The Apostle of Now-ness

By Adam Shatz

Don Cherry at the Amougies Festival, Belgium, 1969  ( Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos)

Don Cherry at the Amougies Festival, Belgium, 1969 (Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos)

In 1978 the trumpeter Don Cherry was asked about his music in a documentary for Swedish television. “Well, for one thing,” he replied, “it’s actually not my music, because it’s a culmination of different experiences, different cultures, and different composers that involves the music that we play together.” This was far more radical than the declaration of self-determination that the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman chose as the title of his 1961 album This Is Our Music, featuring Cherry on trumpet. Cherry, a follower of Tibetan Buddhism, saw himself as a “student of life” in the “university of life,” as he wrote in his endearingly humble CV. He was indifferent to earthly matters of credit and intellectual property: what mattered to him was the experience of what he called “complete communion” or “togetherness”; music belonged to everyone, and therefore to no one.

Cultural history is seldom kind to those who renounce ownership claims. Cherry has been largely taken at his word, as if he merely inserted himself, like Zelig with a trumpet, into some of postwar jazz’s most important groups. But he was an extraordinarily innovative figure, first as an apostle in Coleman’s free jazz movement, which liberated improvisation from the chord progressions of bebop; then as a leader of musical globalism—what later became known as world music. When he arrived on the scene, he didn’t sound like any other trumpeter, partly because he played the cornet or the “pocket trumpet,” a tiny horn made in Pakistan that he had picked up at a pawnshop, instead of the traditional B-flat trumpet. (He preferred smaller horns that allowed him to feel the vibration of his sound.) His playing sounded cracked, wobbly, sometimes outright splintered. Rather than clear, bell-like lines, he created radiant splatters, jubilant, often arpeggiated scribbles of sound.

Like other apostles, Cherry not only spread the gospel, he reinterpreted it, multiplying its potential applications. By the time Coleman won converts to free jazz, Cherry had already moved on to the next thing, creating extended suites teeming with improvisation but threaded together by sweet, hummable themes that seemed to pop up out of nowhere. When other jazz musicians began to copy him, he became a student again, traveling the world and performing with improvising artists from the global South, as well as avant-garde luminaries like Terry Riley, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Wilson, and Lou Reed. Out of these travels came a new language, multiethnic, pan-spiritual, and often trance-like. He called it “organic music,” since he felt music should be “a natural part of your day.”

“Don liked to drop in and do his thing,” Sonny Rollins told me. “He always wanted to travel light.” His music was buoyed by what Italo Calvino called “the secret of lightness,” the gift of the artist “who raises himself above the weight of the world,” aware that “what many consider to be the vitality of the times—noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring—belongs to the realm of death.” Cherry’s lightness inspired the musicians he met, but it has obscured the depth of his achievement, as if he were too celestial to leave a footprint in musical memory. His nomadism has also bewildered jazz historians, because he was “never where you expected him to be,” as the French saxophonist Raphaël Imbert has written.

At once everywhere and nowhere, Cherry’s traces are scattered across hundreds of recordings, some available only on YouTube (where some of his live performances can also be seen, notably a stirring 1971 concert in Paris with the South African bassist Johnny Dyani and the Turkish drummer Okay Temiz). But in the last few years, small labels have been bringing a number of his albums back into circulation. The latest are two sessions recorded in Paris nearly twenty years apart: Studio 105, Paris 1967, a live trio concert for French radio released for the first time; and his 1985 foray into pop, Home Boy, Sister Out. To listen to his music today is to be struck not only by its inventiveness but by its sheer freshness, what Cherry called “now-ness.” Neither album is flawless—Cherry’s was an art of imperfection—but both contain flashes of spine-tingling beauty and fascinating echoes of his remarkable journey.

Cherry was born in 1936 in Oklahoma City to a black man and his Choctaw wife. When he was four, the family moved to Los Angeles and settled in Watts. Cherry’s father ran the bar at the Plantation Club on Central Avenue, where Billy Eckstine’s and Artie Shaw’s bands performed. He discouraged his son, who played piano and sang in a Baptist church choir, from getting mixed up in jazz. But the lure of the Central Avenue scene was irresistible, and in junior high Cherry took up the cornet. He cut classes at Fremont High School to study under the legendary jazz instructor Samuel Brown, who led a student swing orchestra at Jefferson High School. Truant officers threw him into the Jacob Riis reform school, where he met a young drummer named Billy Higgins. Before long they were touring with the tenor saxophonist James Clay.

In his late teens, Cherry was introduced to Coleman by the poet Jayne Cortez, Coleman’s first wife. Coleman, who’d just arrived from Texas, was the first man he’d ever seen wearing his hair long, and to the future apostle “he looked like the Black Jesus Christ.” A circle soon formed around Coleman, including Cherry; Higgins; Charlie Haden, a white bassist from the Ozarks; and a drummer from New Orleans, Ed Blackwell, who later replaced Higgins in the Coleman quartet. They had one of their first gigs at the Hilcrest Club in 1958, in a quintet led by the pianist Paul Bley, but soon decided to go piano-less, as a quartet. And in November 1959, they made history at New York’s Five Spot, where Coleman’s revolution was officially launched.

Cherry’s contribution was crucial. While Coleman spoke in riddles and cryptic aphorisms about his approach to improvisation, Cherry could explain (or translate) it with clarity, patience, and illustrations on his horn. In Los Angeles he was known as “Chord Man,” because of his fascination with chords, and he showed that Coleman’s revolution, which seemed to reject chords altogether, was not so much a rupture as a return to first principles: blues feeling, melodic invention, spontaneity of expression. Bebop’s rigidification into a style had undermined these principles; “style,” Cherry often said, is “the death of creativity.”

In their musical dialogues, Coleman and Cherry achieved a degree of complicity with few equals in the history of music, matched in jazz only by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. It was not always clear who was leading and who was following, since Cherry knew Coleman’s tunes better than Coleman himself. (Coleman revered his “elephant memory.”) Sometimes the rest of the band would sit out for a few minutes, leaving Cherry and Coleman to trade musical lines with such delight that you’d think their horns had been invented for the purpose.

Read the full article on the New York Review of Books website here.