I met him only once — that is, I accosted him as he passed by the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village and told him how much I loved his music — but the death of Don Cherry touched me as deeply as if he were . . . I was going to say ”a personal friend,“ but that‘s not quite right. When he died five years ago this week, I felt not just a sense of loss but, for several days, as if I had lost my way. Not a friend, then, but something much rarer: a guide.
Most reference books still categorize him as a ”jazz musician“ or ”trumpeter,“ but by the mid-’60s, he was already moving ahead of any kind of limiting description. He was a musician and traveler, able to play half a dozen instruments, in any number of contexts. Where Paul Simon exploited the energy and diversity of the world‘s musical styles to bolster his own career, Cherry absorbed other musics by putting himself at the service of the cultures of which they were part. If it is true that we can learn only from our equals, then Cherry learned so much because he found musical equals all over the world. Wynton Marsalis’ grumble — that Cherry had ”never bothered to learn to play his instrument“ — is both accurate and wide of the mark: It wasn‘t the notes that mattered to Cherry, it was the experience of making music, any kind of music. It wasn’t what he knew that was important, it was what he had the potential to discover. One of the first albums he played on was Ornette Coleman‘s Change of the Century, and Cherry never stopped changing, never stopped learning.
I saw him play on many occasions, in many different formats, in many cities. The last time was in September 1994 at the New Morning in Paris. He was wearing his hair in lovely palm-tree dreads and couldn’t play the trumpet at all. It was too much for him; he was too thin and weak. No sooner had he picked up one of his other instruments — melodica, wood flute, doussn‘gouni, bits and pieces of percussion — than he put it down again and tried somethin’ else. He could still play some Monk-ish piano, could sing a little, but mostly he shuffled around doing his nimbly bewildered dance. He had passed beyond all musical categories years ago, and now he had passed to the other side of the mirror: He didn‘t play music, he was music.
There was an irritating woman in the audience who kept shouting and climbing onstage, trying to dance but succeeding only in making a nuisance of herself. Security tried to bundle her offstage, but that only added to the rumpus. The situation threatened to turn ugly. Everyone was getting tense. Except Cherry, who leaned into the microphone and said, smiling, ”Elle est un grand esprit, non?“ Whereupon she sat down, quietly.
He was born in Oklahoma City in 1936, and he died on 19 October, 1995. It doesn’t matter where. He could have died anywhere, because he was at home everywhere in the world. Since his death, I have always put a picture of him above my desk, wherever that desk happened to be: a way of making myself at home in the world. Which makes him, I suppose, a guiding spirit.
In 1997 I was living in Rome, where, if there was nothing else to do, I buzzed around the blazing city on a Vespa. One August night, I came across a performance by a group of African drummers in Piazza Santa Cecilia. The drummers were decked out in red, green and gold, and there were dancers, too. I was sublimely happy; I had the feeling that I was leading absolutely the life of my dreams. I felt utterly at home in myself. After listening to the music for a while, I went to look at the various art objects — donated, apparently, to raise funds for some Afro-European art initiative — that had been arranged in the middle of the piazza. The centerpiece of the whole display was a shrine to Don Cherry.
Later that year I spent two months in North Carolina, working in the Gedney archive at Duke University. On weekends, while my colleagues — who thought of me as a jazz fan — went to each other‘s houses for dinner or went to the movies, I pursued my latest musical enthusiasm: psychedelic trance. The scene was incredibly dispersed: One weekend there would be a party in Raleigh, the next in Greensboro, then in Charlotte . . . I almost never drive in England, but in North Carolina I loved getting in my car and following the directions on the flier to wherever the party was being held. I always went alone, and I never felt lonely.
One Sunday afternoon, there was a free festival in downtown Winston-Salem. They had set up the sound system in the Corpering Plaza in front of immaculate, sky-reflecting office blocks. Police cars cruised by frequently, adding to the impression, created by the incongruous combination of corporate setting and thumping music, that there is something inherently subversive about dancing to repetitive beats. It was a hot afternoon in November, and even though it wasn’t much of a festival — a couple of dozen teenagers in phat pants and snowboard T-shirts — there was nowhere else in the world I wanted to be. My whole life had been worthwhile, because it had led to this moment, to my being here now, engulfed by music.
Standing with my back to the BB&T building, I looked past the DJ desk and out at the older American cityscape of billboards, clapboard houses, water towers, freeway and railroad. A huge sign on the freeway gave directions: straight on, Interstate 40 West; next right, heading our way, Cherry Street . . .
Geoff Dyer is the author of But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz as well as Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence and the novel Paris Trance: A Romance.