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Artist Profiles

The Humus of Don Cherry

By Published: October 20, 2005

Don Cherry had an effect on people everywhere he went, because whenever he was in town, everybody would show up things started happening around him because he was such a fun person to be around. -- Bengt Berger

"If we're going to speak about words, we could talk about a word like 'aum.' Because you don't say the word 'aum,' you sing it. And you have to sing it where you use the 'a' as 'ah,' which is the throat. Then you're singing, sustaining the tone 'ah.' Then you go to the 'u,' and then you reach the 'm' and you've liberated the body. That's a word. In the Bible they speak of the Word. First there was the Word. And then they speak of the word that was lost." Don Cherry in an interview with Art Taylor, in response to Taylor's question of what Cherry thought of the word 'jazz.' Notes and Tones (Da Capo, 1977)

When I first read Taylor's interview with Don Cherry, the above statement (and indeed the entire exchange) caught me as rather funny in a far-out sort of way, and it only took a little while to realize that, despite Taylor's rather forward-thinking approach to music, he did not have a handle on the umbrella-like breadth that improvisation holds over world music, and the spiritually communicative use that most music has had throughout civilization. 'Jazz,' after all, could be a limiting term referring primarily to a regional blues-based music played in the Red-Light District of New Orleans during the early 20th Century. It is a classifying term placed on a fragment of the essence, what trumpeter Dizzy Reece has called the "cry," something that makes up the music of all cultures. As this umbrella-like form is a central aspect of Don Cherry's musical philosophy, it makes just as much sense to refer to Cherry as a 'jazz' musician as it does to discuss him as strictly a trumpeter.

Born November 18, 1936 near Oklahoma City, Cherry began playing the trumpet at age fourteen while living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, and listened intently to Fats Navarro's work. In fact, Cherry is quoted in the liner notes to Ornette Coleman's Tomorrow is the Question (Contemporary, 1959) as saying Navarro was "the only trumpet player I cared to copy my phrases from" (considering Navarro's penchant for fast smeared soundmasses, that is a logical comparison). Cherry worked regularly with revered Los Angeles tenor man George Newman during the middle 1950s, and also played piano in a group with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Lennie McBrowne (unfortunately, this group is not known to have recorded). Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins were rehearsing with altoist Ornette Coleman (as were Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell) who had been trying unsuccessfully to get gigs in the area. In Ornette's experience, "Don was the only trumpeter at the time able to play [this] music" (a sentiment echoed in interviews with reedmen John Tchicai and Prince Lasha) - certainly, Cherry, along with Bill Dixon and Donald Ayler, was a rare brass torchbearer in the reed-dominated nascent 'new music.' Ornette, Cherry, Haden and Higgins worked in Los Angeles at the Hillcrest Club with Paul Bley, the tapes of which became The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet (America, 1972) and Coleman Classics (IAI, 1974). Shortly thereafter, the quartet attended the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts under the direction of Gunther Schuller, where they came to the attention of Atlantic Records producers Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, a relationship which lasted through enough material for nine and a half records. Recording The Shape of Jazz to Come in 1959 in fact paid for the quartet's trip east, and a subsequent three-month engagement at the Five Spot somewhat fulfilled that promise.

