My last sight of Don Cherry in this life: he was sitting on a drum case in one of the columnar hallways of the Sala Congresowa in Warsaw, the main venue for the annual Jazz Jamboree. The young guy who belonged to the drum case was hovering nearby. He wanted his gear back but no way was he about to disturb a legend. Don looked sick and waxen, his skin yellowed, his slight frame as unmoving as a wood carving. Only a restless movement under the eyelids showed that he was alive and two-parts awake. It looked like he’d recently fixed up and was still dancing with Morpheus.
I was more selfish than the drum guy. I had one more day with a BBC crew in Poland and a series of programmes to fill when I got back. My one previous attempt to record a broadcastable interview with Don had been backstage at a Blockheads gig – the trumpeter had guested with the band for a few gigs – and that turned into an Ian Dury interview instead, an unbroadcastable one, it turned out, given some of the subject matter and language. The BBC is a starched governess on matters of taste.
So, I reached out and touched Don’s hand. The eyelids lifted. I’ve never before or since seen eyes like that: red-rimmed, jaundiced, sadder than a hung dog, the oldest and the youngest eyes I’ve ever seen, like the morning of the world and its last afternoon. I think he lived another two years. On what, I can’t imagine. Bare wires and vapour, maybe. Anyway, I said my thing Hi, Don, we’re recording some programmes, big fan, wondered if you’d talk to us for a coupla minutes. And sat down, thinking that if we got so much as a soundbite it would be a plus. I put on the machine, pointed the mic and asked a warmup question about travelling in Europe. And a light went on inside the man in front of me. For the next 37 minutes (I have the duration on the tape box in front of me) he spoke warmly about music and friends and above all about early days in Poland and Sweden with Moki and Eagle Eye, travelling, white nights and midnight sun, music round a campfire, food and friends, jazz as an international language, about Ornette and Gato Barbieri and Eddie Blackwell. Penderecki and the Slits. It was me in the end who had to cut it short, because there was somewhere less interesting to go. I said Don, thank you, and the light went off again. The eyes clouded and closed. The body went still. Whoever owned the drum had long since despaired of it and gone off. The last time I saw Don Cherry he was still sitting there, a totem, carved in wood, alone in a sideroom in Stalin’s ambiguous ‘gift’ to the Polish people, parked on some guy’s drum case.
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There ought to be a moratorium, for the time being at least, on the use of ‘Trickster’ in African-American studies. It’s a term now so casually resorted to it has lost all meaning. In the same way, let’s stop calling Don Cherry a ‘griot’ and a ‘shaman’. Those words have quite precise significations but what causes the problem is the slightly helpless shrug that comes with them. ‘Don? he’s multi-kulti, he’s indefinable, he’s world, a griot, a shaman’. It doesn’t make sense to describe Don Cherry, in the first instance at least, as anything other than a jazz musician. The role of planetary minstrel came later, but that’s a designation that might just as easily apply to Louis Armstrong, the first global ambassador for jazz, or Miles Davis, who came to Warsaw in 1983 as the Prince of Darkness and again in 1988 as the spangled jester who brought first word of freedom. Playing ‘ethnic’ flutes, learning the doussn’goni, working with Penderecki or in dub-soaked post-punk doesn’t change the facts. He’s a cornet player, right out of the line that produced Wild Bill Davison and went on to produce Wadada Leo Smith. Cornetist Warren Vaché, hardly a man of the avant-garde, admires him deeply. Miles Davis, interestingly but not surprisingly, did not. Miles made it a practice to run down the opposition, but he knew not to throw stones in glass houses. Regularly picked up himself for slack ‘technique’, he wasn’t likely to point out Don’s fluffed notes and fudged transitions. What Miles claimed to have seen was Don’s ability to fill a bad note with so much energy and personality the white folks would still be impressed. And there’s a cautionary aspect to this, because you do still come across guys in European bars and clubs who claim to have met Don back in the day and who’ll tell you with absolute seriousness that the guy was music, he walked musically, he ate brown rice musically, hell, he even took a shit musically. One knows what they meant. Only the blind or the very resistant could have failed to detect that aura, but what made Don Cherry musical was his music, and the greatest of his music came out of a brass horn.
Listen to his solo on ‘Tears Inside’ from Tomorrow Is The Question, one of the best – though not necessarily the most representative – things he did with the Ornette Coleman quartet, and it’s absolutely in a tradition of cool blues playing, a D minor line spun to unfeasible fineness and precarious grace. And listen again to just how softly he plays on ‘Chenrezig’ and ‘Malkauns’ off the 1975 Brown Rice album and how much the music all runs together. Don spent a life in almost constant motion, right up to the sad final days in Spain, and he moves constantly in his music, but without footprints. Unlike his original boss, who leads the phalanx under the banner of the ‘big idea’ that was to become harmolodics, Cherry seems the most democratic of leaders. It was an ideal he espoused on Complete Communion, the first record where his name sits alone above the title – he shared The Avant-Garde with Trane – but a rare instance of group sound winning out over individualism. Hell, bassist Henry Grimes even plays lead a few times, even if you couldn’t hear him too well on the original LP. Whatever the context, Don always seemed committed to some idea of the ensemble over the individual. A photograph included in a recent  exhibition of documentary artwork about the ECM label – with which he was for a time associated – shows Don in a very characteristic pose, with his finger pressed to his lips. He didn’t like solos to be applauded. He didn’t want you to listen to him; he just wanted you to listen. In Warsaw, he told me he thought pop and rock music were ‘too much about personalities’ and that one of the graces of jazz was that, even with stars of burning magnitude like Bird, Ornette, Trane, the music rose above merely individualistic values. He was playing with pop stars in those days, but they were somehow always stars who also put music above personality.
