Obituary: Don Cherry

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The Independent Online
"Let's play the music," Ornette Coleman said, "not the background!" It might sound like an innocuous remark, but with it Coleman summarised the hectic and lawless jazz revolution which he and the trumpeter Don Cherry led in the Fifties.

What Coleman and Cherry did was to remove the background from the music, and to dispense with improvisation on chord progressions, the root of jazz until that time. This was what became known as Free Jazz, a music without rules. Cherry, the drummer Ed Blackwell and the bassist Charlie Haden made up the Ornette Coleman Quintet and, as most jazz innovators do, they came under fire from the critics, who were ever protective of the established jazz style. The critics had more ammunition than usual, for at that stage Cherry and Coleman appeared to have little musical ability. They had no concern with tone or pitch and their musical knowledge was suspect, to say the least.

Cherry's playing seemed to be distilled from many sources, and at this period was the element in the quartet which new listeners could most easily key on to. But the free ensembles, the sloppy playing and the inconsistency of melody seemed an impertinence in the face of revered virtuosi like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and, most particularly, Miles Davis.

At the end of the Fifties the quartet made albums like Something Else!!!!, Change of the Century and Free Jazz, now accepted as classics but then reviled as junk not very carefully cobbled together. Modern jazz had split into two directions. Coleman and Cherry offered a signpost to the future as they saw it.

Miles Davis, with his contemporary emotional and carefully engineered album Kind of Blue, pointed his signpost in the direction of an opposite future. Whereas Coleman and Cherry threw out the chord structure from their compositions, Davis had found, as his new album showed, a replacement for improvising on chords by improvising on modal scales, a method which allowed great freedom while keeping the soloists on a recognisable path. The debate about which method was best has caused anguish in jazz ever since.

Cherry's family moved to Los Angeles when he was four and his father became a bartender at the Plantation Club, where the boy heard visiting stars like Billy Eckstine and Erskine Hawkins. "My sister and I would dance at my father's parties just before we went to bed," Cherry said. "The people would throw money and they would give us a taste. Then they'd take the rest and go out and buy a bottle. My grandmother married a wrestler named Tiger Nelson, who also played the piano. He used to take me with him to the various places he played. My mother had to buy me a horn, but my father didn't want me to play and get mixed up with musicians because of the dope thing. Sometimes I'd have to sneak out to play."

Cherry took time off school to practise, but was caught and sent to a truants' detention school. Here he met the drummer Billy Higgins, later an early member of the Ornette Coleman cartel. Cherry met Coleman for the first time in Los Angeles and they played their first job together in 1957. After their first record date the two moved to New York. Of the free-ranging quartet Cherry said, "Four people playing strong, really in tune with themselves. That's really something. It's counterpoint in its greatest state. One. And one covers a whole lot of space."

Cherry left Coleman in the early Sixties to work with a string of partners which included Steve Lacy, Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler. The international jazz critics unbent enough to choose Cherry as the trumpet talent deserving wider recognition in the 1963 Down Beat poll. Despite the accolade, Cherry had trouble finding work. He led the New York Quintet, with Shepp and John Tchicai, for a time and from 1964 to 1966 co-led a band with the saxophonist Gato Barbieri in Europe. During this period he recorded his two most noted albums, Complete Communion and Symphony for Improvisers.

He criss-crossed the world, playing and studying various musics and emerged as an icon of Third World Music - or "World Music", as it has now become. He moved away from what many people would have regarded as jazz to work with the rock singers Lou Reed and Ian Drury and formed a trio, Codona, with Nana Vasconcelos and Collin Walcott. Cherry mastered several esoteric instruments including flute, bamboo flute, percussion instruments, a variant on the guitar and berimbau. He had learnt the piano as a child, but his recorded forays on the instrument are simplistic. In his early years he gave up the trumpet in favour of a pocket cornet - and incorporated African and Indian ethnic music into his own. He formed a band, Old and New Dreams, made up of men who had all played with Ornette Coleman and later had a band with the saxophonist Carlos Ward called Nu, which toured Britain in 1987.

Not an articulate trumpeter, he instead probed at the tone qualities he could get from his horn and used unorthodox devices to produce the sounds he wanted. He used chanted mantras and drones and latterly brought Arabic-Turkish music into his repertoire. Although he cited the trumpeters Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis and Harry Edison as influences, there was seldom any palpable extraction from them in his work.

He later had a successful reunion with Ornette Coleman, but for the last year he had been ill at the home of his daughter, the popular singer Neneh Cherry, in Malaga.

Donald Eugene Cherry, cornettist, bandleader: born Oklahoma City 18 November 1936; died Malaga, Spain 19 October 1995.