Café Mouffe: Eric Dolphy Day

Set 1: Eric Dolphy. God Bless the Child. Berlin, 1961.

Never mind the swallows at Capistrano or the buzzards in Hinckley. In my seasonal calendar, winter ends when I find a patch of mud by my back door. That means it’s time for Eric Dolphy Day! I learned the tradition from friends in Syracuse who cut classes and partied on the day enough snow melted to reveal mud. Most of them didn’t care at all about Eric, but I choose to venerate the master on his day.

I beseeched the Muse once to give me poems that “grunt and moan like Eric Dolphy in the owl-light.” His solo performances of God Bless the Child inspired that line. The sound is chthonic, like the orgy songs of the Maenads or Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp.

No one played jazz on a bass clarinet before Dolphy. Everyone who’s done it since pays homage to him. A decade after this performance was recorded on a Berlin sound stage, Anthony Braxton was an artist in residence at Antioch College. He liked to practice with his bass clarinet in Glen Helen, sometimes in a nook in the limestone cliffs that Brendan and I call the Rock Shelter. When the wind was right, you could hear Braxton’s grunts and moans a mile away in the woods.

As I walked to the grocery last night, I heard a another barbaric yawp spreading over the rooftops of my village. I followed it and found three kids jamming in a courtyard between the coffee emporium and the senior citizen center. Trumpet, tenor sax, drums. And were they hot! They were riffing on Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come — “Lonely Women” and “Focus on Sanity” to be precise. That’s some serious street music. I skipped supper and sat on a bench to savor the moment. The drummer propelled it with Elvin Jones rim shots and ride cymbals. The trumpeter — ah, the trumpeter! — slashed through chilly snow-melt air with Don Cherry licks searing like scimitars. Clearly, I’m still carried away by it. The center of my humble village felt then like Jackson Square or Place Sorbonne, a flaneur’s paradise.

Set 2: Eric Dolphy with the John Coltrane Quintet. Impressions. No other documentation accompanies the clip, but the time is probably 1961-62, and the venue European. Dolphy plays second horn on Coltrane’s creative breakthrough, but his alto matches the tenor with inventiveness and melodic force. Listen to them take it home after McCoy Tyner’s piano solo. It isn’t two horn players trading bars — it’s the counterpoint of harmonic geniuses.

Café Mouffe opens every Friday at 3:00 p.m. Please drop by for a listen and a chat. Sometimes the embedded videos don’t work here due to bandwidth constraints, but you’ll always find links to video sources in the set notes. Try them. If you’re curious about the Mouffe, here’s the original idea behind it’s creation.

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