Eric Dolphy might have been one of the loneliest people on earth As a man and as a musician.
I remember meeting him at The Chat Qui Peche in the early sixties As I was introducing my wife's sister to him, he said: "Everybody should have a sister in law". How revealing!
He was also a very controversial artist, never achieving any signifcant kind of success, popular or commercial. Only three major leaders gave him a chance to fully express himself and get his due share of the spotlights: Chico Hamilton, John Coltrane ("Eric. He was my baby. I didn't have to give him any parts, he was just perfect." Trane told me in 62) and of course Charlie Mingus. He was not even recognized by some of his fellow jazzmen, playing in the modern idiom that is, and everybody knows what Miles Davis thought of him. So it was even worse with jazz audiences. No matter how enthusiastic and faithful his fans were, the number of them was ridiculously small in the mid sixties. I remember people arguing about the compared validity of Eric's music and Ornette's as they walked out of a concert hall in Paris after two hours of plastic alto "surgery".
The problem with Eric was that he was a genius. And it always take some time before geniuses are acknowledged, if they ever are, take Monk, for instance. He had to wait until he was over forty years old to gain popular acceptance, and maybe the way he dressed and behaved, even more than the way he played, helped a great deal. Monk had his own style, so unique that nobody ever tried to play like him. Only Bud Powell could do it, and when he chose to. And then he was not even playing like Monk, he was Monk. Eric had his own style too. But there was nothing weird about him. Only his music was, to certain ears (weirdness, "craziness", in art is one of the things that tell a genius from a common, "normal" artist). They started no school, like Bird or Trane did, but the impact of their works will always be one of greater importance in Jazz history, how strange no jazz producer ever thought of putting them together in a recording studio.
Eric was an accomplished musician, emotionally and technically, with his playing deeply rooted in the blues. He made bass clarinet an instrument on its own, as did Trane with soprano saxophone. And he will remain forever the flutist perfect. It is especially sad to think that he really played for only six years, from 58 with Chico Hamilton to 64 with Charlie Mingus.
In a recorded conversation between Mingus and Dolphy (Stockholm; spring 64), that was later to be used in Bertrand Tavernier's movie "Round Midnight", Charlie is asking Eric, who just informed him he was leaving the band to stay in Europe: "How long will you be staying ?" and Dolphy answered "Not long"... "What's not long, Eric, a year ?"... "Less than a year". Eric Dolphy was to die in Berlin only two months later. He was 36.