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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.

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