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.
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
William Parker Talks with Jeremiah Cymerman
There was a brief period of magical time when a group of people found solace, insight, and inspiration from the 5049 podcast. 5049, recorded and produced out of a cubby in Jeremiah Cymerman’s Lower East Side apartment, gave a hundred musicians and thousands of listeners the ability to identify, commiserate, and empathize with what it means to try and make music in the twenty-first century.
One of the beautiful benefits of the podcast was the ability to get a feeling for a musician you may have met or with whom you shared a bit of conversation, but that was still in your blind spot. William Parker was one of those musicians for me. I had heard and loved his music for years, but didn’t understand the extent of the energy that he, with his wife Patricia, had put into the community of musicians that make up the New York free scene. I found myself genuinely happy that William existed, not something I can consistently say about all musicians, even myself.
During that initial podcast, William displayed an almost photographic memory during which he recounted what it was like to live in New York in the 1970s. It was an incredibly fertile time for musicians playing jazz and free jazz, and William has a storytelling ability that makes you feel like you are experiencing that moment in time. In passing he mentioned a few anecdotes about Don Cherry. These stuck with me as we were preparing this issue of Sound American, and so I asked Jeremiah and William if they’d go back into the 5049 studios usingDon Cherry and the 1970s as a jumping-off point to bring one more moment of inspiration to those of us who found it in that magical time.
Hamid Drake on Don Cherry
Hamid Drake: It was actually [Chicago saxophonist] Fred Anderson who turned me on to that music. He got me involved in listening to the records Don made with Ornette [Coleman] in that quartet that they had with Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell, and sometimes Billy Higgins. Playing with Fred was my first experience in improvised music in the so-called “jazz” context. Before that I was playing with a lot of rock bands, jazz-rock bands, funk groups, and stuff like that. So, when Fred brought me into the group, along with the electric bass player Felix Blackmon, we were doing his compositions. I noticed that we would play the tune, and then he would have us go in whatever direction we thought was appropriate at the time. At first [that freedom] kind of mystified me, so I asked him for recommendations. He said I should listen to Ed Blackwell because he could see that I had a similar melodic approach to the drums. In doing that, it led me to hearing Don. I fell in love with the [Ornette Coleman] quartet, but there was something about Don Cherry’s sound that really moved me.
It was also through a very good friend named Adam Rudolph; we met each other at a drum shop in Chicago when we were both fourteen years old. We started listening together to some of Don’s other music that he was making in Sweden at the time. We noticed that he was utilizing a lot of different instruments from different countries. He’d have a tabla player, his wife, Moki, would be playing tamboura, and Naná Vasconcelos, a percussionist from Brazil, was on a lot of those recordings—[Don included] people from all over but also focus[ed] on a lot of Scandinavian musicians because he was living over there. Those records introduced us to what is now called “world music,” but what they were really doing was introducing us to the concept of Don Cherry: different musicians from different parts of the world playing together and playing what might be considered instruments indigenous to different countries. He never really called it “world music,” though. To him, it was just like this sort of global coming together of musicians to orchestrate how they felt.
As time went on, I was listening to a lot of Don’s music. One of the turning points, I think, was when he came out with the record Here and Now. It’s the one where he’s sitting cross-legged on the cover holding the trumpet. That record featured people like [saxophonist] Michael Brecker and [drummer] Lenny White—a lot of jazz funksters—but Don’s unique melodic approach to his instrument and the type of melodies he would play that were influenced by his research and travels were what dominated.
Those records introduced us to what is now called “world music,” but what they were really doing was introducing us to the concept of Don Cherry...
At the time we had a group in Chicago called Mandingo Griot Society that consisted of a great kora player from Gambia named Foday Musa Suso, Adam Rudolph, myself, and a bass player named Joe Thomas. Adam had met Suso in Accra, Ghana, after he got out of Oberlin [Conservatory] and traveled to Africa to study Ghanaian drumming. Suso was at the University of Ghana in Accra as a visiting artist at a time when they were bringing musicians from different parts of Africa to be part of a curriculum to teach traditional Mandingo [also known as Mandinka] music. Adam and I were exchanging letters at the time, and he said he had met this young kora player from Gambia who wanted to come to Chicago and start a group. He was also telling Suso about me, and so when they both came to Chicago in September of 1977, we formed Mandingo Griot Society and were playing different clubs around town.
