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Jazz

Life lesson

A tribute to Eric Dolphy — years in the making

Eric Dolphy, with bass clarinet, sax & flute.
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Published 9/2/2009

Nearly a half century ago, an aspiring musician of 20 or so introduced himself to one of his heroes after a set at Detroit's famed Minor Key Lounge. When the young guy said that he'd begun flute lessons, the hero graciously handed his instrument over and said play. A half-hour's lesson ensued: How to balance the instrument. How to control the breath. The importance of being able to "direct" your air. The guy was hardly a novice; he already considered himself a professional saxophonist. Nonetheless, he looks back on that night's impromptu lesson as "amazing."

Today that up-and-comer, Bennie Maupin, is himself an elder jazz figure who put his stamp on two of the biggest jazz albums of all time: Miles Davis' Bitches Brew and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters (with its pop crossover hit "Chameleon"). And his current project pays homage to the late Eric Dolphy, the same musician who took Maupin seriously way back when. More than the typical tribute, Maupin and his group, Dolphyana, are bringing to life music that Dolphy wrote but never recorded, apparently never played in public.

"They are absolutely beautiful, that's about as much as you can say," Maupin said the other day of this cache of Dolphy pieces. And you might use absolutely beautiful, likewise, to describe Dolphy's musical life and how it has influenced Maupin's among others.

Dolphy's time on the national and international jazz stage was brief but intense. He joined the national touring circuit at age 30 in 1958 with Chico Hamilton's band, moved from L.A. to New York and recorded almost 100 sessions subsequently — more than a dozen as a leader and the rest as a sideman with John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans and Mal Waldron among others. Yet, regular work regularly eluded him. Hoping for better luck in Europe, he stayed there rather than return home from an April 1964 tour with Charles Mingus, in whose band, as in Coltrane's, he'd been prominently featured. That June 29 he died in a coma, apparently as a result of undiagnosed diabetes. He was 36.

Dolpy's six prime years overlapped with the first stirrings of the jazz avant garde, and he was in the thick of it. A sort of apostle of the new freedom, he left behind albums with such titles as The Quest, Out There and Out to Lunch! — and music that lived up to the titles. On the alto saxophone he was original. On the flute, he was strikingly original. And the bass clarinet ... its jazz history might as well be demarcated into two eras: Before Eric and After Eric. Before Eric the bass clarinet was an occasional dark color thickening ensemble passages. Eric did for the bass clarinet what Coleman Hawkins did for the saxophone; he tamed it and taught it to sing, made it a lead instrument. After Eric the bass clarinet was legitimized for guys like Bennie.

"I loved the fact that he had such a strong identity ... that he had such a strong identity," Maupin said. Yet, Maupin later discovered that Dolphy came from the roots of Charlie Parker and the saxophonists of that period, "but he found a way to do it that was uniquely his own."

Rooted yet original — a definition of jazz greatness.


Like many ambitious
Detroit musicians in his crowd, Maupin moved from Detroit to New York, in 1962. His interest in Dolphy continued, though he never got closer to than listening to his records and performances. He recalled particularly the last time he saw him. John Coltrane, who'd been the bandleader for the Minor Key date, was playing at the Half Note, a New York club where he liked to stretch and test ideas. And Dolphy walked in.

"It was just amazing to see John's reaction," Maupin recalled. "There was just an incredible smile on him. You could just really feel the bond of friendship that they had for each other. And Eric took out his horn and went on into it. It was a phenomenal night. That was the last time I saw and the last time I got to hear him play."

One way that Dolphy influence got to Maupin was in inspiring him to tame the hard-to-tame bass clarinet. He started becoming known for his bass clarinet work in McCoy Tyner's band — which led to a call from Miles Davis, who was putting together a sort of large ensemble in-studio experiment mixing acoustic and electric instruments, jazz and rock. It was the cusp of something new, the kind of call, said Maupin, "that comes once in a lifetime." Maupin's bass clarinet is an ominous dark thread running throughout the electrified tapestry, and his slithery three- and four-note phrases behind the title track's bass line may be the best-known bass clarinet figures in all of jazz.

"It was off the top of my head. It was a reaction to everything that was going on ... because no one knew what was going to go on. ... That music was not rehearsed; it wasn't planned. We just came in and we started. The vast majority of it was improvised. It just got to be a wonderful opportunity for me to create something — and that's what Miles wanted."


Dolphy was hardly
Maupin's only influence. Discussing his own development he reels of names from Ornette Coleman to Hank Mobley. He underscores, for instance, the role model provided by Detroiter Yusef Lateef in the 1950s, who Maupin considers the original world musician.

But Maupin's interest Dolphy continued unabated over the years. He queried fellow musicians like Ron Carter and Hancock about their first-hand experiences with the musician; he became aware of the breadth of Dolphy's musical interests — from Indian music to Edgar Varèse. When Maupin moved to California in the '70s — as part of an exodus of fusion pioneers out of New York — he came in contact with musicians like former Detroiter Gerald Wilson who had known and hired Dolphy in his early days. Maupin absorbed the stories about a young obsessive who would practice while walking home from school and play to birds, a guy who, Wilson said the other day, "had this inner thing that pushed him on." 

Maupin also came to know the flutist James Newton for whom Dolphy was also an influence and source of fascination. And when Newton came into possession of the "new" Dolphy compositions — by way of composer Hale Smith, in whose care they'd been left before that long-ago last tour — the two joined forces to bring those tunes their overdue audience and hopefully see them recorded. The Detroit performance is only the second for the music, and it will have flutist Nestor Torres in place of Newton, who has been sidelined seeking treatment for a medical condition. 

And for Maupin, the Dolphy story is about the way people can have profound impact on us whether they alive or not, whether the time shared is fleeting or prolonged.

"In that meeting I had with him," said Maupin, "he was able to share something so valuable that it will live in my heart forever."

W. Kim Heron is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to wkheron@metrotimes.com

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