Giving Dolphy His Due

Jazz, like life, is all about becoming, rather than about being. "Being" implies a static state, a state of no growth, a state of maintenance. Paradoxically, "being" comes to mean a kind of death.

"Becoming," however, is the activity that provides the necessary living friction that leads to growth and adventure. No music exemplifies this in quite the way jazz does. There are dozens of musicians to whom one can point as examples. But this week, I'd like to consider the legacy of Eric Dolphy, who often is forgotten except among the most long-memoried jazz aficionados.

Into the ferment of the free jazz movement of the late 1950s and early '60s, Dolphy brought a tubful of influences that, more than 40 years later, sound almost out of place in free jazz. That is passing strange, because he was among the most-cited musicians who contributed to what many self-satisfied and closed-minded critics of the day termed "anti-jazz."

It's a bum rap, and I'll tell you why: Dolphy was one of the handful of people who managed to move jazz ever so slightly into new territory without destroying or disregarding the foundations upon which it was built. In the days when the avant-garde were forging new directions, Dolphy's experimentations almost qualified as an unlistenable assault upon consumer-oriented sensibilities. Nowadays, the same
recordings sound almost, but not quite, quaint. Why is that?

One reason is that jazz fans have had their ears cleansed by the likes of Dolphy, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and a few others who were fearless in the pursuit of becoming. Because of that cleansing, a whole generation of jazz fans has grown up hearing in a way quite different from the way of their parents. They've not had to adjust their sensibilities and, therefore, they take a great deal for granted that once was revolutionary.

Somewhere I ran across this quotation attributed to the young and very gifted saxophonist Joshua Redman: "Jazz is all about the search, not so much about the achievement." That's a nearly definitive statement of the soul of jazz, and Dolphy had a drive in his music that bears out its truth. Witness: Although Dolphy was, primarily, an alto man, a quick poll of any dozen listeners familiar with the early free jazz recordings will reveal a perception that the bass clarinet was his signature axe. Sure, they'll know he played alto and they'll remember his contributions as a flautist, in much the same way as they will consider the multi-intrumental talents of, say, James Moody. But the bass clarinet was and, to some extent, remains a guest not invited to the instrumental banquet that jazz has become. So why does it spring immediately to mind with the mention of Dolphy's name?

Dolphy's advocacy of the instrument cast him in the role of a party-crasher, the one who shows up sloppy drunk at a cotillion, offends the chaperones, upsets the punch bowl and yet manages to seduce all the debutantes. That dogged pursuit by the intoxicated of something real in his dizzy world is fraught with friction, risk and something akin to bravery, for even in his intoxication, he knows he's stepped outside the traditional boundaries of acceptance. He brings to his single-mindedness a mindfulness of the limits of propriety and, despite the danger, extends them anyway.

Dolphy's mindfulness of tradition took the form of retaining chordal improvisation in his playing when others were moving, sometimes exclusively, into modal forms. Coltrane, for example, did this in his later work and Anthony Braxton has taken the notion even farther out. But Dolphy, who tipped his musical hat to Coleman Hawkins with the revival of unaccompanied solo recordings, still had the musical sense of his foundations.

That's why, at the remove of nearly a half-century, his music sounds almost lyrical when the same music was vilified in its heyday. Dolphy was a dripping sponge of influences and his career reveals his level of comfort in a variety of settings.

After a period of obscurity that began with his first recordings as a side man in 1948 and continued through a stint in the U.S. Army and later gigs around his hometown of Los Angeles, Dolphy in 1958 joined the Chico Hamilton Quintet. Hamilton always has struck me as an incredibly melodic drummer, one who took care that his skins were tuned and, therefore, he functioned smoothly both as soloist and heartbeat. This, it appears, was not lost on Dolphy, for like Hamilton, he had a sense of what was appropriate to meet the demands of a particular tune in a particular setting.

This is a talent shared by only the greatest of musicians. My enduring hero, the late Joe Henderson, had it and, it occurs to me, Henderson was influenced in an obvious way by Dolphy. A healthy respect for the tradition demands serving a tune, yet does not preclude experimenting with it. Dolphy did that, and his work now stands in contrast to a great many who seemed interested only in wrenching a melody out of its context and hand-hammering it into something different from its organic intention.

This talent, by the way, found sustenance in Dolphy's associations over the course of his too-brief career. When he died on June 29, 1964, having turned 36 only nine days earlier, his musical resume included, in addition to Hamilton, Coleman and Coltrane, the names of Booker Little, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Oliver Nelson, John Lewis and Gunther Schuller. Schuller's name is especially striking here, as is, to some extent, Lewis', because the Third Stream is not something one usually associates with Dolphy, who seems forever locked, as in amber, inside free jazz. But, again, his mindfulness of musical tradition served him well in that context and left us some interesting listening.

If you don't know Dolphy's music, never fear. There is plenty of it still in print in the United States and, one suspects, elsewhere, especially in Europe, where he spent the final months of his life before succumbing to a diabetic coma.

One album, however, deserves special mention, and that is "Out To Lunch" [Blue Note, 1964], a masterwork of five Dolphy-penned tunes. Chief among these is the title track and "Hat And Beard," a tribute to Thelonious Monk that is challenging listening. This quintet includes Dolphy on all three of his instruments; Bobby Hutcherson, vibraphone; Freddie Hubbard, trumpet; Tony Williams, drums; and Richard Davis, bass.

The recording has all the Dolphy hallmarks: wide interval leaps, jagged edges, eccentric time signatures, openness of form and a soloistic underpinning that echoes the ecstasy of religious transport and exuberance that makes it a mistake to take Dolphy's music as a merely intellectual exercise, fit only for the sterile, cerebral kind of hearing. There is much joy here. It moves mind, body and soul. Coming as it did at the end of his life, "Out To Lunch" is more than Dolphy's supreme achievement; it is aural proof that he was still "becoming" at the time of his death.