Dolphy came to prominence in drummer Chico Hamilton's quintet in 1958, and had a particularly fruitful relationship with bassist Charles Mingus, beginning 1959 and continuing intermittently until Dolphy's death from undiagnosed diabetes.
He also worked and studied with the classical flautist Severino Gazzelloni.
Dolphy's work is sometimes classified as free jazz, though Dolphy insisted his compositions and solos were grounded in a thorough, if occasionally unorthodox use of harmony. He made a number of recordings of unaccompanied saxophone solos. Dolphy also performed and recorded a flute solo written by Edgard Varese.