the webbing at the base of the digits that provides the formal unity. In sports, they’d call him a “glue guy,” only instead of holding a team together, Dolphy helped shape movements. And unlike athletic glue guys, with their utility component, Dolphy was an MVP-caliber contributor, the best the league had on offer, even if he was tucked away in a region that didn’t quite garner the same levels of coverage.
Were we to diagram his discography the way we once diagrammed sentences, you’d note his knack for showing up at epochal recording dates. Only a fool would ascribe this to coincidence. As Coleman waxed Free Jazz, Eric the Brave stood and delivered, just as when Oliver Nelson determined it was time for The Blues and the Abstract Truth, a title that could just as well describe Dolphy’s legacy. Coltrane was the knight-errant of his times, but Dolphy was the guiding spirit upon his shoulder at the November 1961 Village Vanguard sessions, all but saying, “You can go further, man, push it.”
There are not a lot of musicians who cause us to think there isn’t anything they can’t do, but this was Dolphy. He played alto sax on Charlie Parker’s level, was borderline matchless on flute, and when he busted out the bass clarinet, you knew transcendent wonder was afoot. In a music where certain solos have acquired the proportions of tall tales—Trane on “One Up, One Down,” Paul Gonsalves at Newport ’56—Dolphy’s bass clarinet piece, “God Bless the Child,” still occupies its own bejeweled house, stashed in some glen worthy of a Humperdinck opera.
Written by Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog Jr. in 1939 and first recorded in 1941, “Child” is definitive Billie-as-survivalist. The song is an invocation to overcome, which also means it’s an invitation to press on. To range, we might say, which I think held special appeal for Dolphy, a natural explorer of challenging artistic seas.
A Holiday number was by its nature vocally oriented, which ironically makes “God Bless the Child” perfect for the inter-linguistic byplay of Dolphy’s bass clarinet. We only have a handful of extant versions of him tackling the song before his tragic death in 1964 at 36; the first comes from his July 1961 Five Spot date with trumpeter Booker Little. This performance—initially released on the 1966 compilation Here and There—seems to speak to us in a thousand tongues at once, but a single human language understandable by all. On a date that produced what I’m sure many would term their favorite live album (At the Five Spot), with a juggernaut of a small band, there isn’t a moment that surpasses what happens when everyone but Dolphy lays out.
His attack is all swoops, dives, and bench-pressing of geological plates, as if coming from inside the earth and then pushing against a canopy of stars, before raining back down in droplets of indigo and liquefied rubber. You’re not going to find a more demanding piece, but he underpins this dialogic wonder, as Holiday did, with the blues. It is a blues both ancient and modern, incorporating ageless rhythms of Africa with the Mondrian-like coloristic staccato of the city. At some intervals you might think of it as sci-fi, and then—two clicks of Dolphy’s tongue later—as a hymn that has enfolded the earth since long before we got here.
The performance is a solo, but you’re unlikely to view it as one. It possesses the quality of autonomy and wholeness, a musical entity appearing to walk, breathe, and engage amongst us each time we listen. It’s also a conversation: with itself, us, and the notion of possibility.
Perhaps you’ve seen one of those X-ray photographs of a Jackson Pollock canvas, in which the fractal-based design is evident subcutaneously. That’s what one experiences with any version of Dolphy’s “Child”: great depths being lifted to the surface. A lot for one artist to have in the hand, but a glue guy has a formidable fist, and hearing “God Bless the Child,” one has the sense that there wasn’t anything Dolphy’s couldn’t hold.