Don Cherry - Biography



Few musicians have accumulated as wide an array of collaborators as trumpeter Don Cherry managed in a life of global travel and music-making. From working closely with every major saxophonist of the early Sixties, including Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler, Cherry went on to participate in projects led by musicians as diverse as George Russell, Lou Reed, Ian Dury, and Sun Ra. He brought the instruments and sounds of world music into his jazz, suffused with a spiritual joy apparent to musicians and fans alike.

Don Cherry started his journey in life on November 18, 1936, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where his father ran the Cherry Blossom Club. The family moved west to Los Angeles in 1940. His father became the head bartender at the Plantation Club, where big bands like those of Jimmy Lunceford and Artie Shaw played. Cherry started on piano as a child, then switched to trumpet in junior high school. Music quickly became a passion. He was later expelled from one high school because he kept cutting classes to play in the band at another school. He began his professional career freelancing around Los Angeles, playing bebop with Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon. By the early Fifties, he was co-leading the Jazz Messiahs with saxophonist James Clay. The band included at various times, drummers Billy Higgins and Larance Marable and bassist Harper Crosby.

Cherry lived in Watts, where one of his informal teachers was poet Jayne Cortez. As Cherry later told Ben Sidran for his Talking Jazz radio series, Cortez would lend him records by modernists like Thelonious Monk or Bud Powell. Cherry, and a friend who played alto saxophone, would “learn the songs and bring the record back and play the song to her.” Cortez was married to Ornette Coleman at the time, and that’s how Cherry and Coleman came to meet one August day in 1956. The saxophonist was in a record shop in Watts, trying out different reeds for his alto. “And I could hear him -- I was a block away, and I heard something like a horse whinnying -- it was incredible.” Soon Cherry, Higgins, Clay, and Jazz Messiah pianist George Newman became friends with Coleman. They all spent considerable time together practicing and rehearsing without much paying work. In December 1957, Cherry managed to get a gig in British Columbia with the Jazz Society of Vancouver. Cherry, Coleman, pianist Don Friedman, bassist George Tucker, and a drummer no one can remember made the trip, playing two sets that were broadcast on radio.

Back in Los Angeles, bop bassist Red Mitchell spent an evening at fellow bassist Don Payne’s house listening to Coleman play a number of his original compositions. Although Mitchell, much recorded by the Contemporary label, didn’t especially care for the sound of Coleman’s alto, he thought it possible for the saxophonist to sell some of his songs to Contemporary. A meeting was arranged, and Cherry accompanied Coleman to his first encounter with Les Koenig, owner of the label. When Koenig asked Coleman to play a tune at the piano, Ornette said that he couldn’t play the instrument, whereupon he pulled out his plastic alto sax and Cherry took out his horn. After they played a number of tunes, Koenig not only bought the publishing rights for seven tunes, but also offered Coleman a recording contract. A series of sessions ensued, with Koenig determined to do right by the innovative sounds of his discovery. Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958 Contemporary) and the follow-up album Tomorrow Is the Question (1959 Contemporary) were the opening salvos in the newer forms of jazz that would soon turn the scene upside down. Don Cherry was along for the ride with Coleman, and would be featured not only on these but on the Atlantic albums to come.

Work in Los Angeles was hard to come by. The only gig Cherry and Coleman had in 1958 was at the Hillcrest Club with Paul Bley, which lasted a matter of weeks. When the Contemporary albums came to the attention of pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, he raved about the music to Atlantic Records executive Nesuhi Ertegun, declaring “I’ve never heard anything like Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman before.” A deal was quickly struck for Coleman to move to Atlantic. The classic Coleman quartet line-up of Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Billy Higgins recorded their first Atlantic session in Hollywood in May, 1959. That summer, Cherry and Coleman spent three weeks at the Lenox School of Music in Massachusetts, courtesy of Atlantic Records.

In the fall, the quartet created a sensation when they were booked into the Five Spot Café in Manhattan for an extended stay. Anyone who was anyone had to make the scene at least once, from Miles Davis to Leonard Bernstein, Allen Ginsberg to Willem de Kooning. As Nat Hentoff later put it in his liner notes to Cherry’s Complete Communion (1966 Blue Note), “Cherry at first was heard mainly as an adjunct of the man with the plastic alto. Gradually...it became apparent that Cherry’s jazz voice was a singular one.” Cherry had settled on the pocket trumpet (a smaller version of the usual trumpet with the same range), and his use of this unusual instrument tended at times to overshadow what he was actually playing. Although Cherry’s playing clearly had its roots in bebop (he was a great admirer of Clifford Brown and Miles Davis), that was not always readily discerned at the time. Cherry never did have the technical facility of the greatest boppers, but he more than made up for that with his subtle gradations of tone and timbre, his emotional openness and depth, and the vocal quality of his improvisations.

