Donald Eugene Cherry, 1936-1995
Soon after Chet Baker's "Let's Get Lost" faded on the loudspeaker, the soft, high whisper of the lateDon Cherry filled the Central Library's Mark Taper Auditorium. "I grew up in the ghetto in L.A.," the jazz composer/multi-instrumentalist remembered over a short-film prologue to the ALOUD series event Complete Communion: A Musical Tribute to Don Cherry. "In the ghetto, you don't really feel nature. There was so much pollution, you couldn't see the mountains. But I lived on 113th Street, right next to the Watts Towers, which was being built by this Italian man [Simon Rodia] from scraps he found around the neighborhood. He didn't know why he was building it, he just had to do it."
Cherry might have well been speaking of his own musical path, which in part involved seeking out the organic worlds that were denied him as a child. Although most associated with free-jazz titan Ornette Coleman, Cherry's contributions to multicultural cross-pollination in music, art and poetry were, in their own quiet way, years ahead of their time. He was a pioneer of what we now know as "World Music" and spent years traversing the globe and sitting humbly at the feet of itinerant musicians to learn their techniques. Cherry's omnivorous vision wasn't just influential in jazz; it dripped down though the years to the DNA of groups like the Freestyle Fellowship, the Breakestra, and Fishbone. And his is a lineage that keeps on giving, covering the realms of jazz (David Ornette Cherry), R&B (Neneh Cherry), and pop (Eagle-Eye Cherry).
DJ Mark Maxwell (L) interviews David Ornette Cherry
[photo courtesy of Gary Leonard]
Cherry was also a proponent of carrying jazz's liberating possibilities into the spheres of education at a time where school jazz bands weren't as common—or as endangered—as they are now; ALOUD curator Louise Steinman noted as much in her introduction to Monday night's show: "I can only imagine how thrilled he would be to have a tribute concert for him in a public library." Many of the attendees in the audience could attest to Cherry's pedagogical influence, including trombonist Phil Ranelin (who actually taught a course at the Leimert Park's World Stage called "Who Was Don Cherry?"), radio host Leroy Downs, TV host/Dominguez Hills professor Chet Hanley, poet Kamau Daa'ood and writer/community organizer Jeffrey Winston. Cherry himself skipped class from Fremont High School just so he could play in Jefferson High's swing band and study with its influential music teacher Samuel R. Browne alongside other future L.A. free-thinkers like Horace Tapscott, Hampton Hawes, and Eric Dolphy. He later met drummer Billy Higgins when they were in reform school. Both would become a part of the groundbreaking Ornette Coleman quintet that would shake up patrons at Culver City's Hillcrest Club in 1958 and go on to a legendary residency at New York's Five Spot a year later.
Cherry's weapon of choice was the pocket trumpet—sort of like a miniature cornet—and its toreador-spiced tone blasted forth from Tapscott almunus Steve Smith on the opening song "Complete Communion." Veteran saxophonist Justo Almario, primarily known for his Latin Jazz credentials, demonstrated a firm grasp of the avant-garde; his "out" playing on "Golden Hearts" and "March of the Hobbits" was wonderfully aggressive and jarring while still encompassing the skittering Bebop lyricism that was always in the mix in Cherry's music. Roberto Miguel Miranda demonstrated a similar dexterity, switching from congas on the mathematically busy funk of "Brown Rice" and the chant-heavy "Rhumba Multikulti" to acoustic bass on "Cherryco" and "Manhattan Cry," where his pizzicato solos didn't thump or pluck but floated out of the air like amoebic globules.
The Organic Roots Ensemble (L to R): Justo Almario, Ollie Elder Jr., Steve Smith, Don Littleton, Roberto Miguel Miranda (obscured), Jan Cherry, John L. Price
[photo courtesy of Gary Leonard]
The three extended medleys of Cherry's compositions were layered with sit-down interviews conducted by wild-haired KPFK radio host Mark Maxwell with Cherry's daughter, violinist/vocalist Jan Cherry, and son David Ornette Cherry, who related how his father's music comforted him as a child during the Watts Rebellion of 1965. Jan Cherry admitted that her father's musical approach was a shock to her classically trained sensibilities: "Don exposed me to music that didn't have a chordal structure, and that blew me away. I remember thinking, 'They're not using notes! They're just improvising!' The way he conducted and the way he taught us -- 'This is how they do it; this is how I do it' -- the musical themes could switch up at any moment." Later, during testimonials from the band members, electric bassist Ollie Elder Jr. echoed this sentiment when he reminisced about playing with Cherry for the first time: "I asked him, 'Uh, what am I supposed to play? 'Anything!' "OK, in what key?" 'Any key!'"
After describing his father's endlessly curious pilgrimages, David Ornette Cherry sat down with a large dousn' gounni, a Malinese instrument resembling a large sitar with a dodgeball-sized wooden shell, while Smith blew bubbling, strangulated notes on a trumpet mouthpiece. "Calisthenics" was exactly what its title implies: A soaring and vigorous ensemble workout seasoned nicely by John L. Price's vibraphone. "My Butterfly Friend" showed Cherry's love of reggae, with Almario dancing across the stage while soloing to Jan Cherry's scat-croon vocals. "Art Deco" was straight-ahead jazz highlighted by the warm interplay of Almario and Smith. "Coming and Going" built off a Native-American toe-heel drumbeat anchored by the triple-percussion attack of Miranda, Price and Don Littleton. For the closer, Don Cherry's granddaughter—one of at least ten Cherrys present in the audience—jumped up onstage for the proto-slam poetry rap "I Walked." (Apparently, walking and rollerskating were two of her granddad's favorite nonmusical pastimes.) And then, one by one, the musicians strutted off the stage to the beat, still playing. The maestro would have approved.