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January 15, 2014 / robinswood

Eric Dolphy and God’s Improvisation on a Problem

A note from Jamie Howison: I thought I’d re-post this article by Brian Nixon, originally published on ASSIST News Service on November 6, 2013. Thanks to Brian for his permission to re-post, and for his thoughtful engagement with my book.



When I first moved back to New Mexico from California, my family and I found a casual restaurant in Santa Fe called The Atomic Café. Located on East Water Street, it’s tucked in a small courtyard just off the main plaza.

The Atomic Café is known for its good food and modern atmosphere. As we entered the restaurant, I noticed original art of several notable musicians hanging on the wall. And as is my custom regarding music and musicians, I began to quiz my kids, asking them who they were.

“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to the first painting, my kids studying the faces of the portraits. Overall, they fared well with my test. They got David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Tupac, and even Ian Curtis of Joy Division. But there was one painting that stumped them. It was of a man—a silhouette of sorts, long goatee beard, and bass clarinet flung over his shoulder.

I must admit, I was stoked there was a painting of him. And I was even more excited that I got to introduce my kids to him, even though they had heard his music from several CD’s I listen to on a semi-regular basis.

After a few moments, they gave up. “That’s Eric Dolphy,” I said. “He’s one of the finest multi-instrumentalists in the Bop and post-Bop era,” I replied. I then proceeded to tell them about the man, getting in as much information as I could before they tuned me out.

I first discovered Eric Dolphy (1928-1964) in my history of jazz course in college. I must admit I was first drawn to his look: beard, beanie hats, sunglasses, and the like. To me, he beheld the part of a jazz musician. But later, I truly discovered the man through his music. Associated with musicians such as Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, Dolphy became an individual voice in the 1960’s with the release of his own compositions, particularly the classics “Out There” (1960) and “Out to Lunch” (1964).

As saxophonist, flautist, and clarinetist (with a foray with the piccolo), Dolphy’s music has been categorized as post-Bop, one of the architects of Tonal Bop and Free Jazz; movements associated with atonality, dynamic rhythm interplay, and call-and-response musical interaction.

For me—as a musician who picked up flute while in college—Dolphy represented one of the distinct voices of the 1960’s jazz scene, a guy that could play the flute with authority and finesse and not get beat up.

In the magazine, “Jazz,” writer George Avakian stated, “Perhaps the most important thing about Eric Dolphy was that he was a fine person, a gentle gentleman of a man, a person whose curiosity about everything led him into every kind social milieu…Brilliant musician that he was, Eric was still greater as a person.”Yet even more striking about Eric Dolphy is that he was a Christian, a belief many don’t associate with the hard, post-Bop era of jazz; a period influenced as much by drugs, politics, and free-love as by the music. But Eric was different: a true nobleman in the midst of a less than gentle world.

When I hear lines such as Avakian’s, I can’t help but think of Saint Paul’s words in the book of Galatians: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness…” Hallmarks of the Christian life.

Born on June 20th, 1928, Dolphy grew up in Los Angeles. According to biographer, Barry Tepperman, his two favorite activities were “listening to music and reading picture storybooks.” Eric’s mother, Sadie, was a devout Christian. She sang in the church choir, exposing Eric to Handel’s “Messiah” early on in his life. Eric later joined the Church choir himself. Later in life, he joined the Westminster Presbyterian Church, becoming a Sunday school teacher and attending it regularly while in town.


Eric’s musical education was mix of jazz and classical, a confluence that would later take root with his own compositions, with the influences of Bartok and Stravinsky entering his musical language. One thing is for sure, Dolphy, like Coltrane and others before him, was master of the language, particularly the etymology of improvisation, a hallmark of jazz music. Improvisation is an expression that is both very personal and individualistic, yet universal. And though Dolphy’s improvisatory skills sometimes painted outside of the conventional lines, giving voice to avant-garde tonality, his unique role in shaping a new musical language can help us grasp the diverse and universal nature of God’s world.

So one may ask: how can an avant-garde jazz player cull his musical influence from the Christian church? How can someone who played “out of tune”—as some like to say—be rooted in the lineage of Christian music associated with order, consonance, and beauty? These are big questions, too big for a short article. Others have tackled the topic with great insight.

But it’s interesting to note that many musical scholars and historians point to the fact that at the heart of jazz music is the Black-American Christian experience. In his fine book, “God’s Mind in That Music,” author, Jamie Howison, points to several scholars, ranging from Don Sailer, William Edgar, John Spenser, James Cone and Cornell West, that associate the beginning of jazz music to the Church, imparting it as a gift to the world.

West states it best: “Without the black church, with its African roots and Christian context, Afro-American culture—in fact, Afro-America itself—is unimaginable.”

Taking it beyond history to theology, William Edgar states of jazz: “it has become a universal expression of creation/fall/redemption.” And at the heart of jazz, as I mentioned above, is improvisation. Of which, Edgar states as “musical problem solving.” Edgar sees Christian truth as a picture of God improvising, “problem solving” as a means by which God provides answers in redemptive history. Edgar writes, “In one way the incarnation and the atonement were God’s greatest improvisatory moves. I mean he had a problem. Here is a holy God, and here are sinful human beings, but he has love…How on earth can he, without lowering his standards, save the people he loves? And he devises this extraordinary plan, the incarnation and the atonement, where he can remain just and yet be the justifier of the ungodly.”

I like Edgar’s statement a lot. It’s a fresh way of looking at the incarnation and atonement, a beautiful picture of God posing the question and providing the answer to a problem.

And in his own unique way, the music of Eric Dolphy is “problem solving,” pointing people to God, the great Problem Solver, the Just and Justifier in a mutual exchange of love between the Creator and Creation. And through Dolphy’s masterful playing, he can help us walk through the quandary of life, providing a voice—a perspective, helping unravel the tonality of God’s presence in the world, causing us to see the improvisatory make-up of the Christian life: a call-and-response with the Creator.

So we do well to listen to the masters of jazz, for in them we find God’s musical narrative played out in lives of his people. If you don’t believe me, just listen to some Dolphy.

Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, minister, and family man, whose writings  (and other good things…) can be found at


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