Mes après-midis chez Don Cherry

In the spring of 1969, as an aspiring jazz drummer of 15 pretentiously and largely uncomprehendingly drawn to the music's difficult avant-garde, I learned that Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman's alter ego during Ornette's starvation years and an icon of free jazz himself, had recently moved to the village of Congers in my native Rockland County, New York, just north of New York City. Ornette was putting together a group drawn mostly from his early cohorts, and the call went out to Stockholm, where Don had settled—to the extent that he settled anywhere—with his Swedish wife, Moki. Hence his arrival practically on my doorstep.

One evening after dinner, without thinking twice—what nerve, I've often thought—I dialed 411, as one did back then, got Cherry's number, and gave him a call.

I discovered within minutes that Don Cherry was a welcoming, open individual, perfectly happy to hang on the phone for 90 minutes with an eager-beaver teenaged stranger. We talked about everything: Don's globetrotting life, how Ornette called Don "The Changes Man" because of his harmonic knowledge, and not least about how exciting it was to be living in these times, with the counterculture in full swing. Don had no problem with hippies—he loved hippies, he was the original hippie. Before we rang off, it was settled: I would bring my drums to Don's house, and we would see what came of it.

Too young to drive, I coerced my older brother to help me load my black Ludwigs into the family Volkswagen, and off we drove. We arrived at what turned out to be a ramshackle two-story house in a rundown part of town. We were met by a man with an aura you could cut with a knife.

What an indescribable thrill the next hour was, looking up from my obligatory rubato rolls and cymbal crashes—this was the avant-garde; play in time and you're dead—to see Don Cherry as I'd seen him in photo after photo, blowing his signature pocket trumpet, a piece of hardware you could hold in the palm of your hand, cheeks puffed out (Don was a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Distended Cheeks School of trumpet playing), brow furrowed in concentration, right here in this room, playing with me. When we knocked off, he gave me a nod and said, "You've got that infant energy I love." I could have died then and there. The drums stayed at Don's house when my brother and I pulled away.

"How did it sound?" I eagerly asked.

My brother shrugged. "Like the stuff you're always listening to," which could not have made me happier. I'd made the grade.

Don and I spent a good part of that spring together, the hippie spring of 1969, tooling around the county in his beat-up '50s Chevy, Don, ever curious, taking it all in, the suburban wasteland I could hardly wait to put behind me. One Saturday, I brought him to my school's annual Kite Day, where we watched the sky blossom with hand-painted kites. Don lay back on the hillside, propped on his elbows, and said, "Man, I really enjoy this kind of scene."

Don's adorable 5-year-old stepdaughter, Neneh—yes, that Neneh Cherry, years away from hip-hop superstardom—often came along. An engaged if inconsistent parent, Don worked to keep the little girl entertained. I especially remember one pitch-black night on the Palisades Parkway, Don leading us in a singalong of "Yellow Submarine" (he was no avant-garde purist), trying to catch us off guard by omitting every fifth or so syllable: "We all [silence] in a yellow [silence]-marine, a yellow subma- [silence]," Neneh rolling in delight in the back seat (seatbelts not required; Don's jalopy wouldn't even have had any).


One afternoon, Don and I drove into the city, to the first rehearsal of the reunited band. It gave me almost as much of a shiver as playing with Don to sit on a trunk in what later became famous as "The Prince Street Loft," actually a cavernous, groundfloor, barely converted industrial space in what was not yet SoHo. Its big metal doors opened directly onto the street, where passersby glanced in as they hurried past. Resplendent in a purple crushed-velvet suit (Ornette designed his own notoriously gaudy outfits, celebrating himself after years of threadbare anonymity), the great shatterer of norms sat at a sort of pulpit, writing something, never so much as looking up as the others drifted in: bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Ed Blackwell—gods to me—and the only member not from Ornette's scuffling days, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman.

Tuning his bass, Haden started ranting about celebrities who had spoken at an anti–Vietnam War rally he'd attended the night before. To Charlie's mind, they were Johnny-come-latelies to the cause. "I mean, Norman Mailer, for fuck's sake!" he fumed.

Ornette looked up.

"Charlie," he said, "you been hanging around black people so long"—except Ornette didn't say "black people"—"you are one." It was the only sentence I ever heard Ornette Coleman speak.

Nor, try as I might, can I summon any memory of the music I heard that day. My visual memories are so vivid, they take up all the available space. But you can hear how the group sounded at the time on YouTube, on the only record they ever released, "Man on the Moon," a single for Impulse! Records cut in the abandoned factory that July 7. In step with the rest of the world for once, Ornette was counting down to the Apollo 11 liftoff.

Don and I played together only once or twice after our first session. On my final visit, one lovely, late-spring afternoon, Moki came to the door. Don was sleeping, she said. Maybe he wanted to play? Moki looked doubtful but went upstairs to see, and came back down and said that no, Don needed his rest. I was crushed but not surprised. Complimentary though he'd been, one could not expect a musical mind as voracious as his to find so modest a diet nourishing for long. "Don liked to drop in and do his thing," Sonny Rollins once said. "He wanted to travel light."

TNtransplant's picture

One of my most cherished musical performance memories is hearing a duet between Cherry and Ed Blackwell in what was billed a "Mu Part 3"

Remember being mesmerized listening to the unamplified sound of Cherry's pocket trumpet and Blackwell's percussion (especially log drum) in a small church basement on the Penn campus circa 1978(?)

That's the sound, or perhaps more precisely feeling, I'm looking to replicate when listening to music at home. For me, it's not about fixating on if my tonearm VTA is set just right or a next upgrade or recording quality but the musical experience.

Having just gotten back from another Axpona it seems that's often missing in rooms with increasingly absurd prices playing the same boring "sonic spectaculars" or AOR war horses.

bdiament's picture

Wow! Thank you for this Tony.
What a surprise to read that Don Cherry lived in Congers. For 20 years, I lived a few blocks from the Congers line in the next "town." I wonder where in Congers he was.

I remember several nights in a row back in the early '70s, when I went down to Columbia University to watch Don teach his "Relativity Suite" to the Jazz Composers' Orchestra. At the end of the week, Don and the Orchestra performed the work for the audience. How fascinating it was to see the performance take shape over the course of a week, and then to hear the final show.

Here's to Don: One of my jazz heroes.

Best regards,