By 1961, however, the quartet had disbanded, with Cherry and Higgins going to work briefly in Sonny Rollins' quartet, and Jimmy Garrison (Haden's replacement) joining Coltrane's band. In the few years that followed the dissolution of the Coleman group, Cherry underwent the difficulties that can face a sideman in a noted, working ensemble striking out on his own as a leader — namely, keeping a group together as well as trying to find one's creative way. Cherry made an abortive date as leader for Savoy in 1963, featuring the loose medley that would later become "Togetherness," as played by tenor man Pharoah Sanders (in his first known session), pianist Joe Scianni, bassist David Izenzon and drummer J.C. Moses. Reedman Prince Lasha, a schoolmate of Ornette's who met Don Cherry in Los Angeles as the Coleman quartet was coming together, recorded with "Sweet Cherry" in May of 1963 at a loft session also featuring Cliff Jordan, Charles Moffett and Sonny Simmons (It Is Revealed, issued on Zounds). Following a few short-lived bands, Cherry joined the New York Contemporary Five in October 1963, replacing trumpeter Bill Dixon (suffering from embouchure difficulties, he remained the group's chief arranger). This group, with reedmen Tchicai and Archie Shepp, bassist Don Moore and the aforementioned Moses, had a successful run in Copenhagen, recording two sessions for Sonet and two for Fontana (one sans Cherry), and featuring a number of compositions from Ornette's book as well as Cherry's own "Cisum" and "Consequences." "Cisum" (from volume one of the Sonet recordings) is particularly interesting, as it shows Cherry's unique compositional style at an early stage, the theme quite obviously an outgrowth of his solo style, a jagged construction that in parts recalls Ornette's music with its bar lengths mashed together, yet utilizing North African scales and a deep minor key for its structure (not to mention a militaristic 'call' signaling its entrée).

The Five disbanded in early 1964, with Shepp and Moses staying on in Scandinavia for a few months while Cherry and Tchicai returned to New York, where the trumpeter began to work off and on with tenor man Albert Ayler and drummer Sunny Murray in their respective (and combined) groups. In a way this was perhaps more fruitful than the New York Contemporary Five had been, for not only was Ayler's music as rooted in the folk tradition as Ornette's had been, Ayler was drawing his thematic references from traditional songs he heard while living in Scandinavia, bringing them into a free improvisational context and as he has said, "we play folk from all over the world" (interview with Frank Kofsky, quoted in the liner notes to Love Cry, Impulse, 1967). This sounds a lot like what Don Cherry's approach was soon to become, and in addition to both having spent time in Scandinavia, these perfect bedfellows probably influenced one another a great deal more than their few recordings together attest to. At the very least, Ayler's recordings of "Bells" and other loosely-stitched suites of military-marches, European folk songs and Afro-American blues became de rigeur after Cherry had moved along.

"Togetherness" was the loosely frameworked suite on which Cherry built most of his concert and recording repertoire over the next three years—fragments of it show up in all three of his Blue Note LPs, despite differing titles. When Cherry left the US for Paris in 1965, it did not take long for him to assemble a new working group, one that joined five itinerant musicians together for over a year (though the group's only recordings as a unit have appeared as bootlegs since its disbanding). In Paris, he met Heidelberg-born vibraphonist and pianist Karl Berger and the young French bassist Jean-Francois Jenny-Clarke; Cherry had brought drummer Aldo Romano and Argentina-born tenor man Leandro "Gato" Barbieri with him from Rome.

Berger paints a picture of Cherry as one who functioned on a level completely beyond most other musicians; he carried a pocket-sized transistor radio with him wherever he went, listening to music from the world over, practicing tunes from Turkish folk music to the Beatles constantly and incorporating them into his suites. Often, Cherry would show up to concerts and rehearsals playing his wood flutes and with a slew of newly-found songs committed to memory, leading the affably game ensemble through an hour-long suite, the themes of which may or may not have been known beforehand. Indeed, altoist Carlos Ward, a later associate of Cherry's who worked with the trumpeter and composer in various aggregations throughout the '70s, had one of his most telling moments as a soloist on Relativity Suite (JCOA, 1973) in a subsection called "Desireles," one that Ward felt seemed written exactly for him. "It could have been already named, because I didn't know. A lot of songs Don would bring in, maybe he has titles to them but he didn't say. There was one piece that he would bring to every gig [I played with him], and he'd bring a little bit more each time, but he never played the whole piece... it was a composition in progress." The Durium recording, which focuses on the actual "Togetherness" suite, displays a somewhat ragtag quality of 'practicing on the stand,' but indeed this was probably the most-rehearsed material in the group's repertoire, its multiple themes introduced at will by references in solos and calling upon familiarity and flexibility as much as instrumental prowess. It is entirely possible that the other four members of the group did not know what they were going to be playing for the recording date—Monk, highlife, or one of Cherry's tunes, it was all part of "Togetherness."

