JJ 09/91: Don Cherry interviewed while playing the Jazz Café

Thirty years ago the cornet player, playing a residency at London's Jazz Café, talked to Martin Isherwood. First published in Jazz Journal September 1991

336
Don Cherry at the Bracknell Jazz Festival, 5 July 1986. Photo by Derick A. Thomas

‘As a child – before 1950 when I first got a trumpet – I had taken some piano lessons and I remember when my mother first gave me the trumpet she said before I could play it I had to learn how to oil it and show her I could do it. So I had to oil it and then after­wards she said OK now it’s your horn, you got it!

‘I was so excited to play music – I was too excited! I remember my first big lesson, how breathing was so important, because when you first play the trumpet if you play incor­rectly, behind your ears there, it sorta pops.

‘I remember the feeling of wanting to play a melody – I wanted to hear the horn swing. I was actually 14 years old and I just remem­ber the feeling of wanting to play a melody and to swing. One of the first songs I remem­ber was Ave Maria and from that I went to learning Charlie Parker songs – there was one song called Perhaps – but one of the main songs that you learn I think, and all my kids have learned, is the 12-bar blues because once you’ve learned the 12-bar blues you’re in business.

‘I started at junior high school and that was where I took lessons playing in a big band. We were playing in the orchestra in a march­ing band and there was another musician named George Newman that I started out with and he played alto saxophone. We started together and all through junior high school we played together.

‘We played dances – we played the songs that were popular. At that time they were all the rhythm & blues songs, and groups like The Platters and The Penguins. They were all like groups from my neighbourhood and we learned all those songs to play for dances and then after the dance was over we would jam. It was a whole repertoire of songs that you would have to know to get on the bandstand, especially in Los Angeles around that time.

You see, a lot of people think if you play free jazz you don’t know about form, but I come from a tradition of learning the chords and not only just learning for improvising but learning the forms at the piano.

‘The players there in Watts were like Sonny Criss and Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray, and Art Farmer was around and there was Harper Cosby who was a great bass player who I learned the chord changes from and he really took an interest in me. He really kept me on the right road, you know learning chords and the form of standards. You see, a lot of people think if you play free jazz you don’t know about form, but I come from a tradition of learning the chords and not only just learning for improvising but learning the forms at the piano.

‘I was very serious about music from the beginning because dancing was most important for playing. All the music that’s ever come from black America has always been danceable and there was always a dance to the music; even in bebop there was a dance called The Bop! They said Thelonious Monk was way out but he would dance on the band­stand while the saxophone would be solo­ing – when I heard Monk he was with Charlie Rouse and Johnny Griffin. Monk would get up and dance and he was showing that you could dance to the music.

I really liked Miles because he would play with vibrato, and the one that played with vibrato and did it really to me in a way of a voice was Fats Navarro

‘I was always very serious because of wanting to play and the love I had for the art­ists I was listening to at the time which were Bird, Monk and Fats Navarro – I would listen to everybody. Louis Armstrong was always an important inspiration, but Fats Navarro and Miles were the ones I really liked. I really liked Miles because he would play with vibrato, and the one that played with vibrato and did it really to me in a way of a voice was Fats Navarro.

‘Then I met Clifford Brown who came out to California and started a group with Max Roach and I was there when Clifford Brown was trying out the saxophone players Harold Land and Walter Benton and it was a hard decision for Brownie. I remember him say­ing that, because Harold Land was always a good player and Walter Benton was really something special.

‘Walter Benton played in the Paul Gonsalves/Lucky Thompson tradition and I think he’s a great player. We used to jam together and Frank Morgan was around then too – he was always a good friend and he was helpful to us because we were younger than every­one else. We would jam together, along with Art Farmer and Hampton Hawes. There were a lot of other players. There was a piano player who played with Bird when Bird came out to California. Then I met Ornette Coleman.

‘I met him in Watts in this record shop that we used to all hang out at and he was buying reeds at that time. Ornette would play a very thick reed – four and a half – now I think he plays a 10 but he was developing his embou­chure and he used to play a thick reed. We met at this record shop and I had known Janie Cortez who was a famous American black woman poet that lived in the neighbourhood. Janie lived around the comer from me and we went to the same junior high school and she was like my guru – she would turn me on to all the records. George Newman and I would borrow all the records – Bird or Monk or Bud Powell – and learn the song and then we’d take our horns back with the record and play the tune for her and give the record back and she’d lend us another one! That went on for quite a few years and that’s how I learned all those songs.

‘I met Billy Higgins at this school they sent you to if you got in trouble and we started playing together. We had a group called The Jazz Messiahs with Billy Higgins, George Newman and myself. Harper Cosby would also play with the group and then we had a bass player Pee Wee Lawrence – I think Lawrence Williams was his name but everybody called him Pee Wee. Also Percy Heath played with us – we were playing a lot of tunes that the Modem Jazz Quartet did, like Django and One Bass Hit and their arrangements because we were very much inspired by John Lewis and later on we met him.