What we were doing was basically traditional Mandingo music but using various rhythmic structures from the States—blues, funk, reggae, all that kind of stuff. We were playing at this club in Chicago, and the owner of a record label called Flying Fish [Bruce Kaplan] approached us and asked us if we would like to do a recording. We chose Don Cherry as our special guest. Bruce said no problem and flew Don in from Sweden, and we did this self-titled record. That was my first actual meeting with Don. He spent almost a week with us and, by the end of that short period, he had invited myself, my family, and Adam to move to Sweden to stay with him. He and his family had a huge house that at one time had been a school. He said many musicians would pass through, and it would be great to have us spend some time there and use it like a workshop in the formation of a group that would go on tour. So we did! [Laughs.] We spent about five months with him. A lot of musicians were coming through at that time, including a young musician from India named Trilok Gurtu, which is where I met him.
After that workshop period, we did a tour of France with Don. The group was Adam, myself, Trilok, Charlie Haden, and a French saxophonist living in Sweden at that time. I have to say for me, and also for Adam, it was probably one of the greatest experiences of our lives. Don was one of our great idols, and he was expressing a musical language that really influenced both of us and helped us to determine the direction we wanted to go, musically. He assisted us as we developed our music in a linguistic sort of way, too.
That recording with Mandingo Griot Society was the first I ever did, so it is amazing to me to think back about that experience. I was just a big fan and admirer of Don’s music and really kind of worshipped him in a way. Later, other things developed where he would call me to come and do various gigs with him in various group settings up until he passed away. And, when Ed Blackwell passed away, they had a group together called New Now with [saxophonist] Carlos Ward and [tuba player] Bob Stewart. No one can replace Blackwell, but Don asked me to take the seat on drums in that group. Other things formed after that—the group Multikulti, for example—but that was basically how I first met Don.
That recording with Mandingo Griot Society was the first I ever did, so it is amazing to me to think back about that experience. I was just a big fan and admirer of Don’s music and really kind of worshipped him in a way.
Don helped Adam and me to see that music is basically a language, and there are various ways you can orchestrate that language with a total type of freedom—in the sense of there being these basic things that he worked with, but [he] would allow us to interpret those things in a way that would bring out each person’s own unique qualities and characters. As a percussionist, he would allow me to use different elements of my background, whether it was reggae or funk or something like that. In that way, he exhibited this type of total freedom within the expression of the music. You couldn’t really call it jazz, per se, but more of an expression of what Yusef Lateef called the “great tradition,” which was an agglomeration of all the different forms of music.
One of the things I noticed about Don when we toured together was that he would just randomly invite people to come up and sit in. He felt that everyone had something to contribute, and it wasn’t based on the chops or technique of the person, but the motivation and intent. Don always felt that, musically, we have to serve the whole. But, in order to do that, you have to be aware of the process of discovering your own unique voice. He thought that music was a combination of one’s psyche, spirit, motivation, and all those different displays we have as different human beings. I think people like Don and Yusef Lateef were really involved in the growth and extension of the musical language and the human people involved in that growth. It was really like a school. You were constantly receiving information and giving it out. One of the things he taught me was that there was really no end to this discovery and the wonderment of this mystery that we might call music, which is kind of a living and breathing thing. He really didn’t try and control anyone to do things in a certain way.
[During] one of the first concerts we were doing in France, we were playing Ornette Coleman’s “Law Years.” Toward the end of the piece, there’s this groove we would go into. Don had a signal he used for us to end the piece, and it was based on a kind of Indian kirtan, a sort of figure that you repeated three times. He gave us the cue to end the composition. He sang the cue first so we would all hear it, and then we’d all start to play it. I was so gone and into the music that we got the end of the kirtan—ta ti ta, ta ti ta, ta diggida tum, ta diggida tum—and the whole group stopped, but I kept going! Don brought the group back in and did it again, and I stopped that time. Afterward he came up to me and—he didn’t scold me, or anything like that—said, “I see you like to go into a trance when you play. That’s very good, but to be awake might be a little better.” He would give out instructions like that but in a very gentle and sensitive way.
For me it was not so much about technique on the trumpet but the expression of his musical wisdom and ideas. Like Yusef Lateef and other people like that, Don helped those in his sphere to find their own unique way of playing and realizing this thing that we call music, or art in general, that is really beautiful. You know, no one can play like you. I think it’s one of the greatest gifts one artist can give to another.
One of the things he taught me was that there was really no end to this discovery and the wonderment of this mystery that we might call music, which is kind of a living and breathing thing.
Sound American: We’ve been asking different people about this short period of records where Don recorded with Albert Ayler, Ornette, John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Steve Lacy, and Sonny Rollins. The question that keeps coming up in my mind, and why I initially started working on this issue, is how, in that short period of time, he somehow managed to sound like himself on all those different records and made all of those artists play differently. What do you think it is about Don’s playing that made that possible?
