The Humus of Don Cherry


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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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