Cherry is known best for his work as a trumpeter with jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, and for being stepfather to the hard-rapping Neneh Cherry. But he's also one of the most adventurous musicians on the planet. Cherry traveled throughout Africa, Asia, and Europe in search of new sounds, long before "World Music" became fashionable in yuppie U.S. circles. "Don is an amazing door opener," says Rhythm Foundation director Jim Quinlan. "He's brought forth music from Turkey, Nepal, India, West Africa.... He's how I found out about African music. He's really an ambassador for so many world sounds."
Cherry's thoughts range as far as he has, from Indian scale systems to Ornette Coleman's harmolodics to his five children to politics. It's more than a little dizzying. Born in Oklahoma in 1936 with a Choctaw Indian grandmother, he was exposed to jazz early on at his father's jazz club, the Cherry Blossom, and by hanging out around L.A.'s Central Avenue scene after the family had moved west. Young Don cut so many classes to attend rehearsals with a top-notch jazz band led by Samuel Brown that he got put into a "detention" school. It didn't deter him.
Another big influence was poet Jayne Cortez. "We would borrow a record and listen to it and learn it and bring it back to her," Cherry says, "and we'd have to play the song before she'd lend us another record. This went on for years." Through Cortez he discovered the likes of Charlie Parker, and also got introduced to Ornette Coleman.
At age seventeen Cherry began working with Coleman, using a high-pitch pocket cornet. Together with bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins, they formed what came to be called Coleman's Original Quartet, playing their first New York gig at the Five Spot club in 1959. This was the group that introduced Coleman's theory of harmolodic music, a concept that revolutionized jazz. (In harmolodics, instead of the melody being supported by chord changes, and all the instruments supporting a soloist, each instrument, whether melodic or rhythmic, takes an equal role. It makes for a still-radical collective improvisation.) At the time of Coleman's gig at the Five Spot, many people put down both Coleman's ideas and his musicianship (Miles Davis being one famous detractor). History has since validated Coleman's approach, but many still find it difficult to follow. At any rate, Cherry had an early start at opening his ears to the possibilities of different sounds, harmonies, and structures.
Cherry continued to play with Coleman through seven albums, but in the early Sixties legal problems made it impossible for him to work in New York. A European tour offer from Sonny Rollins in 1963 saved his life, he says, and propelled him in a new direction. In Europe Cherry also worked with Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, and from 1964-66 he co-led a band with Gato Barbieri. Around this time Cherry initiated his explorations, driving from Copenhagen to Morocco.
From this point Cherry's life began to stray far outside the normal parameters of a straight-ahead jazz career. He bopped around Europe, camping out and working with different visual and musical artists. He started developing a concept of "organic music," where, he says, "the performance had something exciting for the eyes as well as the ears." He met percussionist Nana Vasconcelos and tabla player Colin Walcott, and they formed a group called Codona, which ventured through most of the world - Turkey, India, Morocco, Asia, the Far East, and South America - in a beat-up camper. During this period Cherry discovered the doussoun'gouni, a six-string instrument from Mali which he now plays.
The primary lesson of his travels was that musical knowledge can come from almost anyone: Indian tabla players, Turkish goatherders, street kids. "When I started traveling I found other instruments, other textures, not just skin, but made with nylon," he explains. "I found the magic in bamboo. I ended up learning about different cultures, different textures." New possibilities were laid before him. "In India you have Sanskrit syllables for the notes of the scale," he says. "And that changed the whole idea for me. If you start out with a ~`do,' that's a real negative sound for me, but now I can think `sa' instead of `do,' and that changes the whole feeling."
Those who gain knowledge are often moved to share it, and teaching is central to Cherry's work. At the Rhythm Intensive he will be working with an old friend and fellow teacher, vibraphonist and composer Karl Berger. Berger was part of the Cherry-Barbieri band in Paris in the Sixties, and it was Cherry who brought Berger to the U.S. Berger went on to form the Creative Music School in Woodstock, New York. It was Berger who started the first Rhythm Intensive workshops, which he ran with the help of Cherry and artists such as Pat Metheny, Cecil Taylor, and the Chicago Art Ensemble. Jim Quinlan also worked with Berger at the Creative Music School for years. Together with Nana Vasconcelos, this makes the gathering in Miami a reunion with some deep musical and personal roots. Quinlan says he would like to see the event become an annual occurrence in South Florida.
The idea of the Rhythm Intensive is to use sounds from around the world as a creative springboard. Cherry, the consummate musical explorer, is an ideal teacher. He can make a musical connection to almost any sound coming from almost anywhere.
Cherry currently lives in San Francisco, where he moved to work with the experimental musical group the Hieroglyphics Ensemble, and where he also plays with the quartet MultiKulti. He's also involved in theater projects with the Latin community and several other enterprises. And Don Cherry hasn't stopped traveling and exploring. He'll be arriving in Miami straight from Bombay, India.
DON CHERRY performs with Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso, Peter Apfelbaum from the Hieroglyphics Ensemble, and students from the Rhythm Intensive at 9:00 p.m. Friday; Nana Vasconcelos performs at 8:00 p.m. Saturday at the Cameo Theater, 1445 Washington Ave., Miami Beach, 672-5202. Tickets are $10 advance, $12.50 at the door.