By the late 1980s, through the efforts of pop stars like Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and David Byrne, the musical expressions of peoples as far-flung as South Africa, Brazil, and Bulgaria had begun to meld with Western styles to create what has become known as “world music” or “world beat.” But jazz trumpeter and cornet player Don Cherry had become immersed in these unusual outpourings almost two decades earlier, traversing the planet in search of ever more exotic sounds, pursuing what he has called “the fun of endless learning.” In fact, the nomadic Cherry is regularly referred to as “the musical Marco Polo.”
As a trumpeter and veteran of jazz’s front lines, Cherry has lent his personal sound and lyricism to groundbreaking work by musicians as diverse as Omette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Gato Barbieri, and Lou Reed. As a teacher, Cherry’s students have included, according to his press biography, “Dartmouth [College] upperclassmen, Middle Eastern goatherders, teenagers at a Swedish music camp, and grammar-school children at the Storefront School in [New York City’s] Harlem.” The trumpet innovator has studied music in Morocco, India, Eastern Europe, and Sweden. And his “acoustic expeditions” throughout the underdeveloped quarters of the Earth are renowned.
Cherry was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on November 18, 1936, the grandson of a Choctaw Indian. He moved with his parents to the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1940, when he was four years old. Back in Oklahoma, Cherry’s father, a trumpet player, had overseen the Cherry Blossom Jazz Club; in Los Angeles, the elder Cherry continued to play the trumpet and became involved with the then-flourishing Central Avenue jazz scene. His son was also enchanted by music and took piano lessons before starting trumpet in junior high school.
Cherry’s high school music teacher and private tutor was Samuel Brown, who also instructed saxophonists Charles Lloyd and Wardell Gray, trumpeter Art Farmer, and pianist Hampton Hawes. Cherry would skip school to absorb the wisdom of radio tastemaker Johnny Otis and to catch performances by jazz greats Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Los Angeles native Dexter Gordon when they were playing nearby. At the age of 15, his truancy in full flower, Cherry began playing with an impressive jazz band led by Brown at neighboring Jefferson High School. At one point during high school, he led his own group, the Jazz Messiahs. Cherry even
For the Record…
Born November 18, 1936, in Oklahoma City, OK; father was a bartender/club manager and trumpet player; wife’s name, Moki (an artist); children: Eagle-Eye (son), Nenah (stepdaughter). Education: Attended School of Jazz, Lenox, MA, 1959.
Played in Samuel Brown’s jazz band, Los Angeles, 1951; led the Jazz Messiahs, c. 1952; toured West Coast and Canada with James Clay; played with Ornette Coleman, beginning in 1953; performed at Five Spot Cafe, New York City, 1959-61; played with Sonny Rollins, 1961; co-founded New York Contemporary Five, c. 1962; toured Europe, 1963; co-led band with Gato Barbieri, 1964-66; member of quartet Old and New Dreams Band, beginning in the late 1970s; formed Codona, 1978; performed in jazz opera Cosmopolitan Greetings, Hamburg, West Germany, 1989; toured with quartet MultiKulti, beginning in 1990; performed with Hieroglyphics Ensemble big band, early 1990s. Teacher at Dartmouth College, 1970.
Awards: Bay Area Music awards for outstanding jazz album, for MultiKulti, and outstanding reeds/brass player, both 1991.
Addresses: Home —San Francisco, CA. Management — The Brad Simon Organization, Inc., 122 East 57th Street, New York, NY 10022.
gigged with local professionals, including Gordon on occasion; by then he was proficient on the trumpet and piano and could compose as well.
As his high-school career progressed, Cherry’s musical instincts began to develop and became more eclectic; he loved bebop, the early rock and roll of the Platters, and the Afro-Cuban sounds brought back to Los Angeles from south of the border by the merchant marine. It was during this seminal time in Cherry’s development that he was introduced to saxophonist Omette Coleman.