‘Ornette and I went to San Francisco to ask Percy Heath to play on a record, which he did, and that’s where we met John Lewis and he was encouraging. I just recently found a CD that I didn’t know about from this school that we went to called Lenox School of Jazz. John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, George Rus­sell and Jimmy Giuffre were all teaching there along with Herb Pomeroy who started the Berklee School. Ornette and I had a scholarship to go to this school and some of the students ended up being Gary MacFarland, Larry Ridley, David Baker, Attila Zoller and many other people. One of the teachers there that I studied with was Kenny Dorham.

‘We had a big band with Herb Pomeroy and we studied the Lydian concept with George Russell. We were already profession­als and we were just about to make the first record, Something Else, at that time but it was important for us to go to this school because Omette was working on his concept which now is called the harmolodic concept which I feel that I am still studying. I feel that he has always been a teacher for us and a lot of young musicians didn’t realise that Ornette would notate his music – everybody thought that we were just playing anything!

At that time a lot of young musicians thought free jazz was just playing anything. That term, free jazz – the critics came up with that . . . and people thought that you didn’t have to pay!

‘At that time a lot of young musicians thought free jazz was just playing anything. That term, free jazz – the critics came up with that – and the first time that we played a concert in Cincinnati with the double quartet the concert was advertised as free jazz and people thought that you didn’t have to pay! So there were lots of people but nobody wanted to pay, so we didn’t play that night!

‘There’s quite a story behind the recording of that first record. We had played with our group The Jazz Messiahs all the way up from Los Angeles to Vancouver – British Columbia – and I stayed up in Canada. I was living with Dave Schwerins, an alto sax­ophone player who was playing from the Lennie Tristano, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh school, so it was good for me. I was learning those songs and that concept, and planned to work in Canada and work across to New York but then Ornette telephoned and said he had a record session with Lester Koenig for Contemporary so I came back to Los Angeles.

‘After Lenox School we went back to Los Angeles and we practised and studied for almost a year before we came to New York to play at the Five Spot. Me and Billy and Cha­rlie would practise during the day – me and Ornette would practise early and learn new compositions. Billy and Charlie would come over in the afternoon and we would practise all during the day and then at night I would practise the things I was studying for the trumpet. Then we’d start again the next day the same way – me and Ornette would prac­tise in the morning then we’d learn new com­positions that Ornette had written and he would put harmonies to the melodies and arrange the music. It would take a lot of work and we did that before coming to play at the Five Spot. When we came to the Five Spot everybody came, from Thelonious Monk to Leonard Bernstein.

‘It was very difficult because we played at the Five Spot for a long time and never got a raise. Ornette never really made any money even though the club was going very good – they even bought another club! You could say that Atlantic Records and Nesuhi Erte­gun were really trying to promote the records and because of that we did get heard on the East Coast, but actually we had to come and prove ourselves. We were there at least six months and then we left and came back. They would have two groups and some we played next to were The Jazztet, who’d just started at that time – Randy Weston, Jimmy Giuffre, Mal Waldron and Cecil Payne.

‘Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins were in the original quartet and then the change of Ed Blackwell came. Blackwell was living in New Orleans and had been playing with Ornette in Los Angeles – that’s where I first met Blackwell. He has a whole concept him­self in drumming that I feel is an influence in Ornette’s writing. They studied together and discovered things together – they were something special and to hear them two play together really is a phenomenon.

‘In Indian music later on I realised how it happens. When a tabla and an instrumentalist play together they come that close. Blackwell to me has always been a teacher and a challenge to play with. He’s one of the only black American jazz musicians from New Orleans – used to play the second line, used to tap dance in the street – and yet was strictly a jazz bebop man, and this in New Orleans, you know! He used to play with great musicians like Ellis Marsalis and the clarinet player Harold Batiste.

‘I had never really gone to New Orleans until later years but Blackwell came to play with the group in 1960, ’61 in Los Angeles and Scott LaFaro we also knew from Los Angeles. I remember the time when Scott LaFaro and Charlie Haden were living in this duplex garage and I’d come in the back and on the right-hand side would be Charlie Haden’s stuff and on the left hand side was Scott LaFaro’s room and they would both be practising – I didn’t know which room to go to!

‘Charlie always played at the bottom of the bass – the way he plays is that there’s always more bottom. He can keep going down, down and you think he comes to the bottom of the bass and like he goes further down. Scott LaFaro was the opposite – he plays the top of the bass. To me he brought the bass into a cello clef and he was quite an instrumentalist with quite a technique. He was the first bass player I had seen that played the bass as a guitar where he used all of his fingers – walking or solo, he would use all his fingers as you would a classical guitar.

