Liner notes by Makanda Ken McIntyre
for the 1978 reissue
In everyone's life there is a need to find someone who has the capacity to understand, encourage, and nurture development. Eric Dolphy was a musician who had that capacity.
Early in 1960, I was fortunate enough to meet and subsequently play with Eric. I had heard him on record with the Chico Hamilton group and was impressed with his mastery of instruments - alto saxophone, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet. Our first meeting was very pleasant because Eric was an enjoyable person. He was friendly and open. The discussion centered on the precariousness of trying to make it as a musician in the African-American tradition in America.
Eric was very much in tune with the times politically and economically. Like one of his employers - John Coltrane - he was very much aware of how a segment of society controlled the music to be exposed to the public. He never belabored this point, but did talk about the possibility of leaving the country in order to earn a decent living some time in the future. Subsequently he did leave, never to return alive. We talked about how we saw the future in terms of hopes, desires, and musical aspirations. Eric was very interested in composition and orchestration, and to that end he studied privately with one of our well-known composers, Professor Hale Smith.
My opportunity to play with Eric came about a month later. He was playing at Minton's Playhouse - the place where "bebop" was credited with being born and where Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, and a host of other great musicians had performed. Freddie Hubbard was on the scene when I arrived at the club. He asked me where my horn was and when I responded that it was in the trunk of my car, suggested that I get it. This I found rather pleasant - I had not been asked to bring my horn anywhere in New York - and I did.
Freddie and Eric were very good friends; consequently I had good feelings about approaching Eric and asking if I could "sit in." I just barely got the words out of my mouth before Eric said "Okay." It was a very good moment for me, since I previously had had only both subtle and not-so-subtle rejections in answer to that question. I took out my alto saxophone and flute, mounted the stage, and played several tunes. When the set was over we went to a corner and exchanged flutes, checked out differences and talked a bit. When time came for the next set and I was again permitted to join the group on the bandstand, I thought to myself that I had in a real sense found a truly great musician and friend.
Eric's musicianship was awesome. He had the ability to present a myriad of ideas in his unique style, to utilize the techniques of his predecessors, and to perform with a very high energy level. This day of electronics is, on the one hand, great for composing with synthesizers, string ensembles, etc. On the other hand, many of the instrumentalists are not in tune with the concept of putting out energy and getting an equal return, but rather are in tune with turning the volume dial up and reserving energy (if they have any). Anyone who heard Eric in person should have realized his strong commitment to total communication through his instruments. Those of us who were fortunate to stand beside him while he was playing became very aware of the total commitment and high level of energy. The concept of playing not only to an immediate audience but also to a distant one was very clearly articulated in Eric's playing.
The music originally issued as Looking Ahead (Sides 1 and 2 here) was recorded in June 1960. The recording came about as a result of a tape that I made in my hometown of Boston in 1959 and subsequently submitted to Prestige Records. Esmond Edwards, the A & R (artist and repertoire) man for the company at that time, called me about two weeks later and informed me that he was very interested in doing some recording with me. I was thrilled. This was my second milestone in New York.
For this session, there was only one stipulation with respect to personnel, which was that Eric Dolphy had to appear on the date; this, of course, was fine with me. Since there was no discussion about other players, I did not know in advance who they would be. When I arrived at the studio and saw exactly who was going to work with me, I was in shock. Art Taylor and Sam Jones were both known to me only through recordings. However, Walter Bishop Jnr. was someone I had met musically in 1948 when he appeared with Charles Parker at a ballroom on Huntingdon Avenue in Boston. (His performance had been astounding, not to mention Bird, whom I never heard in person when he was not in excellent form.) In short, I was in the studio with some of the best performers in the world in the African-American tradition.
Although the date went well for me, personally, I could not at times help feeling a bit left out of all the qualitative nuances that I felt while Eric and the rhythm section were playing. In retrospect, this was quite natural: they had the New York feel for music, and they had played together before. I was in fact an outsider. The musicians did not treat me that way, but I was fully aware that, as a newcomer from Boston, I had not previously had the opportunity to work with any New York musicians of such high calibre. Eric had a high enthusiasm for playing. When I sat in with him at Minton's, he played as if there was no tomorrow. Similarly, when we recorded it was as if there might never be another opportunity. The concept of performing at 100% at all times was firmly a part of Eric's musical discipline. In the studio, the decisions as to the sequence and length of solos were made by Eddie Edwards. On Dianna, for example, it was decided that it would be six choruses. (Contrary to what some may feel about prearranged number of choruses, I have no problem with it; in fact, I find it a good idea.) However, at the end of my fifth chorus, much to my surprise, Eric came in and I stopped playing. The remainder of the take came off as prescribed. When I listened to the playback it came quite clear that Eric had taken a magnificent solo. Consequently when Eddie asked me if I wanted to do it over I refused - "check out the solo for yourself."
At about this time, Prestige was pushing Eric. He performed with many of the label's top performers - for example, Mal Waldron and Booker Ervin on the session that makes up the last two sides here. He was written up in the trade magazines of the day and in 1961 was voted first place in the Down Beat popularity poll in more than one category. He was a featured soloist in the short-lived Orchestra U.S.A., founded by John Lewis and Gunther Schuller. Nevertheless, he did not by any stretch of the imagination receive remuneration commensurate with his talents. The winning of polls did little or nothing for Eric in terms of earning a living as a musician. The gigs were neither plentiful nor lucrative.
Looking Ahead was released late in 1960. A reviewer for Down Beat wrote: "Don't listen to this record if you have the slightest hint of headache." Later in the review he wrote about our "libido", called us the "terrible twins", and finally stated, "all in all this is not a bad album." He rated it two and a half out of a possible five stars. How much influence this had on both our careers I do not really know, but it obviously did not help, because Eric subsequently left the country, and in October 1961 I started my public school teaching career at P.S. 171 in Manhattan.
Until recently, African-American musicians who won popular or critics polls did not receive any more work. Now, however, with fusion, crossover, etc., some are earning more money; but their success would seem to depend on how far they are willing to water down their music to suit what we are told is the taste of the public.
In an essay I wrote about Eric, I stated that had he had the opportunity to earn a decent living as a musician in this country he might not have had to go to Europe. It was in Germany, June 29, 1964 that Eric collapsed and died at the age of 36.
I feel privileged to have known, heard, talked, and played with him. There are those who argue that Eric was ahead of his time. There are those who argue that he was right on time, but that society was behind. Perhaps now that he is no longer with us, we can take time out to listen more attentively. We do not hear much the first time, the second time we hear a bit more, and with each subsequent hearing still more. Keep listening.