Back about fifteen years ago I had the great fortune of playing with one of the most innovative trumpeters and world music masters, the late Don Cherry. To this day I am touched by the memory of his personal and musical presence at our brief encounter. What I remember the most is his quiet intelligent personality as well as the totally organic way he played both the pocket trumpet and the doussn'gouni (an instrument from Mali that he often played). To me it felt as though he was transcending the compositions we were attempting to perform and simply play himself - pure music from the heart and soul. Of course this is the primary goal of many creative musicians but in todays overly educated jazz world it is more common to find musicians playing it safe and from the head rather than searching for their own personal creative voice. Don Cherry had found his voice long before I had ever met him.
Cherry was born in 1936 of an African American father and a Choctaw Native American mother in Oklahoma City. As a young child after moving to Los Angeles a few years later Cherry began to study both dance and piano. Don's father got a job as a bartender at one of the most famous jazz clubs in L.A. called the "Plantation Club" and often Don had the opportunity to hear the best jazz players on the scene before he was in high school. At the age of twelve he began to study the cornet and three years later began working with Red Mitchell, Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. But the most momentous meeting that would change all of our musical lives came in 1956 when Cherry met the brilliant saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Together along with Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell on drums they would change the whole concept of jazz improvisation from strictly playing over chord changes to basing improvisation on a variety of other ideas including ones personal sounds, lines and rhythms in relation to the other players in the band often free of time and/or harmony but always with incredible depth and heart. Back in the late fifties their music was often ridiculed and they were thought of as lacking the knowledge of how to improvise. But they were persistent with their new ideas and after some incredible recordings like Something Else, This is Our Music and The Shape of Jazz to Come as well as their highly influential many month engagement in 1959 at the Five Spot in New York City they began to be looked at by many people in the jazz and contemporary classical music world as the guiding light of a new style of serious creative music. This style was given a name by an album Ornette and Cherry recorded in 1960 with a double quartet entitled "Free Jazz". This new free jazz style influenced many of the great musicians of the time including John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Steve Lacy all soon hiring Don Cherry to play with them.
In 1963 Cherry helped to found the "New York Contemporary Five" along with saxophonists Archie Shepp and John Tchicai. As Cherry began touring more and more overseas he acquired a desire to travel to other countries and to study their native music. Don spent the rest of the 1960's gypsy fashion wandering the world playing in the bands of Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Gato Barbieri and Carla Bley soaking up all the different kinds of music he could find along the way. It was at this time that he began promoting "World Music" at jazz festivals experimenting with music from China, Japan, Brazil, India, Tibet, Bali, and North Africa. He became an expert on playing the Brazilian berimbao, the Balinese gong, horns made of bone and percussion instruments of all kinds, Chinese ceramic dishes, wooden, bamboo, plastic and metal flutes as well as instruments from many other countries. He also made and played instruments of his own. In 1969 along with Charlie Haden he also helped to create the "Liberation Music Orchestra" which played some incredibly powerful music of protest and liberation.
Dissatisfied with the political climate of the US in 1970 Cherry left in protest and settled with his Lapp wife named Moki in Sweden where he lived in a schoolhouse and worked an organic farm. It was at this time that he created the "Organic Music Theater" for children which was an all-encompassing form of entertainment, including painting, literature, music, dance, singing and film. Don and his wife brought this program into the schools to educate children on various art from around the world. Don's abilities and interests were so diverse by this time that he took part in the last concert of genius guitarist Jimmy Hendrix and then turned around and worked with the great contemporary classical composer Krysztof Penderecki.
In the mid 70's Cherry teamed up with his former Ornette band members Charlie Haden on bass, Ed Blackwell on drums and superb tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman (also played with Ornette very often) to form a fantastic band called "Old and New Dreams". They recorded a couple of great records for ECM playing compostions of Ornette as well as of Cherry and Haden. In the late 70's Don began a fruitful association with Colin Walcott who was also involved in the ethnic musics of the world. Colin played sitar, tabla and percussion with the group Oregon. Together Walcott and Cherry created a near perfect album called Grazing Dreams for ECM which perfectly fused elements of ethnic music with the harmonies and structural sense of jazz. After this recording they formed a trio together with Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos that they called Codona and recorded three more brilliant records for ECM.
In 1982 Cherry received a National Endowment grant to work in Watts, California to introduce children in the schools to the music of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. Don Cherry continued playing and teaching his organic world and jazz music until he died in 1995.
Let me finish this brief history of this remarkable man with a quote from Cherry himself, "In the West we are given an instrument, we are taught to play the notes and this is considered music. I grew up that way. In other cultures, where you start by making your own instrument yourself and you make your own music, from what is around you, things are different... we are still a long way from this... nowadays, we can come from anywhere in the world and we can get to know each other through our melodies and our songs; we feel the musical link which unites us all. Music is a uniting force for all of us..."