Cherry had just returned from a tour of the West Coast and Canada with Texas saxophonist James Clay. At the age of 17, he met Coleman, with whom he would have a long and fruitful association, in a Watts record store. Coleman had been generating quite a bit of controversy with his decidedly different approach to jazz improvisation. Cherry’s preferred instrument at the time was a high-pitched pocket cornet. The young player’s inclusive, experimental approach to his craft enabled him to enthusiastically embrace the style becoming known as free-form jazz.
In 1959 he spent a summer with Coleman at the School of Jazz in Lenox, Massachusetts; later Coleman’s quartet, with Cherry on board, began its legendary engagement at New York City’s Five Spot Cafe, which brought international attention and interest to the band. Releasing improvisation from the established chordal specifications of bebop, the quartet would ultimately exert a profound influence on the contemporary music that followed. In those early years of the “free-jazz” movement, Cherry’s strong, wiry tone and rhythmically elastic phrasing rendered him an apt foil for Coleman. He developed an assortment of vocalized sounds, producing expressive squeals and split notes on both cornet and pocket trumpet.
After appearing on Coleman’s first seven records, Cherry left the visionary saxman’s group in 1961. He spent the following eight months playing with saxophonist Sonny Rollins. Over the next few years, Cherry worked with John Coltrane, Steve Lacy, and George Russell. He also co-founded a group called the New York Contemporary Five with saxophonists Archie Shepp and John Tchicai. In 1963, Cherry toured Europe with Albert Ayler and Shepp and met Argentine tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri. Soon he was recording with Barbieri.
The full emergence of Cherry from Omette Coleman’s shadow was evidenced in 1965 on his collabortion with Barbieri on Blue Note Records’Complete Communion. Cherry’s compositions are continuous, multithematic pieces reflecting a versatile, assertive, and creative improviser. From 1964 to 1966, Cherry co-led a European band with Barbieri.
In the late 1960s, Cherry began to explore the music of the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Indonesia. On 1968’s Eternai Rhythm, Cherry played native wind and percussion instruments to create novel sounds. His direction was a marked departure from the free-jazz of that era.
After teaching at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College in 1970, Cherry and his family—he is the father of rapsoul artist Neneh Cherry and an actor-drummer son named Eagle-Eye—lived in Sweden until 1975, residing in an art school he had purchased there. After leaving Scandinavia, the family explored Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, traveling by camper. All the while Cherry gave casual concerts and jammed with the locals. “I didn’t have any jobs lined up when I went,” he revealed in his press biography, “I just went, and that’s the way to do it if you’re going to meet all the musicians and learn melodies and rhythms—if you’re going to see all there is to see.”
In the late 1970s, Cherry reunited with three former Coleman sidemen—Dewey Redman, Ed Blackwell, and Charlie Haden—to form the Old and New Dreams Band. The quartet labored to preserve and perpetuate the musical vision of their august former leader. Cherry formed an ensemble called Codona in 1978 with multiinstrumentalists Collin Walcott and Nana Vasconcelos. Codona specialized in a kaleidoscope of ethnic musics. Cherry sang and played piano, organ, melodica, wooden flutes, and a Malian hunter’s guitar called the doussn’gouni. He continued to canvass the vast horizon of global music throughout the 1980s. His interests led him to compose extraordinary pieces, many of a solemn and ritualistic complexion.
In 1989, in Hamburg, West Germany, Cherry participated in the premiere production of avant-garde theater impresario Robert Wilson’s jazz opera Cosmopolitan Greetings. Also that year, Rolling Stone named Cherry’s Art Deco record of the year. In 1991, the artist received two San Francisco Bay Area Music Awards for his album MultiKuIti, its title a play on the word multicultural. By then Cherry had become a Bay Area resident. According to his press bio, Cherry was also honored when New York City’s jazz station WKCR-FM aired his work for an entire week, broadcasting over 100 hours of recordings, interviews, and commentary dating from 1959.
