SA14: The Don Cherry Issue
“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, 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, and Taylor Ho Bynum 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.
–Nate Wooley, Editor-in-Chief
An Introduction to Don Cherry
As stated in our editor’s opening remarks, Sound American issue 14 is an attempt to appreciate the indefinable magic that makes Don Cherry’s music and philosophy so unique. The following pages are intended to give an in-depth backstory to the stories of praise, inspiration, and consternation that will inevitably follow as our contributors grapple with Cherry as a musical, spiritual, and human being. If this issue were a building, then these articles would be the load-bearing walls, with all that will come later providing differing levels of infrastructure, lighting, and decoration into the understanding of Don Cherry that we’re attempting to construct.
Cherry was born on November 18, 1936, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and was surrounded by music from an early age. Both his mother and grandmother played piano, and his father owned The Cherry Blossom Club, a venue that hosted some of the great swing bands of the time as they traveled through the Great Plains. In 1940, the family moved westward to Los Angeles, where Cherry’s father worked at the Plantation Club, an essential jazz spot in the Watts neighborhood of South L.A.
Although he was initially enrolled in Fremont High School in the South Central neighborhood of the city, Cherry often ditched classes to sit in with the big band of nearby Jefferson High instead. Jefferson was well known at the time for producing some of bebop and cool jazz’s biggest stars, such as saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray and flugelhorn player Art Farmer. Samuel Brown, the instructor of Jefferson High’s dance band, allowed Don to play, although it is unclear if he knew that Cherry was not officially enrolled.* His truancy ultimately led to Cherry being transferred to an area reform school, where he met and forged a long-lasting friendship with drummer Billy Higgins.
Higgins is just one of the amazing musicians who made up the vibrant musical world that was L.A. in the 1950s. As a youth, Cherry absorbed the few recordings of Fats Navarro, an early hero, and was mentored from time to time by Clifford Brown as the hard-bop trumpeter made stops in town as part of Max Roach’s ensemble. Meanwhile, bassist Charles Mingus was making his earliest experiments in jazz composition, Scott LaFaro was redefining the possibilities and role of the bass in jazz, Eric Dolphy was transposing bird song into his own specific woodwind vocabulary, and Charlie Haden was expanding on his experience playing Appalachian folk music as a youth. It was a time and place that, in hindsight, seems readymade for Cherry’s hunger for new things and spirit of freedom of expression.
*Jefferson High School’s Wikipedia entry does list Don Cherry as a “notable alumnus.”
Cherry met saxophonist Ornette Coleman in 1954. At the time, the trumpeter was working in a band with saxophonist James Clay and Higgins at the storied Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach. Clay’s group would play during the intermission between sets of the visiting acts each evening. During the day, Clay, Cherry, Higgins, and bassist Charlie Haden would be with Ornette, learning how to play the young alto saxophonist’s free-wheeling compositions.
In 1958, this group would make their, now legendary, first performances under the leadership of pianist Paul Bley, and without Clay on saxophone. In October of that year, an enterprising recordist caught the band at the Hillcrest, producing the 32-minute beginning of a revolution, Live at the Hillcrest 1958. The album features early examples of the already identifiable styles of all the players involved, although the material—two from Ornette and two bebop/swing chestnuts—did not make the kind of statement that Coleman’s group would in the next year.
The core of the Hillcrest group, without Bley, went on to create some of the most influential and earth-shattering jazz music of the twentieth-century. With most musicians, album titles such as The Shape of Jazz to Come, Tomorrow is the Question, and Change of the Century invite accusations of hubris, but the music of Coleman made the legitimation of these claims unnecessary.
Cherry was Ornette Coleman’s longest standing musical partner, performing on almost all of the saxophonist’s most important records from 1958’s Something Else to the musical manifesto of Free Jazz in 1960, the indefinable Science Fiction of 1971, to a sort of summing up of In All Languages in 1987.