After his two first recordings for Blue Note, Complete Communion and Symphony For Improvisers (and don’t make the mistake of reading those titles metaphorically; he meant every word of both), Cherry made one further, now somewhat neglected album for Alfred Lion. Where Is Brooklyn? exchanged the seamless flow of its predecessors, which fans and critics, even some of the fellow-musicians involved, didn’t quite seem to ‘get’, for a more discrete compositional approach. Cherry’s jazz writing is still massively underrated, though at least one piece, ‘The Thing’, has been given a vivid afterlife by Mats Gustafsson, Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Paal Nilssen-Love. The other pieces on the album are among the most underrated in modern jazz. ‘Unite’, the long closing piece, compresses much of the language of the earlier recordings into a single, molten performance.
But Cherry was changing. He denied being disillusioned with jazz, but said, in essence, that jazz needed to get out more, to travel, taste, sample new combinations, rhythms, harmonic essences. The 1969 duos with Ed Blackwell, who’d taken Elvin Jones’s polyrhythmic concept and run with it, now seem like sketches for the ‘world jazz’ of later years. Cherry moves between trumpet, piano, various flutes and singing, and between bright New Orleans vamps and sombre African themes which reflect an association with Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim). The records he made for the cash-strapped BYG in France and for Sonet in Sweden find him ‘listening and travelling’, as he put it himself, but it’s a mistake to suggest that Cherry simply became a musical gypsy, the enigmatic sand traveller who pops up on Carla Bley’s ‘chronotransduction’ Escalator Over The Hill. He travels, but along a musical line that was established at the beginning of his career. His solos, compositions and ensemble pieces might well be described as travelogues, their stumbles, occasional hesitations, unexpected leaps forward part of the dusty process. To some degree, travel was a life-choice for the man rather than the musician. Listen again to ‘Tears Inside’ and it’s clear that where some improvisers would have turned it into a great vertical spiral of harmonic enquiry or a sculpted torso of the blues, Don Cherry takes it on a journey in which a few misplaced notes are simply testings of the ground.
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The Thing listens and it travels. The members do so individually, but The Thing is nowhere closer to its original inspiration than when it takes a line on a journey. Listen to what they do on the first record to ‘Trans-Love Airways’, a theme that might easily descend into kitsch posturing but delivered here as a freight service rather than a cheap package holiday. The black squall of ‘Awake Nu’ is perhaps the most radical reading a Don Cherry composition has ever received. And rarely has ‘Cherryco’ received such a full-hearted and sympathetic interpretation.
Gustafsson seems to like the off-balance dynamics of the trio, a format which, whatever the instrumentation, requires a particular listening discipline. Quartets and larger groups, like families, readily break down into pairs or other axes, but in a trio you’re either playing together or you’re whistling Dixie. This was obvious on Gustafsson’s work with Sten Sandell and Raymond Stride in Gush, a powerful triumvirate that always seemed able to strike up a collaboration with whoever’s in town and hungry to play. It’s a characteristic that has carried over into The Thing, most obviously in 2012 when the group went into the studio and on the road with Neneh Cherry, Don’s stepdaughter, who’d grown up in the Swedish forest, in Watts and New York, as well as in her Sierra Leonian drummer father’s homeland. What stories!
Literary critic Harold Bloom has written about the ‘anxiety of influence’, the contortions of slavish obedience, rebellion and forced ‘originality’ artists face in the presence of a ‘strong’ example. Jazz is full of overdetermining presences, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, figures whose example weighs heavily, sometimes suffocatingly, on a subsequent generation, or who like Ornette Coleman seems to offer a totalising theory. Don Cherry is not like that. His example, like Eric Dolphy’s, is gentler and in an important way bound up with his own personality and physical presence. A very good jazz record of the 1990s was called I Don’t Know This World Without Don Cherry and we know what they meant. Cherry is one of those artists who is perhaps more important for who he was than what he did, and certainly what he did on record. His most important lessons lie in the gaps between that major statements. Arguably, the most prominent and shiniest of his recordings, those like El Corazon and Dona Nostra for ECM, or the celebrated Multi Kulti and Art Deco for A&M, are among the least important of his career. Far important, tellingly, are the relatively anonymous Codona recordings for ECM where Don buried his ego in a collective enterprise.
What does ‘The Thing’ mean? It’s an intriguing name. Fans of a certain genre of film will know it as a nameless and shifting horror. It’s the phrase we reach for – certainly once middle age looms – when the word for an everyday object deserts us for a moment: ‘You know . . . the thing!’ It’s how we grudgingly start when we’re about to admit to some unpopular or controversial opinion or intention: ‘The thing is, we’re going to have to let you go . . .’ But the best version of it is something close to vocation, when you discover the one big ‘thing’ in life that is going to drive you. Don Cherry found it in jazz. He expected no simple or single answer, no great material award, no deference, no ‘school’ or movement. He just expected to travel that line for the rest of his days. I sense it’s the same with The Thing. Vocation is a suspect word these days, too closely associated with religious commitment for some tastes, too bound up with the old, formal professions. And yet, music, if it matters at all, truly is a long road. Its occasional tedium and longueurs, its waiting rooms, and way stations and delays on the track ahead are all part of the craft and mystery. The Thing travels. It pops up somewhere near you, bringing a noisy bulletin from a world you maybe recognize but haven’t visited. It is, by turns, exotic and very familiar, strident and thoughtful. It is, for all its dalliances, unmistakably a jazz group, one that doesn’t see the need to bring the music ‘up to date’ with the latest fashionable tag or sound, but recognises that in the music’s living past are the reasons for its future. Don Cherry would have been very proud.