My afternoons at Don Cherry’s
In the spring of 1969, as a 15-year-old aspiring jazz drummer lured pretentiously and largely uncomprehendingly by the difficult avant-garde of music, I learned that Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman’s alter ego during the famine years of Ornette and an icon of free jazz himself, had recently moved to the village of Congers in my home county of Rockland, New York, just north of New York. Ornette was putting together a group of mostly his early cohorts, and the call went to Stockholm, where Don had settled down – as far as he’d settled down anywhere – with his Swedish wife, Moki. Hence its arrival practically at my doorstep.
One evening after dinner, without thinking twice – how cheeky, I’ve often thought – I dialed 411, as they did back then, got Cherry’s number and called it. called.
I discovered within minutes that Don Cherry was a welcoming and open person, perfectly happy to hang up on the phone for 90 minutes with a passionate foreign teenager. We talked about everything: Don’s globe-trotting life, how Ornette called Don “The Changes Man” because of his harmonic knowledge, and especially how exciting it was to live in this era, with the counterculture in full swing . Don had no problem with hippies – he loved hippies, he was the original hippie. Before hanging up, it was decided: I would bring my drums to Don’s, and we would see what would happen.
Too young to drive, I forced my older brother to help me load my black Ludwigs into the Volkswagen wagon, and off we went. We arrived at what turned out to be a ramshackle two-story house in a run-down part of town. We were greeted 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 – it was avant-garde; play back in time and you’re dead – to see Don Cherry as I had seen him in photo after photo, blowing his signature pocket trumpet, a piece of gear you could hold in the palm of your hand, cheeks puffed out (Don was a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Distended Cheeks School of Trumpeter), brow furrowed in concentration, right here in this roomplay with me. When we stopped, he gave me a nod and said, “You have that childish energy that I love.” I could have died on the spot. The drums stayed with Don when my brother and I moved away.
“How did that sound? I asked impatiently.
My brother shrugged. “Like the stuff you always listen to”, which couldn’t have made me happier. I had made the note.
Don and I spent a good part of that spring together, the hippie spring of 1969, riding around the county in his 50’s Chevy, Don, always curious, taking in everything, the suburban wilderness I could hardly expect 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 laid down on the side of the hill, propped up on his elbows, and said, “Man, I really like this kind of scene.”
Don’s adorable 5-year-old daughter-in-law Neneh – yes, that Neneh Cherry, years away from the hip-hop superstar – came often. An engaged if inconsistent parent, Don tried hard to keep the little girl entertained. I especially remember one dark night on the Palisades Parkway, Don dragging us into a single of “Yellow Submarine” (he wasn’t an avant-garde purist), trying to catch us off guard by omitting about every fifth syllable: “We all [silence] in a yellow [silence]-marine, a yellow submarine- [silence],” Neneh rolls with joy in the backseat (no seatbelts required; Don’s jalopy wouldn’t even have had one).
One afternoon, Don and I drove into town, to the first rehearsal of the reunited band. It gave me almost as much chills as playing with Don sitting on a chest in what later became famous as “The Prince Street Loft”, actually a cavernous industrial space, on the ground floor. floor, barely converted in what was not yet SoHo. Its large metal doors opened directly onto the street, where passers-by peeked as they passed. Resplendent in a purple crushed-velvet suit (Ornette designed his own notoriously garish outfits, celebrating himself after years of threadbare anonymity), the great norm-breaker sat at some sort of pulpit, writing something, never as much as the others. adrift: bassist Charlie Haden, drummer Ed Blackwell – gods to me – and the only member not from Ornette’s brawling era, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman.
Tuning his bass, Haden began raving about the celebrities who had spoken at an anti-Vietnam War rally he had attended the night before. In Charlie’s mind, they were Johnny’s latest arrivals to the cause. “I mean Norman MessagingHoly shit!” he fumed.
Ornette looked up.
“Charlie,” he said, “you’ve been hanging out with black people for so long” — except Ornette didn’t say “black people” — “you are one.” That’s the only phrase I’ve ever heard Ornette Coleman say.
Nor, despite my efforts, can I recall the slightest memory of the music I heard that day. My visual memories are so vivid that they take up all the available space. But you can hear how the band sounded back then on YouTube, on the only record they ever released, “Man on the Moon”, a single for Impulse! Records broken in the disused factory on July 7. In tune with the rest of the world for once, Ornette was counting down to the liftoff of Apollo 11.
Don and I only played together once or twice after our first session. On my last visit, a beautiful late spring afternoon, Moki came to the door. Don was asleep, she said. Maybe he wanted to play? Moki looked dubious but went up to see, and came back down and said no, Don needed a rest. I was appalled but not surprised. Free as it was, one could not expect such a voracious musical mind as his to find such a modest and nutritious diet for long. “Don liked to come and do his thing,” Sonny Rollins once said. “He wanted to travel light.”