In 1990, Cherry hit the road with another quartet, also called MultiKuIti, bringing his unique “gumbo” to, and undoubtedly borrowing from, locales from Spain to Japan. He was also performing then with his Hieroglyphics Ensemble big band, which had lent a hand to the MultiKuIti sessions. “It’s a great time in music right now,” Cherry told Detroit Free Press contributor W. Kim Heron at the time, “whether they call it global music, world music, world beat, whatever. I just call it multikulti. “Of the trumpet player’s universal oeuvre Heron wrote, “Cherry’s albums have been like so many postcards mailed home from an incredible musical journey.”
The Shape of Jazz to Come, Atlantic, 1961.
Free Jazz, Atlantic, 1962.
Complete Communion, Blue Note, 1965.
Symphony for Improvisers, Blue Note, 1966.
Where Is Brooklyn?, Blue Note, 1966.
Eternal Rhythm, BASF, 1968.
Human Music, Flying Dutchman, 1970.
Old and New Dreams, ECM, 1970.
Codona, ECM, 1979.
Art Deco, A&M, 1989.
MultiKuIti, A&M, 1991.
Complete Blue Note Recordings of Don Cherry, Mosaic, 1993.
Boston Globe, March 16, 1990.
CMJ New Music Report, November 9, 1990.
Detroit Free Press, August 17, 1990.
Downbeat, December 1990; February 1993.
News and Observer (Raleigh, NC), February 26, 1991.
New Statesman, October 16, 1987.
Newsweek, August 28, 1989.
People, January 22, 1990.
Rolling Stone, December 14, 1989; May 2, 1991.
Stereo Review, February 1990.
Windplayer, Volume 9, Number 3.
Wire, September 1990.
Additional information for this profile was provided by a Brad Simon Organization press biography, 1991.
—B. Kimberly Taylor
Drummer, bandleader, educator
Hailed by the New York Times in his 1992 obituary as "one of the most important drummers in jazz," Ed Blackwell mixed a New Orleans-bred rhythmic sensibility with an affinity for studied experimentation in a style revered for its melodiousness. Blackwell made his name as an early collaborator with saxophonist and free jazz giant Ornette Coleman, but also performed and recorded with such well-known innovators as saxophonists Archie Shepp, Eric Dolphy and, later, David Murray, as well as trumpeter Don Cherry and, briefly, saxophonist John Coltrane. Blackwell's ability to stick to the rigorous gigging and touring schedule required of a jazz artist was hindered by kidney failure, which he suffered in 1973. He continued to support a host of musicians for the next 20 years, however, while keeping up regular dialysis treatments, and in the last years of his life led his own ensemble, the Ed Blackwell Project.
Blackwell was born on October 10, 1929, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and raised in the city's Garden District. Inspired by both the distinctive rhythms of the city's signature parade bands, as well as a thriving R&B scene and the sounds of two tap dancing siblings, Blackwell took an early interest in the drums. He played snare drum at Washington High School and also immersed himself in the city's rhythm-and-blues scene. Drummer Paul Barbarin particularly influenced him, and Blackwell used to visit his mentor at local clubs, although segregation prevented him from interacting with white patrons. "Whenever I had the time to go down to where he was working, he'd always let me sit in," Blackwell recalled in a 1968 issue of Down Beat. "Naturally, they had this segregation thing going, so I always had to go 'round behind the bandstand, but this didn't bother me because it was just such a gas just being there listening. He's beautiful."
Blackwell joined the R&B outfit of brothers Plas Johnson, a pianist, and Charles Johnson, a saxophonist, around 1949. At the same time, he had his first introduction to Ornette Coleman. Blackwell moved to Los Angeles in 1951, and two years later he encountered Coleman again while playing at a friend's house. The two became musical collaborators and roommates, although many audiences proved unreceptive to their experimental, free jazz style. "Of course, when we walked into a joint, everybody would walk off the stage, so we had to go up there and perform, just Ornette and me," Blackwell recalled in a 1977 issue of Down Beat. "We got used to doing it together, because the only time we could get a bass player to even rehearse with us was if we could guarantee him a gig."
