Last updated on February 14, 2023
Leonard Feather interviews Eric Dolphy, this interview is originally published at Alan Saul website. Listen to the audio recording of this interview:
Alan Saul: Thanks to Bruce Robinson and Mark Ladenson for providing a tape of this.
Allan Sutherland and Ray Tennenbaum sent me transcriptions of parts one through four below. I did the rest. Corrections are welcomed.
LF: For one thing, I would I would like to make it clear that I don’t think I understand (short pause) as a musician you know certain things I don’t understand about what you are doing and I am, I would like to maybe get them clarified in my own mind so that I can make it clear for the average reader too (ED: uh huh) you know (longer pause) (garbled, unclear) what is happening and what people like you are doing harmonically. It’s very hard to explain, very hard to analyze. Can you put it into words?
ED: Well, it, you know, it always depends on the subject of what you’re improvising on of course, (cough, LF: Yeah.) and then, uh… (pause) what, you know, the subject you are improvising on. Of course if you’re playing freer forms and the harmon…, improvisation is much more freer and you have much more things that you can play. More than.. more more the line is not, er er, the lines are not held to no chord patterns, harmonically.
LF: No, but…
LF: No, but, what I don’t understand is what ARE they held to? I mean what is, what is the difference between the limitations, there must be some limitations otherwise it, you would be arbitrary, you could just play any notes that you like.
ED: Well that’s the idea you CAN play every note that you like. Of course, you only can play what you can hear, and quite naturally… more or less I guess what I hear is not to your hearing, to what you’re hearing. So quite naturally, I hear, uh, more notes on uh, on the same thing that’s been said before.
LF: Yeah, uh…
LF: Well, if your foundation is not a chord sequence, which is what the traditional basis of jazz was, then what is the foundation?
ED: Well it – it – you see, some things like you play are not based on chords, they’re based on freedom of sound, you start with one line and you keep inventing as you go along, line-wise –
LF: Yeah –
ED: – And you keep creating until you state a phrase. And quite naturally you, ah – what is the word, intuitive?
LF: Yeah –
ED: -whatever’s around you, or with you, working together. Course, ah, then there’s another thing that you play, in the modes, and then even though you’re in the mode, you play outside of the mode, coming in and out of what you’re playing. So harmonically, uh, it’s not held down to the old thing of where you have a seventh chord and you- you ah, keep running the chord. Quite naturally, you run the chord, but you use other – other notes in the chord to give you other certain expressions to the song, otherwise you’d be playing what everybody else is playin’. So if I have an F7, I’d most likely play F-sharp! Which is nothing but a flat nine – I’ll play an F-sharp chord against that.
ED: And ah, I’m not sayin’ I would play an F-sharp chord just to play an F-sharp chord, I would – I could play F-sharp chord and, and, and – and it would sound – to me it would sound okay with that F7.
ED: You understand what I mean? And uh [pause] it’s hard to say at the moment, as I’m sittin’ here, because you know, ah, improvisation – the thing only happens at the moment when you do it-
ED: And quite naturally it might change. And uh.
LF: Let me ask you this:
LF: You’ve mentioned the fact that this is greater freedom than for the earlier forms. Do you think that in these terms that Charlie Parker or Dizzy, or the earlier school, lack freedom, or sound old-fashioned as a result of the developments that have taken place?
ED: No, it’s a funny thing, man, I’m glad you asked me that. See, I’ll even go farther than that. I had an experience, I played at a festival in Washington, D.C. and I got a chance to hear the Eureka Jazz Band. And, you hear them play, you just hear the band and you hear the lead trumpet player’s playing the melody, and probably more or less you hear the other sounds, the undertones sound. So, I had a chance to get right, I stood, they were standing one time, and I stood right in the midst of them.
LF: Were these old men from New Orleans?
ED: Yeah. And listened to them play, and I couldn’t see much difference between what I was doing to what they were doing, and the fact that they, more like, they were more tonal, of course, but they had a lot of freedom to what they were playing, because I could hear notes that they were playing, and, they didn’t have any, you know, very strongly, right into, strong chords, like a G chord, or a C chord, they were playing F-sharps, and C-sharps, of course they were passing tones, but they were improvising. And so, they were, I think they were the first freedom players.
ED: [?] and what I could say on that [?]. And uh. I think, as music has progressed, and guys are finding… The more knowledge, as music progresses, it just has led musicians to play this way, to use different forms. You have more to play.
Quite naturally, a musician coming up now, he has had more training. Not to say he’s better, I’m not saying he’s much better. I’m saying he has training, better equipped, that he has a little more technique, so he doesn’t know what to do with it. In the case of myself, I had to find something what to do. Not to say in the sense of finding something to do just to exhibit my technique, but to find something to do to enhance some kind of musical, make some kind of musical sense, and I found that within my playing that I could play notes, not at first, because at first I couldn’t hear these notes, so I wouldn’t play them. But as I play more and more I hear more notes to play against the more common chord progressions. And a lot of people say they’re wrong. Well, I can’t say they’re right, and I can’t say they’re wrong. To my hearing, they’re exactly correct. For my hearing I’m right, and…
LF: You think it’s just a matter of the listener becoming accustomed to it?
