“No man is an island.” —John Donne
It’s an axiom, and one that is ultimately relatable to this issue’s central figure, Don Cherry. But, before we go any further, I want to present a separate axiomatic phrase that envelops the broader working philosophy of Sound American, this time from Benjamin Disraeli:
“Change is inevitable. Change is constant.”
In order to quickly veer away from the territory of the precocious teen using his sister’s copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to pad out a five-page paper on the Marshall Plan, let’s explore how these two postulates relate to the pages within Sound American Issue 14.
Trumpet player, improviser, and world-music iconoclast Don Cherry was easily my least favorite artist on the instrument when I was growing up. Preferring the more conservative and controlled frenetic style of the late Miles Davis or Booker Little, I couldn’t hear past the lack of definition in Cherry’s phrasing to get to the heart of what he was doing. Over time, however, the way I understood his playing changed from indistinct, splattered lazy missed pitches to profoundly personal arcs of sonic color. My perception of his music developed, and I began to marvel at his ability to create and maintain such a powerful personal musical persona.
With this new appreciation, I became fascinated by a specific period in the early 1960s during which Cherry, aside from his consistent work with Ornette Coleman, played on some of the most definitive recordings of the free jazz era. The thing that I found intriguing was that he, for all intents and purposes, wasn’t a leader on any of them. From The Avant-Garde with John Coltrane to Evidence with Steve Lacy and a small catalog of recordings with Albert Ayler, Archie Shepp, Sonny Rollins, and Pharoah Sanders in between, Don Cherry was a somewhat ubiquitous presence on the great free jazz records of the 1960s.
Given the unique nature of Cherry’s improvising, his presence on all these records is not so unusual, but what Don Cherry does on those recordings has fueled a lot of questions in my mind, ultimately culminating here in an entire issue devoted to that period. At least that was the plan before Disraeli’s axiom of change, ever looming in the Sound American office, was asserted.
What is it about Don Cherry that made him able to sound so utterly unique while framing saxophonists as iconic as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins in a sort of light they would never quite experience again? That was the question I wanted to tackle, but as the first interviews—meant to simply provide a back story for the grand thrust of this issue—began to take shape, it became clear that the influence of the man was not going to be contained in such a simple and limited question. Not to put too fine a point on it, change was inevitable.
It immediately became clear that the experience of Don Cherry could not be limited to a handful of classic records. At the very least, it is essential to look at his career as an arc in the same way we may view Miles Davis and his many stylistic periods. Cherry was as radical in his changes as Davis, if perhaps more quiet about it. His own music could hardly be called a foray into the music of other cultures and traditions, because it doesn’t exist only as a passing interest or surface level exercise. Instead, he absorbed the music of Africa and the Middle East, and what came out was something that had inflection and influence but no sense of artificial fusion. His music has this quality because, as all of the interview subjects who had met Cherry have stated in their own way, to him all music is music.
This issue’s initial interviews and articles all tangentially answer the original question of how Cherry affected those early 1960s recordings, but always through the lens of this broader philosophy. Percussionist Hamid Drake, who played in the trumpeter’s last bands, talks about Cherry’s freedom with his musicians and his ability to “orchestrate his individual voice into any situation.” Cornetist Graham Haynes tells stories about Cherry’s giving spirit and citizenship of the world. William Parker, in conversation with special guest contributor Jeremiah Cymerman, paints a picture of the Lower East Side of the 1970s in which Don Cherry was a constant, open, and friendly presence.
In all of these cases, Cherry’s confidence in his own sound and his magnanimity of spirit are given as approximate answers to what may have been the reason he was able to convincingly play Thelonious Monk tunes with Steve Lacy and Ghosts with Albert Ayler. To stop there, though, would be to miss his greater purpose. Far from being an island, as in Donne’s axiom, Don Cherry was a wide-reaching, permanent, and high-speed mass transit system. For every analysis of his work with Ornette Coleman, [world-music trio] Codona, or [bassist] Charlie Haden, there are three apocryphal stories of his generosity and support for the musicians he played with regularly or met once in passing.
As the articles for this issue accrue, starting on December 28th with a tribute from Swedish reed powerhouse Mats Gustafsson, it will become obvious that this sense of giving and openness is the true power of Don Cherry the musician and the human being. Not only that, but it continues to be so, long after his physical body has left us. As improvisers such as Chad Taylor, Ralph Alessi, Tomas Fujiwara, Jon Irabagon, Taylor Ho Bynum and Chris Speed each try to explain Cherry’s special quality in relation to a specific recording from that magical early-60s period, it instantly becomes clear that he has and will continue to live on in subsequent generations.
For those who have no experience of Don Cherry’s music, and for those who just want an excuse to spend an afternoon revisiting his history, this issue includes a narrative biography and a page of performance footage. It is my suggestion that the reader and listener start here to get a sense of the feeling of Don Cherry so they can make the most out of the interviews and appreciations to come. Although it is a very small, and by no means complete, cross-section of those who have been influenced directly or indirectly by Don Cherry, each has been chosen because of his ability to articulate the specific magic of the man.
Starting at the beginning of the year, we will also have physical copies of our second back issue. The first issue is nearly sold out, and we feel the printed version of past issues is the best way to experience all that has happened in the last three years of Sound American. For those who have been concerned, due to academic attributions to past articles, about the archive going offline, the pages are presently still in existence, although not all active at once. We are working on a new presentation of that material that will address this problem; in the meantime you can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to request a URL for footnotes.
–Nate Wooley, Editor-in-Chief