HD: That is so true. When I listen to that music, what I hear and feel is that what he taught us is what he had found in himself. He was just like Elvin Jones. When you listen to Elvin, no matter what context it’s in, you know it’s him! I think Don tapped into a source that allowed him to be who he was in any given situation, at any given moment. I think that takes an extreme degree of confidence and acceptance of who you are and what you have. When you think about it, it’s really quite remarkable, and I think that’s one of his great contributions. I think he was fortunate, at a young age, to find his own voice. I think he did that in a humorous way, too. He didn’t take himself too seriously in that this is the only way—–it was his way. He found a way to orchestrate his song through all of those different situations.
At the end, he was still playing trumpet, but playing a lot of it was muted. But, if he moved to the piano or something like that, his being would still come through. Like we might do a [Thelonious] Monk medley or something like that, and it would be so beautiful. We would just let him be alone to play all these Monk tunes because he had a pretty deep personal relationship with Monk. Monk helped him a lot when he first moved to New York, and you can tell that when he was playing this Monk medley, he was playing his experience with Monk. It was very personal. Of course he had a personal way of playing trumpet, but when he played piano or a DX-7 synth, he would play on the floor, or flute, melodica, it was always a personal thing. He was always giving in that moment. That’s quite a statement of his dedication and how he allowed his spirit to flow through the way he did.
All the older musicians I speak to now who knew him and played with him have this kind of awe [of Don]. Even though everyone goes through their personal problems, because it’s life, when it comes to music they all have this awe. It’s almost like they view him as this magical person. There are only a few like him that come around, you know?
Graham Haynes and Sound American
Graham Haynes: I met Don in the late 80s or early 90s. The first time I met him was when he was playing at the Village Vanguard. He had a band with Jim Pepper on saxophone, Ed Blackwell on drums, maybe Mark Helias on bass, I don’t remember. I remember his son, David, was playing keyboards and [trumpeter] Jabbo Smith and Don. I think that was the first time I saw him, and I did talk to him a little bit that night.
Then I saw him again at a jam session at the Blue Note. [Trumpeter] Ted Curson used to run a jam session at the Blue Note every Monday night. We were jamming, and Don was up there, and I was playing. I remember we were playing [I Got] Rhythm or something like that, and I was playing way outside of the changes but keeping the form, and the bass player and the piano player got lost. I stopped at the end of the form, but they were at the bridge. Then Don came to me after, and he said, “Man, I’m going to tell you the same thing that Miles [Davis] told me when he heard me play. You’re the first cat I’ve ever heard that stopped at the bridge of the tune.” I thought I was really in good company, then. You know what I’m saying? If Miles said that to him! We talked a bit, and he was a really cool guy.
Don had a Monday night series of gigs at a place that was called The Continental Divide on St. Marks Place in the East Village. I used to sit in with him there. I remember there was Ed Blackwell on drums, and I think Jim Pepper or maybe Frank Lowe on saxophones, and perhaps Mark Helias on bass. Don was always generous about that. Don would segue from one tune to the next without any break. When he felt like we should leave one vibe, he would just start another tune straight away. Later I talked to [vibraphonist] Karl Berger about this. He said that in the 60s Don used to have a shortwave radio going all night, and he would kind of pattern his gigs off of the sound of a shortwave radio changing dials all the time!!!! Amazing!!!
Then I would see him when I was an usher at Symphony Space. I was an usher there for fifteen years on and off, and Robert Browning and the World Music Institute used to do a series there. They did a bunch of things from different places in Africa, Asia, Mexico, and they would pair musicians with each other so you would see someone like Don playing with Mexican musicians or Ed Blackwell playing with Zakir Hussain [on tabla] and some percussionists from Korea. They would have different groups and then in the end, they would all play together. I would see Don at those things.
I moved to Paris in 1990. I was still working at Symphony Space, and Don was playing there with Blackwell and maybe [Gnawa musician] Hassan Hakmoun. When I saw Don I told him I was going to move, and he said, “You’re going to move to Paris! Okay, I have a moped. Go to the Seine and find this guy. His name is such-and-such, and tell him that I said you could have that moped.” [Laughs.] Don had pieces of things all over the world. He was like a gypsy. He would tell people, “Yeah, if you’re going here, go see this guy and tell him I said you can stay.” You know he’d have a loft somewhere, but that was the kind of guy Don was. He was very generous and gracious in that way.