ED: Yeah. And, it just, it makes everything much more broader. To me, it gives me a much more broader, it gives me more things to play, it opens up a whole different type of hearing. Now, and, a lot of things, a lot of knowledge I have about, I knew about this quite a while ago but I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t hear, you know, and it’s not a case of just like, going out and you say “Well, I’m just gonna play anything”. I couldn’t make any musical sense out of it. I mean, to spell a line against what I hear. So that’s what I came about it.
ED: You know, like music contains like, rhythm, and pitch, time, space, and all these elements go into [?] improvisation, improvising, you have to take that into consideration. It’s not a question of just running notes. And so, a lot of people say they hear guys playing, they say “He’s just running notes.” Just to be running notes at random. But that isn’t true, because he has something in mind. And then he’s bending notes, and all these things. All this goes into this, this type of playing today.
LF: What about the harmonic point that has been made against, particularly against Coltrane, that he’ll play for 25 minutes on just 2 chords, and that this is actually retrogressive in terms of harmonic development in jazz?
ED: Well, I can’t speak for what Mr. Coltrane would say, but I can speak as far as what I could think. I know from listening and working with him, that he is, he plays SO much, and he has, a big, as we say, a bag, not a bag of tricks, but a bag of ideas that he has. And he gets, he has that moment, if I’ve noticed, he’s never said anything to me, but I’ve noticed from listening, that he doesn’t, he’ll play long sometimes, he can play long anyhow, he has such a thing that he can go through, sometimes he’ll get inspired at that moment, he’ll carry himself over, and I’ve seen, it is true of other players,
LF: Do you think he has enough to say on a limited number of chords to compensate for the lack of harmonic variation?
ED: Do you mean… Let me see if I’ve got that question right. Do you mean that he could say the same thing in a shorter length of time?
LF: No. I mean, that he’s saying the same thing on a very limited number of chords. He will very often play a number that is based only on 2 or 3 changes actually, 2 or 3 chords. Which is monotonous compared with the considerable harmonic complexity of say an Ellington thing, or even a tune like All the Things You Are. In other words, he doesn’t rely on changes.
ED: Yeah, well that’s… You see, that is another complexity in itself of playing on 1 or 2 changes. That is I think,
LF: It’s a challenge?
ED: It’s a challenge, and it’s, not even more of a challenge, but it’s even a, where a creative musician, if he IS creative enough, is to create on that limited an amount of, how should we say,
ED: something to work with. He doesn’t have but so much to work with. He creates out of that amount.
ED: This automatically gives him a little more time to think, and he can play, I’m sure that he can think, and it gives him the chance to unfold a lot more, a little thing, and basically … if music… Not speaking about Mr. Coltrane, but speaking about music in general, of all types of forms, like in Indian music, they only, if we listen to their music, they only have usually 1, in our Western music we can usually hear 1 minor chord, but usually they call it a raga, or scale, and they’ll play for 20 minutes.
LF: Yeah, that’s true.
ED: So, with them, like in talking to Mr. Shankar, Ravi Shankar, they study for quite a while to get enough material to even work with. So, like, not to say that the musicians are just doing this to keep up with the Indian musicians, but I think that it’s a little connection there, because, classical Indian music is the Indian music of the people, and jazz is the music of the American people, especially the American Negro, and it’s their music, so quite naturally, there’s something of a connection there, of people expressing themselves in the same way.
ED: And not only, I can’t say if Indian music and jazz, but to even go into other folk forms of music. I’ve noticed, I’ve heard it said that Bartok and Kodaly collected many folk themes on, what is their music, I forget their music, their particular music and where they’re from, their land…
LF: Yeah, Hungary.
ED: Hungary! I’ve heard records by them where they do things, and you hear them playing, this particular thing goes over and over, and to the listener that doesn’t pay attention close to the notes, the typical sound will get monotonous. But to the person that listens to the actual notes and the creation that’s going on and the building within the players and within themselves, they’ll notice that something is actually happening. So actually, I think that all this in a way has a connection with the artist over here, and everywhere; it’s not a question of anybody trying to outdo them and stuff, it’s just the fact that they’re just going through the same development. And out of this I’m sure will come something else, it just has to go ahead, has to go [?]
It took me a little while to appreciate this. Dolphy didn’t seem so articulate, but when I thought about what he’s saying it was quite enlightening. Basically I think he’s saying that you work to create music by studying but in the end that work is just a way to accomplish the task of making the music that you hear in your head, and that the technical aspects aren’t as interesting as the creative part.
Date created: February 6, 1998
Last modified: December 5, 1998
Copyright © 1997, Alan Saul
Maintained by: Alan Saul