In a way, Cherry was part of Ornette’s sound. The recordings that featured other frontline partners have a different overall sonic patina to them. There is a commitment to a sound—a vocal quality different from what Ornette gets on saxophone—and some sort of magical joy in the freedom inherent in the music of that time that makes Cherry indispensable to any real conversation of Ornette Coleman’s legacy.**
It would be a mistake to define Don Cherry as simply a product or portion of Ornette Coleman’s musical vision, however. In the 1960s, Cherry lent his pocket trumpet to recordings with almost every other visionary saxophonist of the time. Between 1960 and 1963, he recorded The Avant-Garde alongside John Coltrane, Evidence with Steve Lacy, Sonny Rollins’s freewheeling live set Our Man in Jazz, a handful of recordings with Albert Ayler, and was part of the New York Contemporary Five with Archie Shepp and John Tchicai. In each setting, Cherry found a way to maintain a balance between his very unique and personal sense of music and the diversity of aesthetics presented to him—from the gospel screams of Ayler to the dry lyricism of Steve Lacy.
In 1964, Cherry put together his first consistent group while he was living in Paris. The group featured the young Argentinean saxophonist Gato Barbieri, who, as Cherry did with Ornette Coleman, became an integral part of the sound of Cherry’s compositions and musical vision. The recordings that resulted from this group were released by Blue Note in 1965 and 1966. Where Is Brooklyn?, Complete Communion, and Symphony for Improvisers feature compositional elements that define a certain aesthetic Cherry maintained throughout his life, even as he delved into more experimental forms and collaborations in the 1970s. Among these traits were a predilection for fragmented folk-like melodies from American and non-American traditions, a spontaneity that felt as if a pre-set structure was lacking, and an organic mix of jazz rhythms with pulses from Latin America and Africa.
In the same way that confining our understanding of Don Cherry to his role in Ornette Coleman’s band would be misleading, it is misleading to define him strictly as a trumpet player or even as a jazz musician. Beginning in the late 60s and early 70s, Cherry began to explore new modes of expression that spread his focus onto other musical traditions and instruments. His duo recordings with percussionist Ed Blackwell were more than a drums and trumpet jazz record. Each explored African traditions through use of specific rhythmic and melodic material and, especially in Cherry’s case, with the addition of new sources such as bamboo flutes, piano, and other instruments from Africa and Arabic traditions.
The 1970s was a time of movement for Cherry, musically and geographically. He spent a period teaching at Dartmouth College as well as residing as an expat in Sweden. Musically, his sound found a wider application than ever before. He made a recording with digital electronics pioneer and fellow Dartmouth faculty Jon Appleton (Human Music, 1970), explored more overt aspects of world music on his own recordings Organic Music Society and Eternal Now, combined forces with radical contemporary classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki (Actions, 1971), added rock and funk to his palate with his own recording Brown Rice and a collaboration with Lou Reed, and co-composed the soundtrack to one of the twentieth-century’s oddest films, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain.
The collective trio, Codona, consisting of Cherry, Collin Walcott on sitar, tabla, and percussion, and Naná Vasconcelos on berimbau, percussion, and voice feels like a distillation of the broad influences of Cherry’s music in the 1970s. In the course of three recordings for ECM Records, the trio defined a unique world that combined the sound of post-Eno ambient music with traditional music from Africa and the Middle East and just the right amount of free jazz. If Los Angeles in the 1950s was the perfect kind of energy for someone like Don Cherry to learn and develop in, then Codona was the perfect setting for the culmination of a lifetime of that experience.
As Codona’s short period ended with the untimely death of Walcott in 1984, Cherry returned to the music that launched his career with a new confidence and elegance honed in a lifetime as a global citizen and musical researcher. Beyond another duo recording with Blackwell, the brilliant El Corazón, he participated in Old and New Dreams, which played the music of Coleman (among others) and featured former bandmates Haden and Blackwell. He even recorded with his first bandleader, Clay, on Art Deco—one of his last documents as a leader.
Don Cherry died on October 19, 1995, in Malaga, Spain. That’s not where the story ends, however. His influence as an unofficial world ambassador of music lives on in Sweden, Paris, and Copenhagen. His phrasing and sound lives on as a part of new aesthetic of contemporary musicians such as Taylor Ho Bynum and Josh Berman. His children play music with his spirit.
Don Cherry was a true revolutionary and an artist for whom the music came first and was something that everything else was in service of: the technique, the politics, the economics. In his own way, he had the ability to reinvent himself in the same manner that Miles Davis did, although perhaps with fewer fireworks. He was an American original, a one-of-a-kind artist, and an indefinable spiritual presence.
Don Cherry Video Playlist