Dolphy was one of several groundbreaking jazz alto players to rise to prominence in the 1960s. He was also the first important bass clarinet soloist in jazz, and among the earliest significant flute soloists.
His improvisational style was characterized by the use of wide intervals based largely on the twelve tone scale, in addition to using an array of extended techniques to reproduce human- and animal-like effects which almost literally made his instruments speak. Although Dolphy's work is sometimes classified as free jazz, his compositions and solos had a logic uncharacteristic of many other free jazz musicians of the day; even as such, he was considered an avant-garde improviser. In the years after his death, his music was described as being "too out to be in and too in to be out."
Dolphy posthumously became an inductee of the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1964.