Cherry remained with Coleman until 1961, appearing on all of the saxophonist’s Atlantic recordings, which include such important albums as This Is Our Music (1960 Atlantic) and Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation by the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet. As a result of the move East, Cherry was coming into contact with more and more musicians who shared his progressive outlook. In June 1960, he co-led a quintet with saxophonist John Coltrane, issued as The Avant-Garde (1960 Atlantic). Cherry had spent time living with soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy when he first arrived in New York. The two, who would cross paths many times in the coming decades, made their first recording together in the fall of 1961, Evidence (1961 Prestige/New Jazz). With work still hard to come by, Cherry returned to California to contemplate his next move.

Sonny Rollins was another saxophonist that had been impressed by Cherry during the Five Spot stand. In the summer of 1962, he sent for Cherry. Our Man In Jazz (1962 RCA) was recorded live at the Village Vanguard in New York, and in early 1963 the Rollins quartet with Cherry, bassist Henry Grimes, and Cherry’s childhood friend Billy Higgins toured Europe. Here Cherry made the acquaintance of yet another saxophone innovator, Albert Ayler. Asked to join Ayler for a jam session at Copenhagen’s storied Montmarte Club, Cherry went along. As he told it to Sidran, on first hearing Ayler play “it was just like that same feeling when I heard Ornette at the record shop...” Cherry made a studio recording with Rollins in early 1963 (Three In Jazz, RCA) before hooking up with tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp and alto saxophonist John Tchicai in the New York Contemporary Five in 1963. He went back to Europe and toured with Ayler in 1964. The following year he worked with tenorman Gato Barbieri in a quintet and participated as a guest artist with composer and music theoretician George Russell in a concert released as At Beethoven Hall (1965 MPS/Saba).

Cherry returned to the States in late 1965 and embarked on a series of recordings for the Blue Note label. Complete Communion was made by a quartet with Barbieri, Grimes, and drummer Ed Blackwell, a long-time associate of Cherry and Coleman. For Symphony For Improvisers (1966 Blue Note), the band expanded to a septet with the addition of tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, Karl Berger on piano and vibes, and second bassist Jean-François Jenny-Clark. Just two months later, the Cherry quartet with Sanders, Grimes, and Blackwell recorded Where Is Brooklyn? (1966 Blue Note) in his final sessions for the label. (All three of his Blue Note albums have since been collected in a Mosaic boxed set.) Cherry had one of his periodic reunions with Coleman in 1968 and participated in Charlie Haden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra in 1969, then went traveling again. He recorded duets with Blackwell (Mu, Parts ! & 2, 1969 BYG/Actuel) in Paris, then went to Turkey in the fall, where he performed a concert with local musicians. By this point, Cherry had added piano, bamboo flutes and other instruments to his arsenal; the trumpet was no longer the focus of his music.

The Seventies opened with a teaching post at Dartmouth College, where he recorded Human Music (1970 Flying Dutchmen), a collaboration with electronic musician Jon Appleton. He then moved to Sweden with his wife, Moki, using the country as a base for further travel around Europe and the Middle East. His interest in additional instruments and in ethnic musics from around the globe grew, and he began playing the Malian dusso n’goni, a stringed instrument. His musical associates became as varied as pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, percussionist Bengt Berger, saxophonist Frank Lowe, rocker Lou Reed (The Bells, 1979 RCA), the Mandingo Griot Society, and composer Carla Bley. A collaboration with tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, another Coleman associate, and the rhythm team of Haden and Blackwell started in the mid- Seventies as Old and New Dreams. The group recorded for Black Saint and ECM. Later in the Seventies, he formed the cooperative group, Codona ,with percussionist Nana Vasconcelos and multi-instrumentalist Collin Walcott, which recorded three well-received albums for ECM. After they split up, Cherry formed Nu with Vasconcelos and saxophonist Carlos Ward. The early Eighties found him playing Monk tunes with Steve Lacy in New York and recording with his daughter Neneh’s band Rip Rig & Panic. His son Eagle-Eye Cherry is also a recording artist. He continued to work on special projects with old friends like Haden and Bley(The Ballad of the Fallen [1982 ECM]) and Coleman (In All Languages [1987 Caravan Of Dreams]), and new ones like Heiner Goebbels & Heiner Muller (The Man In The Elevator [1988 ECM]), and Peter Apfelbaum’s Hieroglyphics Ensemble (1989 A&M). Cherry reunited with James Clay to make the straight-ahead Art Deco (A&M), with Haden and Higgins completing the band.

Until his death from liver failure in Málaga, Spain on October 19, 1995, Cherry’s interest in world music remained strong as he continued to combine disparate musical genres. As Ornette Coleman wrote so prophetically in his 1966 liner notes for Where Is Brooklyn?, “Don Cherry is a man of creative inventiveness and it would be unnatural for him not to seek and bring about the newer forms in his talent as a composer and performer...”

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