Don Cherry


 Donald Eugene Cherry

(November 18, 1936 – October 19, 1995)

He was an innovative African-American jazz trumpetist whose career began with a long association with saxophonist Ornette Coleman. He went on to live in many parts of the world and work with a wide variety of musicians.

Cherry was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where his father (who also played trumpet)[1] owned the Cherry Blossom Club, which hosted performances by Charlie Christian and Fletcher Henderson.[2] In 1940, Cherry moved with his family to Los Angeles, California.[2] He lived in the Watts neighborhood, and his father tended bar at the Plantation Club on Central Avenue, which at the time was the center of a vibrant jazz scene.[3][4] Cherry recalled skipping school at Fremont High School in order to play with the swing band at Jefferson High School.[3] This resulted in his transfer to Jacob Riis High School, a reform school,[3] where he first met drummer Billy Higgins.[5][6]

By the early 1950s Cherry was playing with jazz musicians in Los Angeles, sometimes acting as pianist in Art Farmer's group.[7]:134 While trumpeter Clifford Brown was in Los Angeles with Max Roach, Cherry attended a jam session with Brown and Larance Marable at Eric Dolphy's house, and Brown informally mentored Cherry.[3] He also toured with saxophonist James Clay.[8]:45

Cherry became well known in 1958 when he performed and recorded with Ornette Coleman, first in a quintet with pianist Paul Bley and later in what became the predominantly piano-less quartet which recorded for Atlantic Records. During this period, "his lines ... gathered much of their freedom of motion from the free harmonic structures."[8]:289

Cherry co-led The Avant-Garde session which saw John Coltrane replacing Coleman in the Quartet, recorded and toured with Sonny Rollins, was a member of the New York Contemporary Five with Archie Shepp and John Tchicai, and recorded and toured with both Albert Ayler and George Russell. His first recording as a leader was Complete Communion for Blue Note Records in 1965. The band included Coleman's drummer Ed Blackwell as well as saxophonist Gato Barbieri, whom he had met while touring Europe with Ayler.

After leaving Coleman, Don Cherry eschewed the trend towards funk/fusion and continued to play sparse jazz, often in small groups and duets (many with ex-Coleman drummer Ed Blackwell) during a long sojourn in Scandinavia and other locations.

He later appeared on Coleman's 1971 LP Science Fiction, and from 1976 to 1987 reunited with Coleman alumni Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Blackwell in the band Old And New Dreams,[9] recording four albums with them, two for ECM and two for Black Saint, where his "subtlety of rhythmic expansion and contraction" was noted.[8]:290

In the 1970s he ventured into the developing genre of world fusion music. Cherry incorporated influences of Middle Eastern, traditional African, and Indian music into his playing. He studied Indian music with Vasant Rai in the early seventies. From 1978 to 1982, he recorded three albums for ECM with "world jazz" group Codona, consisting of Cherry, percussionist Nana Vasconcelos and sitar and tabla player Collin Walcott.[5]

Cherry also collaborated with classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki on the 1971 album Actions. In 1973, he co-composed the score for Alejandro Jodorowsky's film The Holy Mountain together with Ronald Frangipane and Jodorowsky.

During the 1980s, he recorded again with the original Ornette Coleman Quartet on In All Languages, as well as recording El Corazon, a duet album with Ed Blackwell.

Other playing opportunities in his career came with Carla Bley's Escalator Over The Hill project, and recordings with Lou Reed, Ian Dury, Rip Rig + Panic and Sun Ra.

In 1994, Cherry appeared on the Red Hot Organization's compilation CD, Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool, on a track titled "Apprehension" alongside The Watts Prophets.[10] The album, meant to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic in African American society was named "Album of the Year" by Time Magazine.

Cherry died on October 19, 1995 at age 58 from liver cancer in Málaga, Spain.[1]

His stepdaughters Neneh Cherry and Titiyo and his sons David Cherry and Eagle-Eye Cherry are also musicians.

Cherry was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame in 2011.


Don Cherry learned to play various brass instruments in high school.[7]:134 Throughout his career, Cherry played pocket cornet (though Cherry identified this as a pocket trumpet), trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, and bugle.[11][12]

Cherry began his career as a pianist, and would continue playing piano and organ.[11]

After returning from a musical and cultural journey through Africa, Cherry often played the doussn'gouni, a stringed instrument with a gourd body (see ngoni). During his international journeys, he also collected a variety of non-Western instruments, which he mastered and often played in performances and on recordings. Among these instruments were berimbau, bamboo flutes and assorted percussion instruments.[11]

Technique and style

Cherry's trumpet influences included Miles Davis, Fats Navarro, Clifford Brown, and Harry Edison.[11] Journalist Howard Mandel suggests Henry "Red" Allen as a precedent (given Allen's "blustery rather than Armstrong-brazen brass sound, jauntily unpredictable melodic streams, squeezed-off and/or half-valve effects and repertoire including novelty vocals")[13] while Ekkehard Jost cites Wild Bill Davison.[7]:138

Some critics have noted shortcomings in Cherry's technique.[5][7]:137[11] Ron Wynn writes that "[Cherry's] technique isn't always the most efficient; frequently, his rapid-fired solos contain numerous missed or muffed notes. But he's a master at exploring the trumpet and cornet's expressive, voice-like properties; he bends notes and adds slurs and smears, and his twisting solos are tightly constructed and executed regardless of their flaws."[11] Jost notes the tendency for writers to focus on Cherry's "technical insecurity," but asserts that "the problem lies elsewhere. Perfect technical control in extremely fast tempos was more or less risk-free as long as the improviser had to deal with standard changes that were familiar to him from years of working with them.… In the music of the Ornette Coleman Quartet – a 'new-found-land' where the laws and habits of functional harmony do not apply – there is no use for patterns that had been worked out on that basis."[7]:137

Miles Davis was initially dismissive of Cherry's playing, claiming that "anyone can tell that guy's not a trumpet player – it's just notes that come out, and every note he plays he looks serious about, and people will go for that, especially white people.".[13] According to Cherry, however, when Davis attended an Ornette Coleman performance at The Five Spot, he was impressed with Cherry's playing and sat in with the group using Cherry's pocket trumpet.[13] Later, in a 1964 Down Beat blindfold test, Davis indicated that he admired Cherry's playing.[14]


As leader

With Old and New Dreams

With Codona

 As sideman

With Ornette Coleman

With the New York Contemporary Five

With Albert Ayler

With Charlie Haden

With Sun Ra

  • Hiroshima (1983)
  • Stars That Shine Darkly (1983)
  • Purple Night (1990)
  • Somewhere Else (1993)

With others