Blackwell returned to New Orleans in 1955 and formed the American Jazz Quartet with clarinetist Alvin Batiste, saxophonist Nat Perrilliat, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and bass player Chuck Badie. The group released the album Boogie Live … 1958 on the AFO label in 1958. Blackwell also toured with pianist, singer, and R&B legend Ray Charles in 1957. He moved to New York, where Coleman had relocated, in 1960, and planned to join saxophonist John Coltrane's new outfit. But when Billy Higgins had to leave Coleman's group, Blackwell replaced him for a long-standing gig at the famous Five Spot, and appeared on several albums with Coleman, including 1960's This Is Our Music (with the Ornette Coleman Quartet) and Free Jazz (A Collective Improvisation) (with the Ornette Coleman Double Quartet), two seminal free jazz releases. Coleman paid his friend and bandmate high praise on the liner notes to This Is Our Music. "Ed Blackwell, the drummer, has to my ears one of the most musical ears of playing rhythm of anyone I have heard," he wrote. "This man can play rhythm so close to the tempered notes that one seems to hear them take each other's places."
Following a tour with Coleman, Blackwell returned to the Five Spot to join pianist Mal Waldron and bassist Richard Davis in a combo led by trumpeter Booker Little and saxophonist/bass clarinetist Eric Dolphy. A live recording from those sessions, Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, is considered an important album of the time, as Little died just three months later and Dolphy died in 1964. For the next two years, Blackwell played with trumpeter and fellow Coleman bandmate Don Cherry, and they recorded two albums together on the Blue Note label: Complete Communion, Symphony for Improvisers, and Where Is Brooklyn?. The pair also joined Coltrane on Blue Note's The Avant-Garde in 1967.
That same year, Blackwell visited Africa on a State Department tour with pianist Randy Weston, with whom he had been playing since 1965. The pair returned to the continent a second time, this time staying in Morocco. Both trips profoundly influenced Blackwell's mindset and style. "The freedom I've always felt for drumming I really could hear in the drummers in Africa," he told Down Beat in 1968. "I feel more uninhibited now as far as the right and the wrong things to play are concerned. I began to realize that there's really never any wrong way to play if you play the drums."
Blackwell played with Coleman again in 1969, and in 1971 he joined Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, as an artist-in-residence, where he remained until his death in 1992. In 1973 he was diagnosed with uremia, a chronic kidney malfunction and the same disease that had killed Little. While frequent dialysis treatments limited Blackwell's travels, he remained a mainstay on the New York jazz circuit. In 1976 he co-founded Old and New Dreams with former Coleman bandmates Cherry and bassist Charlie Haden, as well as Dewey Redman on saxophone. The group released their self-titled debut the same year, and issued a second album of the same name in 1979. They also toured internationally.
For the Record …
Born on October 10, 1929, in New Orleans, LA; died on October 7, 1992, in Hartford, CT; married; children: three.
Began playing in New Orleans with a rhythm-and-blues outfit led by saxophonist Plas Johnson and his brother, pianist Raymond Johnson; moved to Los Angeles in 1951, played with saxophonist Ornette Coleman, 1953; formed American Jazz Quintet with clarinetist Alvin Batiste, saxophonist Nat Perrilliat, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and bass player Chuck Badie in New Orleans, 1956; toured with rhythm-and-blues pianist and singer Ray Charles, 1957; replaced Billy Higgins in Coleman's New York-based quartet, 1960-61; joined pianist Mal Waldron, trumpeter Booker Little, and saxophonist Eric Dolphy for gigs at New York's Five Spot and recorded live album with the group, 1961; recorded with trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist Archie Shepp, 1960s; began playing with pianist Randy Weston, 1965, and accompanied him on a State Department tour of Africa; joined Coleman again, 1969-73; joined music faculty of Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, 1971; continued to record with a variety of musicians, even after suffering kidney failure in 1973; formed Old and New Dreams ensemble in 1976; recorded and performed with reed players Anthony Braxton, Jane Ira Bloom, and David Murray, among others, 1980s-1990s; performed in Cherry's quintet Nu, 1984-89; formed Ed Blackwell Project, early 1990s.
