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Don Cherry had an effect on people everywhere he went, because whenever he was in town, everybody would show up
"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.
As a songwriter and vocalist, I love jazz for the experience of being in the center of intense creativity. It is the most potent form of music for keeping the artist and the audience in the 'now. Being in the moment is essential for humans, and we need help in learning how to do that. As a songwriter, I need the depth of musicality that jazz voicings can give my stories. My songs seem light and whimsical, but the message is not.
I met my main collaborator, Mark Fitzgibbon, at one of his gigs. I needed to do my first original album, and his playing was masterful, robust, and beautiful. At the time, I didn't realize how suited we were as a team. We're onto our 4rth album together.
My advice to new listeners is to listen to a really clear and simple version of a song so you can then hear what the musicians are doing and enjoy their creativity and musicality. Also, you have to see jazz live to appreciate it fully. You'll never feel it the same way listening to a CD or online. You need the vibration to go through your body to really get it!
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