After that, I ended up getting the gig with Ed Blackwell, and we did a recording at something that was called the Eddie Moore Festival at Yoshi’s in Oakland. Blackwell’s group at the time was Carlos, me, Mark Helias. Don was at our set on one of the nights. We were playing this tune that Carlos Ward wrote [“Lito”]. I think the saxophone player has the melody after a long drone and then, on the original version, Don comes in and plays the melody. When I was getting ready to play that trumpet entrance, Don started playing it from the audience, and I got shivers all over! I got goose bumps. I didn’t even know he was there. Then he came up on stage and played with us. That’s recorded. It all came out on the record.
Through the years, I would bump into Don, and we would talk about music and trumpet players, but never for very long. I remember once [Columbia University radio station] WKCR broadcast a solid week of Don Cherry, and they played so much stuff. I don’t think Don even remembered all the different stuff they played. He recorded with all kinds of people. He recorded with [guitarist] Lou Reed, made recordings with Native Americans, with South African musicians, with [composer] Terry Riley, and of course, the stuff with Ornette [Coleman], his own groups, musicians from Mali and Morocco. The guy was soaking up music from everywhere. You know, I kind of patterned myself after him, especially during that period of time.
When I was getting ready to play that trumpet entrance, Don started playing it from the audience, and I got shivers all over! I got goose bumps. I didn’t even know he was there.
Sound American: That’s one of the things that made me think of you. You have so many influences, and the way that you use music from other cultures and styles, like hip-hop, feels natural in the same way that Don sounds in Codona [with Collin Walcott and Naná Vasconcelos] or with Lou Reed. I was wondering if you realized how much like him you are in spirit.
GH: In one sense, no, in another sense, yes. He influenced me but, for instance, when I moved to Paris it was because I was interested in West African and Arabic music. I think a lot of it for me—growing up in New York and hearing a lot of music from a lot of different places and working at the World Music Institute—[was that] I was opened up to a lot of music. Don had already done that. So, I was aware of that, but was kind of following my own trajectory, while being aware of what he’d done, what records he’d made, and the people he’d played with.
By the time I recorded Griots Footsteps, it was almost a deliberate attempt to capture something like he would have done. To me it was a cross between Miles [Davis] and Don. And, some of the guys on that record had worked with Don, so we were all heavily influenced by the world music thing and the use of odd rhythms and using electronics with world music instruments, working with different ragas and stuff like that. We knew that he had done that. However, we were trying to do it our own way. I remember Daniel [Moreno] said that Don came over to his house once, and he played Griots Footsteps for him. Don was trying to count the meter we were playing in. He asked what time signature it was in and said he couldn’t feel where the downbeat was. [Laughs.] I got a kick out of that, because I thought if he can’t figure it out, nobody can!
During that period of time, I was aware of what Don had done and was trying to be somewhere in between his music, what Miles had done, and trying to find something that didn’t exist.
By the time I recorded Griots Footsteps, it was almost a deliberate attempt to capture something like he would have done. To me it was a cross between Miles [Davis] and Don
SA: One of the things that interest me about you is that I hear the Miles Davis and a little bit of Don Cherry, but it’s really just you. That’s not always the case with the way players handle their influences.
GH: Well, the important thing about both of them was their attitude of music, first and trumpet, second. That was very important for me. By that time, I wasn’t attempting to be a virtuoso on the horn. I just wanted to figure out musically what was happening and then letting my horn become a voice in it. I think that’s how Don approached music, even though he loved trumpet players. He used to talk about the trumpet, but it was about the music first.
SA: That’s a big lesson that gets lost right there.
GH: I think it’s also important to mention that Don was very interested and involved in spirituality in music, and that was a period when I was also doing a lot of spiritual searching. Someone told me about Don talking about John Coltrane, and he said that Coltrane was the only musician who played devotional music, functional music, and folk music. I think these musicians like Coltrane, Don, Alice Coltrane—after a point, it’s beyond music. It becomes a spiritual quest that utilizes the music. There was a period where I went through that. I was doing a lot of meditation and prayer and focusing on the spiritual to create the music.
SA: Is that something that is still a big part of your music, or is it something that happened from which you’ve moved on?
GH: Yeah, that’s what I feel. Once you start on a quest, that quest never really ends, but I think I’m at a different point now than I was at that point in the 90s.
I feel like I want to accomplish different things now, and I’ve come through a lot more in my experiences in life. And, you change. I’m interested in different things, musically, now. Everything goes through life transitions, but it also affects your artistry.
SA: And that’s a positive thing, to change.