Skip to main content

Cherry, Don(ald) Eugene

Cherry, Don(ald) Eugene

(b. 18 November 1936 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; d. 19 October 1995 in Malaga, Spain), pocket-trumpet and cornet player who was a leading figure in free (also called avant-garde) jazz.

Cherry’s father was a nightclub manager and bartender and his mother, Daisy McKee, was a homemaker. In 1940 the family moved to Los Angeles. Cherry began taking piano lessons at the age of seven and acquired a trumpet when he was thirteen. He attended Freemont High School but cut classes to play in the bands Samuel Browne led at nearby Jefferson High. By 1954 Cherry was playing professionally.

In 1956 Cherry met Ornette Coleman, thus beginning a musical relationship that would revolutionize jazz. Cherry had a reputation as a fine young jazz trumpet player. Coleman was an outcast too radical for the jazz scene of the time. Coleman and Cherry began intensive rehearsals. Their music was innovative. Whereas most jazz of the period used popular-music song forms with improvisations based on standard chord-pattern harmonies, Coleman created directly from the emotions of his compositions: new rhythmic and harmonic patterns were freely created in solo improvisations. In its rhythmic swing and emotional rawness it was a logical development from earlier jazz, Afro-American blues, and gospel music. And Cherry became perhaps the best interpreter of it.

With Coleman as leader, their first album was Something Else!!! (recorded on 10 and 22 February 1958). In October 1958, with pianist Paul Bley as leader, Coleman and Cherry began an engagement at the Hillcrest nightclub in Los Angeles; they worked for six weeks before being fired. John Lewis, the pianist with the Modern Jazz Quartet, heard the group and helped arrange a scholarship for Coleman and Cherry to the School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts, and a contract with Atlantic Records. Cherry was now playing a small cornet he called a pocket trumpet. The more conical bore of the cornet gave a plaintive, raw, and brassy sound as compared to the more brilliant tone of the standard trumpet. With Tomorrow Is the Question (1959), The Shape of Jazz to Come (1959), Change of the Century (1959), and This Is Our Music (1960), a new style of jazz was firmly established.

Their engagement at the New York City jazz club the Five Spot in November 1959 caused a furious controversy. Some critics, fans, and fellow musicians claimed the music was a hoax, too radical a departure to be authentic jazz. Others, such as the composers Gunther Schuller and Leonard Bernstein, were ecstatic about the music. What was supposed to be a two-week gig stretched into two-and-a-half months.

After appearing on Coleman’s first seven records, Cherry left the Ornette Coleman Quartet in the spring of 1961. Over the next three decades the band occasionally reformed for concerts and recording sessions. From 1976 to 1987 Cherry, along with other ex-Coleman band members including Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, and Ed Blackwell, sporadically played in a band called Old and New Dreams, which featured their former leader’s compositions. It was like an Ornette Coleman Quartet without Coleman.

Throughout the early 1960s Cherry continued in the role of musical partner to many of the best jazz saxophonists. As leader in 1960 he recorded The Avant-Garde with John Coltrane and in 1961 recorded Evidence with Steve Lacy. For eight months beginning in July 1962 he was with Sonny Rollins. At the end of 1963 he formed the short-lived New York Contemporary Five with Archie Shepp and John Tchicai. He was hired by Albert Ayler, often held to be the most radical of free-jazz players, to record the soundtrack for the film New York Eye and Ear Control, which led to a European tour with Ayler in the fall of 1964.

When the other Ayler band members returned to the United States, Cherry moved to Paris and formed a band to play his music. Cherry’s compositional genius is apparent on the critically acclaimed Complete Communion (1965) and Symphony For Improvisers (1966). He used chantlike repetitive themes with open improvisations to create extended jazz suites. This new approach was to influence the work of other jazz musicians including John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor.

Cherry married his first wife, Carletta, in 1955. They had two children, both musicians, David Ornette and his sister, Jan. Cherry met his second wife, the Swedish artist Moki (sometimes spelled Mocqui) Karlsson when he was touring with Sonny Rollins. Cherry said that he fell in love with her when he awoke one morning to find she had dyed his long underwear yellow. They had a son, Eagle Eye, and Moki’s daughter from an earlier marriage, Neneh. Both became famous pop music singer-songwriters. (Cherry also fathered another child with a different woman at the beginning of his marriage to Moki.) The family had a house in Tagarp, Sweden, beginning in the early 1970s but often led a nomadic life, driving a beat-up camper through Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and even India. Cherry immersed himself in non-Western ethnic music. He played exotic folk instruments such as the African guitarlike doussoun’gouni, or the Mayan bird flute. In an interview with Option magazine he said, “I wanted music to be an organic experience; a natural part of life that I woke up with every day.” His interests in world music are documented on the recordings Eternal Rhythm (1968), Mu, Parts 1 & 2 (1969), and Relativity Suite (1973), and in his bands Codona and Multikulti.

In July 1989 Cherry moved to the San Francisco area; Moki had returned to Sweden. Cherry’s health began to fail, and his playing suffered. He died of complications caused by hepatitis at the home of his stepdaughter, Neneh Cherry, in southern Spain. He is buried in Fuengirola, Spain.

Throughout his life Don Cherry had an all-encompassing, childlike, creative personality. He was tall with a wiry, slender build and an elfin face. As a jazz musician and composer his work was outstanding. With Ornette Coleman he brought a new approach to improvisation. He also created a new compositional style that became part of the vocabulary of avant-garde jazz. He went on to incorporate instruments and songs of world music into his uniquely individualistic style.

Further information on Cherry’s life and music is in Notes and Tones Musician to Musician Interviews (rev. ed., 1982); Ben Sidran, Talking Jazz: An Illustrated Oral History (1992); interviews in Down Beat (21 Nov. 1963, 28 July 1966, 13 July 1978, and June 1983); and Joseph Hooper, “Not Your Average Family,” The New York Times Magazine (10 Dec. 1989), which deals with Don, Moki, Neneh, and Eagle Eye Cherry. A helpful booklet is in The Complete Blue Note Recordings of Don Cherry, released in a limited edition by Mosaic Records in 1993, which includes original text by Michael Cuscuna and quotes from Art Taylor. Ekkehard Jost, Free Jazz (rev. ed., 1981), has a technical analysis of Ornette Coleman’s and Cherry’s music. See also Andrew Jones, “Global Villager: Don Cherry’s Musical Journey,” Option (Nov.-Dec. 1990): 64, 66-67, 166. An obituary is in the late New York edition of the New York Times (21 Oct. 1995).

John Voigt

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Cherry, Don(ald) Eugene." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Cherry, Don(ald) Eugene." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 18, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cherry-donald-eugene

"Cherry, Don(ald) Eugene." The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives. . Retrieved September 18, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cherry-donald-eugene

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.