While Berger and Barbieri eventually became ensconced in the New York scene, the former going on to form the Creative Music Studio at Woodstock in 1968, Cherry split his time between Scandinavia (he kept a home in Sweden with his wife Mocqui and son Lanoo Eagle Eye) and the United States, convening orchestras and small groups for regular expansions and reworkings of "Togetherness," including those at the Baden-Baden New Jazz Meeting of 1968 (Eternal Rhythm, MPS) and in 1971 at the Berlin Jazz Days ("Humus," with the New Eternal Rhythm Orchestra, on Actions, Philips), and a trio he led with bassist Johnny Dyani and Turkish drummer Okay Temiz. Cherry's music, while it had incorporated non-Western scales, began now to incorporate drones more regularlyh and making explicit use of instruments like the tamboura (going perhaps farther than a two-bass concept). Cherry, a collector of various wooden and metal flutes from Asia, also began using the doussn'gouni, a Malian stringed instrument he was exposed to while in Scandinavia. Ironically, some of the most interesting and effective uses of non-Western instruments were purely by kismet. For example, Joachim Berendt had a gamelan brought to Baden-Baden without telling Cherry, and insisted that it be used in the recording. Berger, Cherry and Swiss drummer Jaques Thollot were thus given the task of figuring out a way to incorporate them musically without proper understanding of how they are played, or even without proper mallets with which to play them. The high-pitched metallic tone that characterizes their sound on Eternal Rhythm is more greatly a result of 'making do' than sonic intent. In the hands of another ensemble, one has to wonder whether it would have come off at all.

In a way, all of "Togetherness" — the incorporation of a myriad of themes and instruments to a work in progress — would mean nothing if it were not done with human growth in mind. To be sure, incorporating such a wide-ranging lexicon into the 'jazz' or 'free jazz' framework is a start, but Cherry could not stop there. The live recordings of both his trio and "Humus" include a great amount of group-audience interaction, with Cherry teaching concertgoers the proper way to say the phrase 'Si Ta Ra Ma' (later revisited in full song form with Dutch percussionist Han Bennink on Don Cherry, BYG, 1971) as a way into the heart of the music itself. In another context, the sing-along might seem hokey, but here it is done with utmost sincerity at giving concertgoers the opportunity not to merely listen, but to learn and understand, whether or not they are formal musicians. At the Workshop Freie Musik in 1971, Cherry and the Peter Brötzmann Trio held a workshop entitled "Free Jazz and Children," in which approximately 200 children with no musical experience were brought into a semi-classroom situation with instruments and four improvisers. Granted, according to Brötzmann it was not a complete success (mainly due to so many people showing up), but did lead to further experiments with children and improvisers as part of the "Kinder und Künst" program under the direction of Germany's Council on the Arts.

