The world needs a really great Don Cherry biography, one that would do full justice to the story of the man whose collaboration with Ornette Coleman brought a completely new set of attitudes to the business of playing jazz at the end of the 1950s and who then, rather than polishing his laurels, set out on a long and eventful mission to explore the music of the world. Until someone approaches the task with the sort the depth and sensitivity that characterised Robin D. G. Kelley’s study of Thelonious Monk or John Szwed’s Miles Davis biog, a new anthology titled Organic Music Societies will do to be going on with.
A 496-page compendium of pieces, poems, photographs and artwork, it was compiled and edited by Lawrence Kumpf — the curator of the Cecil Taylor exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York five years ago — with Naima Karlsson (Cherry’s granddaughter) and the writer Magnus Nygren, and published by Kumpf’s Brooklyn-based Blank Forms imprint. Writings by early champions Keith Knox and Rita Knox, the Swedish artist and musician Christer Bothén, the curator Ruba Katrib, the music historian Ben Young and the academic Fumi Okiji sit alongside contributions from Moki Cherry, Don’s wife, and Neneh Cherry, his stepdaughter.
It’s full of fascinating stuff, much of it coming from several interviews with Cherry conducted by Knox. In one lengthy reminiscence, he talks about Miles Davis borrowing his pocket trumpet to play on a gig in California, and about Monk coming to see the Coleman quartet at the Five Spot in 1959. Discussing the Argentinian tenorist Gato Barbieri, a member of his band in the ’60s, he says: “Gato is a fantastic man. He’s got so much love in him, automatically in his sound, and he’s paid a lot of dues, he’s come a long way from where he’s from, down in Buenos Aires. You can hear that in his sound — it’s one of those sounds that puts the wind in your face.”
One of those sounds that puts the wind in your face. What a great thing to say, and somehow it seems very typical of the way Cherry heard and felt music, as a part of the elements of the natural world — the response of a man who took as much pleasure from playing the doussn’gouni, the African hunter’s harp, as from his trumpet. Thanks to what he discovered during his travels to Turkey, Morocco, Sweden and elsewhere, he collapsed the distance between the supposedly primitive and the supposedly sophisticated more effectively than any musician I can think of.
There are diaries, a piece on Pandit Pran Nath and an interview with Terry Riley, a conversation with Cherry about his term as artist in residence at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and a description by Moki of her background in Sweden and how she and Don met in Stockholm in 1963 and what happened next. I suppose you could say it’s a bit of a random selection, but the parts are tied together by the visual element, which includes a large number of interesting photos and a lot of the paintings, fabrics and tapestries with which Moki gave such a strong flavour to her husband’s work when they were used as stage backdrops, costumes, posters and flyers and on the covers of albums like Mu First and Second Parts, Relativity Suite and Organic Music Society.
If the book has a strong flavour of the children-at-play utopianism of the ’60s, when many of the pieces were first published, so be it. You might feel, after leafing through it, that even now, against all the odds, utopianism deserves its chance.
* Organic Music Societies can be ordered from the publisher at http://www.blankforms.org ($20 paperback, $60 hardback). The photograph of Don Cherry is from the book and was taken by Moki Cherry.