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Thinking About Eric Dolphy On His Birthday

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Out to Lunch album cover.

He was only 36 when he died in Berlin in 1964, but the gifted, avant-garde innovator Eric Dolphy (June 20, 1928-June 29, 1964) helped change the landscape for jazz improvisers through his collaborations with John Coltrane, Gunther Schuller, Charles Mingus and his own projects. He was a multi-instrumentalist who found his distinctive voice on alto saxophone, flute and bass clarinet, and his papers are among the biggest draws for jazz researchers here in the Music Division.

This acquisition story began in 2013 when I received an email from flutist, and composer James Newton asking if we’d be interested in Eric Dolphy’s papers. It turns out that when Dolphy went to tour Europe with Mingus in 1964, he left his papers with his friend and fellow composer Hale Smith. After Smith died in 2009, Smith’s widow Juanita gave them to Newton for safekeeping. And though another archive was very interested, Newton said he wanted the collection to remain in the U.S. so he donated the collection of six boxes of scores, lead sheets and sketch books to the Library of Congress. Different accounts suggest Dolphy either collapsed in his Berlin hotel room or while performing on stage at a jazz club. He tragically fell into a coma brought on by an undiagnosed diabetic condition. Dolphy was composing a string quartet at the time of his passing and was preparing to begin studies with Nadia Boulanger.


Dolphy’s Sketchbook #2. Box 3, Folder 7, Eric Dolphy Collection, Music Division.
Page of scales and sketches from Dolphy’s Sketchbook #2. Box 3. Folder 7, Eric Dolphy Collection, Music Division.














There is an online finding aid for this collection which states:

The collection is comprised of approximately 250 lead sheets, scores, sketches, and exercises for works composed by Dolphy and others. The collection includes holograph scores, sketches, and parts for Outward Bound, Out There, and Out to Lunch, the latter widely considered to be Dolphy’s magnum opus. There are also three sketchbooks in Dolphy’s hand filled with lead sheets, sketches, and studies. The collection also contains printed and manuscript works by Gunther Schuller, Charles Mingus, Jaki Byard, and other composers, and a promotional program chronicling a concert, “Concert Four” (1962), with Gunther Schuller and featuring Dolphy.

Eric Allan Dolphy Jr. would have turned 91 today.

Sheet music for Edgard Varèse’s Density 21.5, inscribed to Dolphy by the composer. Box 1, Eric Dolphy Collection, Music Division.


  1. Thanks for this thoughtful tribute to a “gone too soon” original. The correspondence with Varese is remarkable. I had no idea. Actually it is jaw-dropping since I was introduced to Dolphy’s work by way of Frank Zappa – a well-known Varese devotee.

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