Blackwell performed with several leading avant-garde jazz musicians in the 1980s, including reed player Anthony Braxton, soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom, and saxophonist David Murray. He reunited with Waldron during this period as well. Old and New Dreams performed at an Atlanta festival held in Blackwell's honor in 1987, and released a live LP from the event, One for Blackwell, on the Black Saint label. In the early 1990s Blackwell formed the Ed Blackwell Trio with Redman and bassist Cameron Brown, which released the album Walls-Bridges on Black Lion, and then formed the Ed Blackwell Project with cornetist Graham Haynes, saxophonist/flutist Carlos Ward, and bassist Mark Helias. The band issued a self-titled LP in 1992, followed by What It Is? and What It Be Like?, a two-volume account of Blackwell's final live performance at Yoshi's in Oakland, California.
Blackwell died of complications from kidney failure on October 7, 1992. He was survived by his wife, Frances, and three children. In an obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Myrna Oliver quoted Blackwell as stating he had no regrets about assuming bandleader status only late in his career. "I don't really have a leader feeling," he said. "I try to play along with whomever I'm playing with, not so much as an accompanist but an equal." In 1991 Blackwell expressed his thorough enjoyment of his art to the Austin American Statesman's Owen McNally. "Once you get obsessed with doing something that's fun, there's no problem about doing it," he said. "I used to carry sticks in my back pocket with little rubber balls on the end so I could sit down and play on any surface, on cement, or whatever. Anywhere I'd sit down, I'd take out my sticks and practice. I'm still obsessed today—24 hours a day."
(With American Jazz Quintet) Boogie Live … 1958, AFO, 1958.
(With The Ornette Coleman Quartet) This Is our Music, Atlantic, 1960.
(With Ornette Coleman) Twins, Atlantic, 1960.
(With Ornette Coleman Double Quartet) Free Jazz (A Collective Improvisation), Atlantic, 1960.
(With John Coltrane and Don Cherry) The Avant-Garde, Atlantic, 1960.
(With Ornette Coleman) Ornette on the Tenor, Atlantic, 1961.
(With Eric Dolphy) Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot, New Jazz/ODC, 1961.
(With Don Cherry) Complete Communion, Blue Note, 1965.
(With Don Cherry) Symphony for Improvisers, Blue Note, 1965.
(With Don Cherry) Where Is Brooklyn, Blue Note, 1967.
(With John Coltrane and Don Cherry) The Avant-Garde, Atlantic, 1967.
(With Don Cherry) Mu, BYG, 1967.
(With Ornette Coleman) Science Fiction, Columbia, 1971.
(With Old and New Dreams) Old and New Dreams (live), Black Saint/ECM, 1976.
(With Old and New Dreams) Playing, ECM, 1980.
(With Don Cherry) El Corazon, ECM, 1982.
(With Old and New Dreams) One for Blackwell, Black Saint. 1987.
(With Ed Blackwell Trio) Walls-Bridges, Black Lion, 1992.
(With Ed Blackwell Project) Ed Blackwell Project, Enja, 1992.
(With Ed Blackwell Project) What It Is?, Enja, 1992.
(With Ed Blackwell Project) What It Be Like?, Enja, 1994.
Austin American Statesman, May 23, 1991.
Down Beat, October 3, 1968; June 16, 1977.
Los Angeles Times, October 9, 1992.
New York Times, October 9, 1992.
"Ed Blackwell," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 10, 2005).
"Ed Blackwell," Grove Online, http://www.groveonline.com (May 10, 2005).