I studied Pepe Habichuela – he’s a flam­enco player from Spain who lives in Madrid. Pepe is a great master and the technique of the way that he fingers the guitar I can see now is the same kind of approach that Scott LaFaro used

‘I studied Pepe Habichuela – he’s a flam­enco player from Spain who lives in Madrid. Pepe is a great master and the technique of the way that he fingers the guitar I can see now is the same kind of approach that Scott LaFaro used, Scott turned me on to a lot of classical music that I’d never heard, such as pieces for unaccompanied cello.

‘Someone else who turned me on to a lot of classical music when I moved to New York was Steve Lacy, who is an institution within himself! He turned me on to a lot of art and composers like Stravinsky and Webern and all the contemporary and classical pieces – he turned me on to all that.

‘I have been developing from the experi­ences that I had, and my mind has stayed open and I am still trying to develop in music. Having children that are involved in music and hearing what they are doing makes you stay up in what’s going on. Also, during my travels I met many masters who wanted to share with me the knowledge of their own culture and music. This includes Turkey, Africa and India – those are the countries that I’ve travelled in. I’ve also stayed at home in Oklahoma with my Choctaw American Indian ancestors and I’m very happy that I’ve met Jim Pepper, a tenor saxophone player who’s American Indian. He’s Kaw Indian and some of the songs that he’s written or that he’s continued from his tribe – the Kaw and Cheyenne tribes – some of their songs that he’s put the jazz touch to keep alive the American Indian tradition in music.

‘The boogie is a term I like. You know like you say that when something swings, some­thing’s groovy, something’s cookin’, some­thing’s jumpin’ – you know it’s all those words that I like – like dances. The boogie is an experience we use and it’s really like bouncing or jumping – makes you wanna feel like dancing, which jazz has always done. In Indian music that drum is like a boo­gie, and I’ve also found that in balafon music in Africa. It has that bounce to it and Bud Powell always spoke about bounce and he had that tune Bouncing With Bud.

In harmolodics you play melodies where you can hear the harmony in the mel­odies – each note – and it’s not just the notes it’s tones. You think more of tones than notes … Charlie Parker, he played all the same 12 notes but Charlie Parker’s sound is what makes it swing

‘This word harmolodics that Ornette uses – in harmolodics you play melodies where you can hear the harmony in the mel­odies – each note – and it’s not just the notes it’s tones. You think more of tones than notes because you know a lot of musicians feel that notes is music and I feel like it’s more tones. The tone and the sound is what makes it swing because Charlie Parker, he played all the same 12 notes but Charlie Parker’s sound is what makes it swing and keeps it alive and Duke Ellington and his music – you hear it now and it’s still alive. It’s like gold and it’s just as old as it is new.

‘Brilliance is another thing that keeps it alive and that’s why I’m involved in ethnic music and ethnic instruments. To me that’s what jazz is – to me it’s improvised music and contemporary music – and improvised music will always be there and there’ll always be somebody who’s swinging today, thank God.

‘We’re living in a time when there’s a lot of technology and I don’ t put it down – I feel it can be done with a lot of taste but I put a lot of value in and have a lot of respect for acoustic music because there’s a lot of sur­prises and mysteries in acoustic music. You listen to high-decibel electronic music, it like pushes you against the wall, but when you hear acoustic music it brings you into it. I think that’s something we should put value on. Having a lot of respect for acoustic music is part of the same continuum as caring about what technology is doing to the planet.

‘I’m very sad that not enough Americans really feel that jazz is a part of the culture in America. A lot of young Americans don’t know that, especially young black Americans. They know more about it here in Europe and in Japan than they do in America, and magazines like Jazz Journal would be magazines that would be used in this education.

‘The difference between playing in Europe and in America is that in America it is a business world where in Europe it’s what they call culture. It’s culture for sale but it needs to be exposed. Black Americans are the ones who need to get the information because they are least informed, and I think that the only way that’s gonna happen is through the media and magazines like Jazz Journal.

‘I’m so happy in London that they have a jazz station. I think that’s great and so are places like the Jazz Café. I know that Ronnie Scott’s has been holding it down for a long time and there’s been other clubs too that have come up and gone down in London and have been holding it down. I know about that from the different South African musicians who have lived here.

‘I’ve come up with Abdullah Ibrahim and so South African music is something special. The whole problem of being able to play together is like what happened in the begin­ning when jazz musicians in the south would have to face the wall to play. They couldn’t play and face the audience because they were black and people couldn’t come in and rejoice together because of colour. It was so far-fetched, man, and so far out to understand what music can do to a human being’s soul and that we cannot do it together and can’t be stirred inwardly and express that outwardly.

‘The social thing in the music has been a very important part of how jazz music is put together – it’s almost like meeting around the fire. That meeting and dancing around the fire is a part of the importance of acoustic music and gives me hope for the future.’