The Humus of Don Cherry


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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.

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.
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