Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Cherry, Don (Donald Eugene)

Trumpeter Don Cherry defied the ruling dogmas of jazz in the fifties with his anti-virtuosic approach to music. Cherry preferred to play the pocket trumpet and cornet, and favored humility in his sound instead of acrobatic exhibitions. Best known for his collaborations with Ornette Coleman, his incorporation of Middle Eastern influences in his later career solidified his influence over popular music.

Donald Eugene Cherry was born on November 18th, 1936 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Cherry came from a musical family, with a grandmother who played piano accompaniment for silent movies, a mother who played piano at home and a father who owned a music club in Tulsa.

When he was four years old, Cherry and his family moved to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. Like many jazz musicians, Cherry spent his childhood surrounded by the sounds of swing music, and eventually fell in love with bebop. He started playing the piano before settling on the trumpet by junior high. By his late teens, he was already playing gigs around town.

Cherry's high school music teacher was Samuel Brown, a respected educator who also instructed saxophonists Charles Lloyd and Wardell Gray, trumpeter Art Farmer, and pianist Hampton Hawes. When he was just 15 years old, Cherry began playing with a jazz band led by Brown at neighboring school district Jefferson High School. At one point during high school he led his own group, the Jazz Messiahs.

As his high-school career progressed, Cherry's musical instincts began to develop. He loved all of the music that he heard in late forties: bebop, the early sounds of rock and roll, and Afro-Cuban music. It was during this time, when Cherry was developing the foundations of his musical taste, that he was introduced to saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

At the age of 17, Cherry met Coleman in a Los Angeles record store on 103rd Street. Coleman had been working on a different approach to jazz improvisation. Coleman called this approach “harmolodics,” a philosophy that states that melody, harmony and time all share the same value. Cherry was drawn to Ornette’s ideas and began rehearsing regularly with him. At the time, Cherry also regularly performed with the intermission band at the Lighthouse, a Los Angeles jazz club.

Coleman assembled a quintet in 1958 to record Something Else!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman for Contemporary Records with Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Don Payne and pianist Walter Norris. This session attracted the attention of Atlantic Records co-founder Nesuhi Ertegun, who persuaded Coleman to bring his band to New York.

Starting in November of 1959, Coleman's quartet of Cherry, Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden played a controversial six-week run at New York's Five Spot café, which brought them international attention, and launched the movement that came to be known as "free jazz." In those early years, Cherry showcased a lean and rhythmically resilient phrasing. He developed an assortment of expressive squeals and split notes on both cornet and pocket trumpet.

The quartet, and Coleman in particular, were seen as releasing improvisation from the established chordal confines of bebop. On the group’s 1959 album, The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Cherry’s sound displays absolute freedom, partly due to the lack of a chordal instrument in the group, but also because of the organic nature of his playing.

On “Eventually,” he shares a great call and response with Coleman during the A section. Cherry’s solo begins with an echo of Coleman’s eighth note run before exploding into short bursts. On “Focus On Sanity,” Cherry produces incredibly vocalized sounds during his solo. He doesn’t so much as tell a story with his playing, but gives you a familiar title through a different voice.

Cherry recorded his first album as a leader, The Avant-Garde, on June 28 and July 8 of 1960 in New York City. The album featured John Coltrane, Charlie Haden, Percy Heath and Ed Blackwell. Though recorded in 1960, it was not released until 1966. Of the five tracks on the album, three were written by Coleman.

After appearing on Coleman's first seven records, Cherry left his group in 1961. In 1962, Cherry began an association with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and in the same year helped form the New York Contemporary Five with the saxophonists Archie Shepp and John Tchicai. In 1963, Cherry toured Europe with Albert Ayler and Shepp and met Argentine tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. Soon he was recording with Barbieri. From 1964 to 1966, Cherry co-led a European band with Barbieri.

In the late 1960s, Cherry began to explore the music of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Indonesia. On 1968's Eternal Rhythm, Cherry played native wind and percussion instruments to create novel sounds. His direction was a marked departure from the free jazz of that era.

After teaching at Dartmouth College in 1970, Cherry and his family moved to Sweden, where they lived until 1975. After leaving Sweden, the family explored Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, traveling by camper. Along the way, Cherry gave casual concerts and jammed with local musicians.

In 1973, Cherry recorded the "Relativity Suite," with the Jazz Composers' Orchestra, which included a string section. In 1976, Cherry released Hear And Now, a more funk-oriented album that featured the song “Buddha’s Blues.” On this track, Cherry displays a more tonal approach to playing which greatly supports the commercial feel of the song.

He recorded with rock singer Lou Reed and took part in the group Codona, with Nana Vasconcelos and Collin Walcott. Codona specialized in a myriad of ethnic music. Cherry sang and played piano, organ, melodica, wooden flutes, and a Malian hunter's guitar called the doussn'gouni.

Cherry continued to explore the vast horizon of global music throughout the 1980s. His interest in spirituality led him to compose pieces that dealt with his growing fascination with theology.

In 1989, Cherry participated in the premiere production of avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson's jazz opera, Cosmopolitan Greetings, in Hamburg, West Germany. In the same year, Rolling Stone named Cherry's Art Deco record of the year. In 1991, Cherry received two San Francisco Bay Area Music Awards for his album MultiKulti. its title a play on the word "multicultural."

Cherry passed away on Oct. 19, 1995 at the age of 58 at his home in Malaga, Spain due to complications from hepatitis. Cherry is survived by his stepdaughters Neneh Cherry and Titiyo, and his sons David Cherry and Eagle-Eye Cherry.

Select Discography

As Don Cherry

The Avant Garde with John Coltrane (Recorded 1960, released 1966)

Togetherness with Gato Barbieri (1965)

Complete Communion (1965)

Where is Brooklyn? (1966)

Eternal Rhythm (1968)

Orient (1971)

Brown Rice (1975)

Hear And Now (1976)

Home Boy (1985)

Art Deco (1988)

Multikulti (1989)

With Ornette Coleman

Something Else!!!! The Music of Ornette Coleman (1958)

Tomorrow is the Question (1959)

The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959)

Change of the Century (1959)

This is our Music (1960)

Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation (1960)

The Art of the Improvisers (1961)

Crisis (1969)

Science Fiction (1971)

With Sonny Rollins

Our Man In Jazz (1962)

On The Outside (1963)

With The New York Contemporary 5

Consequences (1963)

Vol. 1 (1963)

Vol. 2 (1963)

New York Contemporary 5 (1964)

With Codona

Codona 3 (1982)

Contributor: Eric Wendell