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Eric Dolphy: It’s All Out There Now

Rediscovered 1963 recordings by the saxophonist deepen the legacy of a jazz visionary

Eric Dolphy
Saxophonist Eric Dolphy (photo: Francis Wolff, Mosaic Images LLC

They were just some cardboard boxes. Eric Dolphy wanted to store them while he went to Europe to tour with Charles Mingus and spend some time with his fiancée, the dancer Joyce Mordecai, in Paris. Dolphy was giving up his apartment, because he didn’t know how long he’d be gone, and his friends Hale and Juanita Smith had room in their house in Freeport, Long Island. Juanita got special permission for Dolphy to drive into the parking garage at the United Nations, where she worked, and transfer the boxes to her car. The next day, Dolphy’s friend John Coltrane drove him to E.B. Marks Publishing, where Hale worked, so Dolphy could say goodbye. Then he was gone. And he never came back.

“We only knew him for six short years,” Juanita Smith remembers, “but he’d often come out to our house in his Volkswagen and spend the day. He just wanted to be with a family; he was an only child who didn’t really know many people in New York. He didn’t hang out in clubs. He was basically a family person. Eric was very easygoing; I never saw him angry. He was very considerate; he once brought my daughter, who was a big Beatles fan, some Beatles cards, and she never forgot it. He was interested in everything, and we’d talk not just about music but also about books and politics.”

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The Smiths were back in their hometown of Cleveland to celebrate Hale’s 39th birthday on June 29, 1964, when they got word that Dolphy had died from a diabetic seizure in Berlin earlier that day. He was 36. Eventually, after the shock of the death had worn off, Hale looked inside those cardboard boxes, and found the materials of his late friend’s ongoing musical exploration: books, sheet music, a Bollenseck tape recorder, and tapes of unreleased music. The first batch of that music was released in 1987 as the album Other Aspects. A second batch has finally been released by Resonance Records—first on vinyl in November, then on CD in January—as Musical Prophet: The Expanded 1963 New York Studio Sessions.

Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy with all three of his chosen instruments (photo: Don Schlitten)

Major Advances

The new set features recordings from sessions on July 1 and 3, 1963, that eventually yielded the Dolphy albums Conversations (FM Records, 1963) and Iron Man (Douglas Records, 1968). Eighteen tracks—nine previously released, nine previously unreleased—are taken from the original, never-before-used mono mixes. To these 18 is added “A Personal Statement,” a 15-minute piece performed by Dolphy and the Bob James trio, and composed by James, a smooth-jazz elder statesman today but a 24-year-old avant-gardist in 1964. This piece was previously released on Other Aspects with an incorrect title (“Jim Crow”) and an incorrect composer credit (Dolphy).

Quite a haul from those unassuming boxes, which a less discerning heir might have tossed or abandoned to the basement. Given that Dolphy is an artist whose reputation is much larger than his catalogue of mature works, these unearthed tracks are an important find. It’s not just that he died at 36; it’s that he didn’t find his distinctive voice until 1961, when he was 33.

That was when he took a giant leap forward, as documented on live recordings from the Five Spot in New York. They featured not only his landmark unaccompanied bass-clarinet rendition of “God Bless the Child” but also sterling work on bass clarinet, flute, and alto sax leading a quintet that included trumpeter Booker Little, pianist Mal Waldron, bassist Richard Davis, and drummer Ed Blackwell. That marked the end of his contract at Prestige, and before he moved on to his Blue Note masterpiece Out to Lunch!, he did those two sessions for FM.

“Maybe his early development took a little longer,” says James Newton, co-producer of Musical Prophet. “Part of that was dealing with three instruments, and half-good was not good enough for Eric Dolphy. A lot of people double, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but they tend to play the same language on each instrument, the same ideas in different timbres. But Dolphy wanted each one to have its own personality. And he got inside the language of each instrument in a way no one else had. Mingus said Dolphy could play lead alto saxophone in a small group, flute or bass clarinet in a chamber group. If we extend the exponential growth that occurred between 1961 and 1964, he would have been beyond our imagination by 1970.”

Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy (photo: Lee Tanner)

From Disciple to Curator

A gifted flutist, Newton has recorded more than 20 albums under his own name and even more titles with such leaders as David Murray, Arthur Blythe, and Leroy Jenkins. Now in his last year of teaching music at UCLA, he has just released a chamber-music album, The Manual of Light. It features variations on “Amazing Grace,” inspired by Barack Obama’s singing of the hymn at the funeral for the victims of the 2015 terrorist attack on Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Newton was already a Dolphy disciple when he was introduced to Hale and Juanita Smith by his mentor, Stanley Crouch, in 1979. The couple took the serious young composer under their wing, just as they had the similarly earnest Dolphy some 20 years earlier. Dolphy had been introduced to the Smiths by Hale’s college classmate, the guitarist Jim Hall, a former member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet that employed Dolphy.

“Hale had studied with Marcel Dick, a student of Arnold Schoenberg,” Newton explains, “and Hale’s own compositions were eventually recorded by the big five American orchestras. But he was also one of the greatest arrangers of African-American spirituals. He wrote charts for Ahmad Jamal, Dizzy Gillespie, and people like that. When he played piano, you could tell he was influenced by Art Tatum. He brought classical and jazz together in a way that fascinated Eric—and me too.”

Like Dolphy before him, Newton became a regular guest at the Smiths’ Long Island home. Hale eventually shared the contents of those cardboard boxes with Newton, who was so excited by the music that he eventually put the Smiths in touch with the Dolphy family and Blue Note Records. The result was the Newton-produced Other Aspects. Hale died in 2009, and a couple of years later Juanita turned the boxes over to Newton. “That’s what Hale would have done anyhow,” she says.

“It was overwhelming when I first got the boxes,” Newton remembers. “To hold the score of ‘Miss Ann,’ oh, my goodness, I almost lost it. To discover the rich diversity of pieces from other composers from Jaki Byard and Randy Weston, scores he used when he played with these other artists, études he used to practice. A score by Edgard Varèse was autographed and dedicated to Dolphy from the time Hale took Dolphy to Varèse’s house [in Greenwich Village]. Programs from different concerts. Yes, it was like Christmas morning, but there was also a feeling of responsibility.”

In 2014, Newton and the Dolphy family donated the boxes to the Library of Congress. That same year producer Zev Feldman, visiting the Monterey Jazz Festival, mentioned to Apple Music’s Garrett Shelton that he had a mandate from Resonance to search out and secure the rights to any important unreleased jazz recordings. Shelton suggested that Feldman might want to talk to Jason Moran, who was sitting across the room. “Would you be interested in some unreleased Eric Dolphy?” Moran asked. “Of course,” Feldman replied excitedly. Moran gave the producer Newton’s contact information.

“As James and I listened to these tapes,” Feldman recalls, “we could tell Dolphy was pushing himself to new expressions, new shapes and sizes in the different takes. Our ears hurt from hearing all those tapes, but in a good way. I had no idea so much music had been recorded. There were probably seven and a half hours in the music that became Iron Man, Conversations, and Other Aspects. It wasn’t our mission to just jam out all the music we could get our hands on. If the music’s not happening, we don’t want to do a disservice to an artist’s legacy. I said, ‘James, I’m not going to tango in this area; I’m going to leave it to you to choose the additional material.’”

Eric Dolphy
Eric Dolphy with bassist Luigi Prussardi, Club Saint-Germain, Paris, Sept. 14, 1961 (photo: Jean Pierre Leloir)

“The Missing Link”

The July 1 session was just Dolphy and Richard Davis. Their 13-minute duet on “Alone Together” was released on Conversations, and the shorter versions of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and Jaki Byard’s “Ode to Charlie Parker” appeared on Iron Man. Left unheard were an alternate take of “Alone Together” and two takes of Sir Roland Hanna’s “Muses for Richard Davis.”

