Bob James and Eric Dolphy:
ONCE in a Lifetime


Bob James' performance at the 1999 Ford Montreux Detroit Jazz Festival marked a return to his professional roots. From 1957 to 1962, with the exception of his sophomore year spent at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, he studied in Ann Arbor, majoring in composition and minoring in piano. The University of Michigan required him to deliver duets, suites, fantasies, nocturnes, toccatas and the like on manuscript paper and in recital halls. But the University also offered him initial firsthand experiences with incidental music for TV productions and Broadway-style theater plays, including two full-length student musicals which James orchestrated, co-composed and conducted. These musicals were exceptional successes on campus, even recorded and released on LP.

By 1960, James had formed a trio with bassist Ron Brooks, a student of speech and physical education at Eastern Michigan University, and Bob Pozar, a U-M percussion major. They started playing jam sessions in dorms around campus and became one of the first regular acts in the original Falcon bar on Washington Street between Main Street and Fourth Avenue. The building — later replaced by a parking structure — was too close to the Salvation Army church to be entitled to sell liquor by the glass. After owner Nick Bunnels had brought in a piano in order to make up for that economic disadvantage the Falcon soon became one of Ann Arbor's first jazz clubs and a hangout for the more artistic-oriented folks in town.

Back then, however, and even more than today, musical activities in the spirit of freedom, of not following the rules, or even of rebellion were not particularly welcome inside major institutions of higher education. Such activities were mostly extra-curricular. This was true for jazz as it was for some creative music that went beyond the boundaries of established and taught disciplines. Other young musicians had already started doing their own thing outside the university in Ann Arbor. Their frame of reference, though, was less the "jazz tradition" than the tradition of music they had studied or were still studying at the School of Music: classical "art music" of European descent. Originally, they just intended to have their own music performed and heard. But soon their efforts included concerts and even whole festivals of "new music." The first ONCE  "Festival of Musical Premieres"  opened in February 1961 with a concert by members of a music society from Paris called Domaine Musical, and one of the pieces they performed was Edgard Varese's "Density 21.5" for solo flute.

Two members of the ONCE group, Gordon Mumma and Robert Ashley, soon emerged as the most prominent composer-performers. Encouraged by musicians like John Cage and David Tudor, they composed and performed musical frameworks that came with sets of rules which left it to the performers to decide how to follow those rules and how to fill those frames exactly — a performance practice more reminiscent of the "jazz tradition" than of most western "art music." The energy, provocativeness, and humor of their performances opened young Bob James' eyes and ears. At the same time, his and other student jazz players' improvisatory skills made them sought-after performers for ONCE composers like Ashley or like James' classmate Roger Reynolds. Up to this point, James' trio programs had mostly consisted of standards and mainstream compositions, including some by James himself. After entering the ONCE orbit, and "for a number of years, it completely changed [his] whole thinking about music and about everything else" (James). Ron Brooks confirms that he, too, "grew a lot during that particular period." Both the forms over which the trio improvised and the improvisations themselves opened up and became freer. As the trio became gradually more sound-oriented, harmonic changes lost their prominence as points of reference. Some of their sounds came from instruments like wind chimes, oil drums, and fans, while others came from magnetic tapes on which the trio members had recorded bits from their everyday lives, including themselves playing their instruments (hereby preceding projects like Bob Ostertag's "Say No More" by more than 30 years). To my knowledge the Bob James Trio was probably the first band that incorporated elements of "musique concrete" — European techniques of magnetic tape manipulation — into an improvisatory approach to music that was primarily informed by the sensibility of Afro-American composer-performers. Even within the (rather academic) vein of the so-called "Third Stream," at that time the latest and self-proclaimed crossover between these two ways of music making, the use of environmental sounds from magnetic tape in improvised instrumental music had not yet been explored.

While not yet supporting jazz inside its own walls, the University of Michigan sent Bob James and his Trio to two collegiate competitions (where they represented the UM). In April 1962, at Notre Dame University, the Trio entered, mixing "straight-ahead jazz" (Brooks) and "what we considered to be radical at that time" (James) for their program. This mix confused some judges but appealed to Quincy Jones who also happened to sit on the jury. The Trio won in several categories and left with a two-week's engagement at the Village Vanguard in New York and a one-record contract, resulting in the album Bold Conceptions that Jones produced in August 1962. Fifteen months later, James had received his Master of Music degree, had joined and left the Army Reserve, and had moved to New York City where Maynard Ferguson hired him upon Jones' recommendation. While playing with Ferguson at the original Birdland James met his future employer Sarah Vaughan. (Two years later he even brought his old Trio to Teaneck, New Jersey, to perform with Vaughan). In New York he must also have met Eric Dolphy of whom he "was a huge fan." James saw the chance to kill two birds with one stone: to repay an artistic debt he felt he owed to the ONCE people (with whom he had stayed in touch); and to do something what he would not have dared without being backed by the ONCE Festival ("I was in over my head" — James), namely to invite Dolphy to play with him.

Dolphy's interest in performing contemporary concert music of any kind was well known and has been documented. Varese's "Density 21.5," for example, was part of Dolphy's flute repertory. As a freelance musician he was no stranger to universities; he often worked and performed with students. At the 1963 University of Illinois Festival of Contemporary Arts, he led discussion groups on "improvisation and aleatoric techniques." The recording of a concert he gave on that occasion has recently been released on CD by Blue Note. Furthermore, Dolphy's landmark album Out to Lunch included his composition "Gazzeloni," named for an Italian flutist who had gained attention performing in Paris with the above-mentioned Domaine Musical. Less than a week after recording that album, possibly in combination with a visit to Detroit, Dolphy himself came to Ann Arbor.

On 1 March 1964, Eric Dolphy joined the Bob James Trio at the Fourth ONCE Festival. The performance took place in the basement ballroom of the VFW hall (now Seva Restaurant) on Liberty Street, and comprised the latter half of the second ONCE concert of that day. The set opened with the premiere performance of Dolphy's own new "Strength and Unity." The piece included eight French horns ("ONCE Brass Ensemble"), most likely arranged by Dolphy himself, and rehearsed by UM wind professor Louis Stout. There was neither time nor money for more than one rehearsal. The piece featured frontman Dolphy intensely high above the other players for the duration of the piece — about ten minutes. Brooks remembers it as "the first piece that I played in 5/4 meter." It was followed by a couple of improvisations that the four men most likely had agreed on in the Falcon bar the night before while rehearsing "on the job" (but it is also possible that they performed first at the ONCE Festival and then at the Falcon). However, the ONCE concert closed with another premiere performance of another new composition. James' quintet "A Personal Statement" required the participation of a countertenor (James' former classmate David Schwartz) — an unusual timbral inclusion even in this context. The fifteen-minute "Statement" was recorded in the WUOM studio on the following day. The tapes were discarded by the station, rescued by ONCE people, and are now in the hands of New World Records. It is to be hoped that New World Records' efforts in both funding and legalities will be as successful as Blue Note's, and will eventually lead to another musical release from that exciting era.

Note: Thanks to Robert Ashley, Ron Brooks, Bob James, Gordon Mumma, and Roger Reynolds, for patiently answering many questions and for providing me with information and invaluable insights.

© Ralf Dietrich, 1999


Southeastern Michigan
Jazz Association


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Ralf Dietrich is a former Ann Arborite who is doing research on the ONCE group. He has worked as a freelance music journalist for Hessischer Rundfunk in Frankfurt, Germany.