"Don Cherry had an effect on people everywhere he went, because whenever he was in town, everybody would show up... things started happening around him because he was such a fun person to be around," so the words of Swedish percussionist Bengt Berger, who met Cherry in the early 1960s during the trumpeter's initial stay in Scandinavia. Indeed, Cherry's music is often associated very closely with the Scandinavian new music community, including such luminaries as Swedish reedmen Bernt Rosengren and Bengt 'Frippe' Nordstrom (whose album of duets with Cherry is the scarcest European jazz album), multi-instrumentalist Christer Bothen (noted for his playing of the dousson'gouni) and Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen. As a leader, Cherry recorded two sessions for Swedish labels Sonet and Caprice (including the eponymous Organic Music Society, 1971) in addition to having a huge structural influence on groups like Gunnar Lindquist's G.L. Unit (Orangutang!, EMI, 1970) and the work of Danish trumpeter-composer Hugh Steinmetz, who met Cherry in 1963 when the New York Contemporary Five visited Copenhagen. Cherry and his then-wife Mocqui bought a one-room schoolhouse in Togarten, Sweden, which became one of his principal home bases (this, in fact, was where Carlos Ward began working with him). Bengt Berger also began working with Cherry around this time: "I had been to India and had studied tabla, which he got very interested in, so we got to playing a lot, and I stayed for a long time at his house in Sweden and going on European tours [with him] as well." One of the focal points for the new music in Sweden was Stockholm's Moderna Museet, which had a geodesic dome at the time that the musicians played in — Cherry, Rosengren, Berger — allowing many of the young musicians to meet one another, as well as play with visiting musicians from other countries. Certainly, Cherry was galvanizing musicians in New York and Paris, but the European country which might qualify most as a spiritual home seemed to be Sweden. Perhaps this was because of several highly-skilled players of non-Western instruments in Stockholm, perhaps because of the rich folk heritage of the region, but whatever the reason, it bears mentioning that Don Cherry had a strong presence among this community in particular.

For sure, Cherry's integration of Indian, Arabic, Chinese, European and African musics into a whole of which jazz was only a small fraction could have come at no more proper a time — the interest among American and European audiences in non-Western music was at the time fairly high, and consequently Cherry's music gained greater recognition than it might have otherwise. In the 1970s, he recorded for Atlantic and A&M and had a minor hit with "Brown Rice" (as might be expected, one of the stylistically least-indicative pieces that could have been chosen), as well as working in small and large groups with South African pianist-composer Abdullah Ibrahim, often featuring Ward. Nu, though not recorded to advantage, was one of Cherry's most fully integrated projects of the 1980s, one that featured Ward, bassist Mark Helias and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos as an extension of both jazz and non-Western improvisational principles along folk lines, swinging decidedly to the left of either Old and New Dreams (the cooperative band with tenor man Dewey Redman, Haden and Blackwell that revisited the Ornette songbook) or his various traditional music projects often heralded under the 'multi-kulti' banner (indeed, Cherry did cut a record with that very title, for ECM), rather than as investigation of improvisational art along worldwide folk principles, often set simultaneously. Ward, indeed, found 'Nu' to be one of his most important associations, for the very reason that one foot was decidedly within the jazz spectrum — that no matter how divergent his creative search became, the 'cry' was a necessary part of Cherry's music.

Cherry often spoke of the idea of "selflessness" and of being "aboriginal," a concept which percussionist Adam Rudolph, curator of this month's Don Cherry Celebration at the Stone Gallery and a longtime collaborator of Cherry from 1978 until his death in 1995, has taken to heart and mind. Cherry, of course, never stayed in one place completely, spending time principally in Sweden, New York, and California during the last two decades of his life, but musically his practice took him everywhere. Percussionist Bengt Berger, who played with Cherry frequently in Sweden, noted how Cherry's curiosity led him to teach Turkish drummer Okay Temiz and trumpeter Maffay Falay the fundamental principles of Turkish folk music by asking them to teach him their musical culture—Berger: "he kind of put them onto their own folk music by being very interested in that. Then they started a Turkish group [of their own]." Rather than simply learning to play the music of another region or culture by rote was certainly far from Cherry's mind; part of this 'aboriginalness' was an effort to gain a clearer window into oneself and one's own creative possibilities, that one can become more fully attuned to one's artistic personality by incorporating aspects of other musics into the palette. In some ways, it reflects the age-old adage that one has to get as far away from oneself as possible in order to fully understand where one lies creatively and humanistically—an aesthetic walkabout, in other words. Don Cherry's walkabout took him to Brooklyn, Scandinavia, Turkey, Los Angeles, Paris, India and places in-between, but as an artist, it brought him home.

Thanks to Adam Rudolph, Karl Berger, Carlos Ward, Prince Lasha, Ornette Coleman, Bengt Berger, and all the artists interviewed for this project.

Photo Credit
Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos



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