“One of the great discoveries was ‘Muses for Richard Davis,’” Newton points out, “with its echo of a spiritual in the dialogue between the bass clarinet and the arco bass. One of the treasures of this collection is this look into the relationship between Eric and Richard, one of the great duos in our music. Their intuition about where the other is going to go is staggering. They shared a lot of music in what influenced them, in what they listened to. Aside from Mahalia singing it with Duke, their version of ‘Come Sunday’ is my favorite rendition of one of the greatest compositions in our music.”

By contrast, the July 3 date was crowded with 11 different musicians mixing and matching in different combinations on the six non-duo tracks from Conversations and Iron Man. Six alternate takes from that day’s work are included on Musical Prophet. There was no pianist on the date; instead, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson returned from the Five Spot recordings. The mostly young and little-known horn section included Woody Shaw, Sonny Simmons, Clifford Jordan, Prince Lasha, and bassoonist Garvin Bushell.

“This re-release of Iron Man and Conversations, coupled with the outtakes,” Newton argues, “represents the missing link in Dolphy’s language. It brings us to a closer understanding of the postbop period. Sometimes there are changes, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes there’s a song form, sometimes there’s not. Richard has said there was almost no verbal instruction at all on the date. I guess Eric wanted the musicians to find their own way into the music.

“One thing that’s happening all the time is his theory of synthetic scales, scales he created for each composition. People thought he was playing free, but when you look at the score—and that’s the big revelation—you realize he’s creating a new underpinning for the improvisations. It’s not just an emotional release; there’s a structure, but it’s not a structure that previously existed. It’s new forms, but it’s still form.”

Evolution Cut Short

Dolphy’s interest in devising new structures was a result of his many hours spent with Hale Smith, listening to music, playing music, talking about music. Hale had been a sideman in Earl Hines’ army band during World War II and had played occasionally with Dizzy Gillespie and Chico Hamilton. He taught at the University of Connecticut, but he quit as soon as he could afford to, because what he really wanted to do was to compose. “When people asked what he did,” Juanita says, “Hale would show his fountain pen.” He wrote two pieces for Dolphy: “Feathers” and “Three Brevities.”

The discussions between the two men about everything from Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique and Thelonious Monk’s octave displacement to the harmonies of African-American spirituals and the rhythms of the African forest people fueled Dolphy’s self-reinvention in 1963.

“Hearing these outtakes,” Newton notes, “I have a clearer understanding of what led to the breakthroughs of 1964. Dolphy was growing so fast, not only in the technical command of his instruments but also in the conceptualization of the art form. If you’re practicing 14 hours a day and exploring all these things, the growth has to be exponential. A lot of people consider Out to Lunch! one of the greatest recordings in jazz history; I certainly do.”

Unfortunately, Dolphy didn’t have time for further evolution. Even before he left for Europe, he didn’t look good. He had a knot on his forehead that Bellevue Hospital drained but didn’t analyze. When the Smiths’ dog Mitzi jumped on his leg, he jumped up and said, “I have this sore that won’t heal.” “I could tell he wasn’t healthy,” Juanita says. “He always seemed lethargic.”

After his short tour with Mingus, Dolphy remained in Europe with his fiancée. He picked up some gigs with European rhythm sections; a June 1, 1964 date with pianist Misha Mengelberg, bassist Jacques Schols, and drummer Han Bennink was later released as the album Last Date. Inaccurate title aside—it wasn’t Dolphy’s final performance—the music offers hints of a new direction that was, sadly, never taken.

“Unlike the other famous guys I played with,” Bennink remembers, “Eric insisted on playing his own compositions. That was new for us at that time. He wrote me a letter with the idea of forming a group with Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Bobby Hutcherson, and me. But by the time I received the letter, he had already died two days earlier. He died of diabetes, but only because they didn’t check his sugar as soon as he arrived at the Berlin hospital. He was a black guy coming out of a jazz club, and they assumed it was his own fault. And so we lost a musical genius.”

Top photo: Eric Dolphy recording the Out to Lunch! album in 1964. Photo by Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC.

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