Dolphy was one of several groundbreaking jazz alto players to rise to prominence in the 1960s. He was also the first important bass clarinet soloist in jazz, and among the earliest significant flute soloists.
His improvisational style was characterized by the use of wide intervals based largely on the twelve tone scale, in addition to using an array of extended techniques to reproduce human- and animal-like effects which almost literally made his instruments speak. Although Dolphy's work is sometimes classified as free jazz, his compositions and solos had a logic uncharacteristic of many other free jazz musicians of the day; even as such, he was considered an avant-garde improviser. In the years after his death, his music was described as being "too out to be in and too in to be out."
Dolphy posthumously became an inductee of the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1964.
Coltrane had gained an audience and critical notice with Miles Davis's quintet. Although Coltrane's quintets with Dolphy (including the Village Vanguard and Africa/Brass sessions) are now legendary, they provoked Down Beat magazine to brand Coltrane and Dolphy's music as 'anti-jazz'. Coltrane later said of this criticism: "they made it appear that we didn't even know the first thing about music (...) it hurt me to see [Dolphy] get hurt in this thing."
The initial release of Coltrane's stay at the Vanguard selected three tracks, only one of which featured Dolphy. After being issued haphazardly over the next 30 years, a comprehensive box set featuring all of the recorded music from the Vanguard was released by Impulse! in 1997. The Complete 1961 Village Vanguard Recordings carried over 15 tracks featuring Dolphy on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, adding a new dimension to these already classic recordings. A later Pablo box set from Coltrane's European tours of the early 1960s collected more recordings with Dolphy for the buying public.
During this period, Dolphy also played in a number of challenging settings, notably in key recordings by Ornette Coleman (Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation), arranger Oliver Nelson (The Blues and the Abstract Truth and Straight Ahead) and George Russell (Ezz-thetics), but also with Gunther Schuller, Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, multi-instrumentalist Ken McIntyre, and bassist Ron Carter among others.
Dolphy's recording career as a leader began with the Prestige label. His association with the label spanned across 13 albums recorded from April 1960 to September 1961, though he was not the leader for all of the sessions. Prestige eventually released a 9-CD box set containing all of Dolphy's recorded output for the label.
Dolphy's first two albums as leader were Outward Bound and Out There. The first, more accessible and rooted in the style of bop than some later releases, was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder's studio in New Jersey with hard-bop trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. However the album still offered up challenging performances, which at least partly accounts for the record label's choice to include "out" in the title. Out There is closer to the third stream music which would also form part of Dolphy's legacy, and reminiscent also of the instrumentation of the Hamilton group with Ron Carter on cello and Dolphy on bass clarinet, clarinet and flute as well as saxophones.
Far Cry was also recorded for Prestige in 1960 and represented his first pairing with another important partnership, trumpeter Booker Little, a like-minded spirit with whom he would go on to make a set of legendary live recordings at the Five Spot in New York before Little's tragic death at the age of 23.
Dolphy would record several unaccompanied cuts on saxophone, which at the time had been done only by Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins before him. The album Far Cry contains one of his more memorable performances on the Gross-Lawrence standard "Tenderly" on alto saxophone, but it was his subsequent tour of Europe that quickly set high standards for solo performance with his exhilarating bass clarinet renditions of Billie Holiday's "God Bless The Child". Numerous recordings were made of live performances by Dolphy on this tour, in Copenhagen, Uppsala and other cities, and these have been issued by many sometimes dubious record labels, drifting in and out of print ever since.
20th century classical music also played a significant role in Dolphy's musical career. He performed Edgard Varèse's Density 21.5 for solo flute at the Ojai Music Festival in 1962 and participated in Gunther Schuller's Third Stream efforts of the 1960s.
In July 1963, Dolphy and producer Alan Douglas arranged recording sessions for which his sidemen were among the leading emerging musicians of the day. The results were his Iron Man and Conversations LPs. Around this time Dolphy's pianist was occasionally the young Herbie Hancock, this group was recorded at the Illinois Concert and others.
In 1964, Dolphy signed with Blue Note Records and recorded Out to Lunch! with Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Richard Davis and Tony Williams. This album was deeply rooted in the avant garde, and Dolphy's solos are as dissonant and unpredictable as anything he ever recorded. Out to Lunch, his last major studio recording, is often regarded not only as Dolphy's finest album, but also as one of the greatest jazz recordings ever made.
The liner notes to the Complete Prestige Recordings say that on June 28 1964 Dolphy "collapsed in his hotel room in Berlin and when brought to the hospital he was diagnosed as being in a diabetic coma. After being administered a shot of insulin (apparently a type stronger than what was then available in the US) he lapsed into insulin shock and died." A later video documentary disputes this, saying Dolphy collapsed on stage in Berlin and was brought to a hospital. The attending hospital physicians had no idea that Dolphy was a diabetic and thought that he, like so many other jazz musicians, had overdosed on drugs, so he was left in a hospital bed until the drugs had run their course..
Dolphy died on June 29 1964 in a diabetic coma, leaving a short but tremendous legacy in the jazz world. He was quickly honored with his induction into the Down Beat magazine Hall of Fame in 1964. Coltrane paid tribute to Dolphy in an interview: "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." Dolphy's mother, Sadie, who had fond memories of her son practicing in the studio by her house, gave instruments that Dolphy had bought in France but never played to Coltrane, who subsequently played the flute and bass clarinet on several albums before his death in 1967. Dolphy was engaged to be married to Joyce Mordecai, a classically-trained dancer.
In Memoriam, Le Moyne College of Syracuse, New York celebrates a day completely dedicated to Eric Dolphy. This event is held in the spring and is well known throughout the central New York area.
Carter, Hancock and Williams would go on to become one of the quintessential rhythm sections of the decade, both together on their own albums and as the backbone of the second great quintet of Miles Davis. This part of the second great quintet is an ironic footnote for Davis, who was not fond of Dolphy's music yet absorbed a rhythm section who had all worked under Dolphy and created a band whose brand of "out" was unsurprisingly very similar to Dolphy's.
In addition, his work with jazz and rock producer Alan Douglas allowed Dolphy's style to posthumously spread to musicians in the jazz fusion and Rock environments, most notably with artists John McLaughlin and Jimi Hendrix. Frank Zappa, an eclectic performer who drew some of his inspiration from jazz music, paid tribute to Dolphy's style in the instrumental "The Eric Dolphy Memorial Barbecue" (on the 1970 album Weasels Ripped My Flesh).