Don Cherry

Charlie Haden Remembers Don Cherry

by Ken McCarthy

I read in the newspaper that Charlie Haden was going to speak about the music and life of Don Cherry as part of the San Francisco Jazz Festival and I wanted to hear him. I also had a 15,000 word manuscript due the day after his talk which needed to be edited and proofread - and large parts still needed to be written.

So the morning of the day of the talk, I kept saying to myself: "Can't go. Gotta be practical. Can't go. Gotta be practical. Can't go. Gotta be practical. "But when the clock struck 10 AM, the time the talk was scheduled to begin, I picked up the phone and called a taxi: "I'm going."

I arrived a little late and the room was standing room only. Haden sat in the front of the room wired for sound. Behind him was a big plate glass window looking out over a plaza. It was an unusually windy day and a row of bushes just outside the window was dancing wildly. A group of teenage girls walked by, looked in and, surprised by the big group on the other side of the glass, waved and giggled as they floated past.

Inside, all was calm and quiet as Charlie Haden took us through his memories of the forty year friendship and collaboration he enjoyed with Don Cherry.

Out of nowhere

Of course, when you talk about the career of Don Cherry, his story is intertwined with one of the most amazing tales in America's cultural history: the sudden explosion - seemingly out of nowhere - of a group of extraordinary musicians and their unprecedented music into the forefront on the world's musical consciousness.

I arrived just as Haden was talking about the gig at the Hillcrest Club in Los Angeles. This was the first time Ornette, Don Cherry, and Charlie Haden played together in public. They already had an album out "Something Else" and had worked intensely at Don Cherry's home, but this was their first public gig.

Haden recounted the night Nesuhi Ertegun came to the club and the group's first recording session for Ertegun's label, Atlantic Records. Most of the pieces were recorded in one take. They went in and just did it.

The Gig of the Century

The trip to New York and the Five Spot in the early fall of 1959. . . Cherry brought one of those "little suitcase" record players along with him and he and Haden spent hours listening to music together including one of Cherry's favorites, trumpeter and violinst Ray Nance.

How hot was the spotlight at the Five Spot? Haden remembers looking up from his bass the first night and seeing standing at the bar in a row - just standing and watching, not drinking, not talking - Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Wilbur Ware and every other major bass player in New York who wasn't working that night. Haden says he closed him eyes and never opened them while he was playing again!

One night while listening to one of Don's solos "it suddenly went left and I looked up to see what was happening. Miles Davis had come up on the bandstand and was sitting in."

On another night, "while I was playing I had I felt a presence nearby. I opened my eyes and there was this guy up on the bandstand on his knees right in front of my bass with his ear to my f-hole!"

"Coleman! What is this? We've got to get this guy out of here."

"That's Leonard Bernstein," Ornette replied.

"Who's that?"

"You know who he is. Leave him alone!"

For several nights, there was a long limousine parked in front of the club every night. Leonard Bernstein and his friends were checking out the scene.

The Trickster

What kind of person was Don Cherry?

"He never worried. About anything. Ever. It was amazing. If he saw someone else worrying, even a total stranger, he'd try to cheer them up. Tell them jokes. He was always raising people's spirits, encouraging them. He was also a big practical joker."

"One day, waiting on the platform in an Italian train station, I asked Don to watch my bass while I got a Herald Tribune. Now understand, I am very protective of my bass."

(Note: string players can't just call up a manufacturer and get a new instrument. The best instruments were made over 100 years ago and can easily in today's dollars be worth over $100,000. When get your hands on a good one, you guard it like your life.)

"All of a sudden, Don comes running up to me. Charlie! Charlie! A big Italian dog just pissed on your bass!" Haden says he shot out like a crazed cartoon character to see what had happened to his instrument. It turned out: nothing. "Don stood there laughing and laughing . He always reminded me of that story."

Cherry was full of other surprises. Once, the two arrived in a small European town for a concert. They couldn't both fit in the hotel's tiny lift elevator with Haden's bass so Don said he'd take the stairs.

"I was just starting to get settled in my room and I looked out the window and there's Don. In a different set of clothes. On roller skates! In a yellow jump suit - completely different from what he was wearing a minute or two before in the lobby - skating up and down the street outside the window of the hotel waving to everybody. How did he do that?"

Heart and soul

"Don really loved children. And he was very concerned about them having the opportunity to develop their potential. One example of this was his dream that all our children would grow up to play music together someday."

In fact, Ornette, Don, Charlie, Dewey Redman, Charles Moffet, (and possibly other people in the circle I'm not aware of) have all seen their children not only grow into capable, creative artists, but also make it in the always-tough music business.

"Don was a very giving person and was always thinking about what he could do for other people."

"There's a high level of giving in our music. Of responsiveness, sensitivity, gentleness and listening. The challenge for me is to bring this state into my everyday life. Don was an inspiration to me there. More than anybody I knew, he was able to bring this quality into life. He was the best example I knew of what Abraham Maslow called a 'self-actualized person'."

"I tell my students at Cal Arts, if you want to be a great musician, strive to be the best person you can be and maybe you can become a great musician."

Hearing Haden talk about Don Cherry made me think about our language and culture and the strange way we appraise human life.

We know how to honor people who are rich and famous and powerful, but does our society know how to value - or even recognize - people who embody positive human traits like generosity, kindness, and - what we don't even have a word for - "loving-life-ness?"

Words like "ethical", "creative" and "spiritual" reduce human qualities to dry abstractions and give the illusion that these qualities are separate developments. If you try to fragment water the same way, you get hydrogen and oxygen, two gases that blow away. Only when the elements are together in the right proportion do they become life-giving water.

Do we have a word for a human being who is a profound artist, a generous teacher, a joyful clown, a good friend, a lover of life, and a champion of the potential in others? I don't know.

But I did hear Charlie Haden talk about Don Cherry.

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