Eric Allen Dolphy, Jr. was born on June 20, 1928 in Los Angeles, California. Eric began playing music on harmonica in elementary school before exploring other instruments. Dolphy also sang in the choir at his local church as a child led by Reverend Dr. Hampton B Hawes, the father of Eric’s childhood friend and later legendary Jazz piano player Hampton Hawes. By the time Dolphy was in middle school he won a two year scholarship to the U.S.C. School of Music in a city wide competition but didn’t need it as he would be playing professionally in high school. Eric also did chores for music teacher Lloyd Reese in exchange for lessons and after high school would continue his studies for a short time at Los Angeles City College while gigging locally. He was able to play and perform on alto saxophone, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet and flute. After entering the army and the U.S. Naval School of Music, Dolphy returned home in 1953 and began playing with George Brown, Gerald Wilson and Buddy Collette. Collette suggested to Eric that he make his way to New York and join Chico Hamilton and he did.
In New York Eric would play with just about every legendary Jazz musician in the area. In 1960 he recorded on Ornette Coleman’s album ‘Free Jazz’ as well as played with Freddie Hubbard, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, Scott LaFaro, Billy Higgins, Max Roach, Oliver Nelson and Eddie Blackwell among others. Dolphy toured and performed with John Coltrane in ’61 and ’62 contributed to Trane’s albums ‘Africa Brass’, ‘Impressions’, ‘Live at the Village Vanguard’ and ‘Ole’. Also in the early 1960s Eric performed and became close with Charles Mingus and some of those classic albums they made together include ‘Mingus!’, ‘Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus’, ‘Mingus at Antibes’, ‘The Town Hall Concert’, ‘Revenge!’ and more.
Dolphy also performed and recorded extensively as a leader and his first albums include ‘Out There’, ‘Outward Bound’, ‘Far Cry’ with Booker Little and ‘Magic’ all recorded in 1960 among even more that year. Some other notable albums Eric recorded as a leader includes ‘Here and There’ and ‘Live! At the Five Spot’ in 1961 as well as ‘The Illinois Concert’ in 1963 and ‘Out to Lunch!’ with Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis and Tony Williams in 1964. Eric left on a European tour with Mingus in early 1964 planning to settle down there with his fiancé after the tour. However, in June 1964 Dolphy suffered a stroke from undiagnosed diabetes and passed away in Berlin at just thirty six years old. That same year Eric was inducted in Down Beat Magazine’s Hall of Fame.
Eric Dolphy’s short life did not prevent him from leaving a legacy as one of the most unique and influential voices in Jazz history. Dolphy was one of the first important bass clarinet players in Jazz as well as one of the most influential flautists. Even with contributions on those instruments he is best known as being one of the greatest alto saxophone players in this music. Eric’s way of living, music and style of play continues to influence and inspire young musicians today to explore themselves and the unknown through their music and find their own voice.
"Whatever I'd say would be an understatement. I can only say my life was made much better by knowing him. He was one of the greatest people I've ever known, as a man, a friend, and a musician." – John Coltrane on Eric Dolphy
“When you hear music, after it's over, it's gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” – Eric Dolphy