The Apostle of Now-ness

Studio 105, Paris 1967

an album by the Don Cherry Trio
Hi Hat, £8.95

Home Boy, Sister Out

an album by Don Cherry
We Want Sounds, €25.00

Brown Rice

an album by Don Cherry
Verve/UMe, $19.98

The Codona Trilogy

an album by Don Cherry, Naná Vasconcelos, and Collin Walcott
ECM, 3 CDs, €28.00
Don Cherry, Belgium, 1969
Guy Le Querrec/Magnum Photos
Don Cherry at the Amougies Festival, Belgium, 1969

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…

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