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Featured Musician - October 2008

Name : David Ornette Cherry

David Ornette Cherry

Instrument: Acoustic piano, electronic keyboards, melodica, wood flute and douss'n gouni.

Early Years/Education: When I was growing up, music was always there. I have an older sister, Jan Cherry, who started on violin at seven or eight. My parents asked me if I wanted to study the clarinet, but I didn't want to do it. I was in a drama group at Gompers Jr. High in Los Angeles; my father went to Gompers, too. My dad was trumpeter Don Cherry. Two blocks down was Locke High School in Watts. Some of the band directors taught at both schools, so you got six years of  music with the same teachers if you went to both schools. I was in a group called “Young Souls” at Gompers. We did poetry, dance, skits, etc. We had gigs, traveling in Greyhound buses. Locke was a mecca for marching band, so I studied the trombone.  Around this time I went to Sweden with my dad for the first time. We      were gathering wood for the winter, and being a city guy I didn't really know what I was doing. I got distracted and chopped my foot. I ended up spending the rest of the summer laid up in my room. My room was actually an old school house that had a piano in it. I was sixteen, and my Dad started showing me things on the piano. About a month later we went to Gothenburg for a gig, and I played for the first time with my dad. At this point I was hooked and wanted to devote myself to music. When I got back to school in L.A., I was still playing basketball and doing marching band. I also started in jazz band and landed a scholarship to Bishop College in Dallas. I also studied at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York, in the summers. This was started by Ornette Coleman. There you really got to interact with other cultures in a jazz setting, it wasn't so traditional. I finally ended up at Cal Arts studying jazz and world music.

Don Cherry: I sat right next to him at the keyboard for years, just learning from him. He had a certain way of working with musicians, bringing out the best in you. I worked with him until he passed away in '95. We played Europe, toured the US. We played the Village Vanguard with Jim Pepper in the band. The only recording I was on with him was “Multikulti.” My mom, Carletta, also plays piano. She and my dad were devotees of Monk. When I was little, Monk would hang out at our house in Watts. One day my grandmother was looking at Monk just sitting in a tree in the yard. She said, “What is that guy doing in our tree?” When my mom plays, she sounds like Monk.

Portland: I was commissioned to do a piece by a Portland artist, (dancer/writer) Susan Banyas. We met when we were both doing shows for the Los Angeles Public Library. I was working with poet Kamau Daaood, and she was presenting her poetry show, “No Strangers Here Today” (based on her Quaker great-great grandmother's diary of her life as part of the Underground Railroad in Ohio). She wanted original music for this poetry piece. It took me a year to write the music, and we premiered  it here at the Interstate Firehouse Theater in February 2007. When I got off the plane, I felt like I should move here. That's one scenario. Another dates back to 1980, when I did a tour with my dad and saxophonist Jim Pepper. We met in Seattle, and he told me I should move here; that always stuck in my mind. So when I got here I thought it was amazing ... the weather, the greenery, and people with their consciousness of the environment and the mixture of people, reminds me of Europe.  When I ventured into the music scene, I noticed a strong jazz presence here. Last year I went to the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival and saw a group comprised of a mandolin player, acoustic bass, and a percussionist playing gimbe, xylophones, and a typewriter like it was a tabla. I said to myself, this is my place!

Musical Influences: I have been influenced by music of the world -- the music of the spirit created from a powerful tapestry of rhythms and sensual melodies. I am also influenced by the infusion of modern technology into that sound -- a mix of world and jazz idioms. This comes mostly from my dad, who is my chief influence. Ornette Coleman is another important influence.

Most Satisfying Experience: Anytime I got to play with my dad. One time we were playing in France up on this mountain. This was the “Magic Band.” We had dancers, a guy doing magic, etc. We got on stage at 2 a.m., and all you could see was little candle lights and little fires flickering. We played for a couple of hours straight, and then the sun started to rise. It was a beautiful sunrise, and we could see the people's faces, it was packed, thousands of faces. Another satisfying experience for me was when I played an international jazz festival in Detroit three days after 9/11 happened. We couldn't get there because no planes were flying, they moved up our date, and we made it. The gratifying thing was seeing the faces of the people; the music was really important to them. It's so much more than just entertaining an audience; that experience confirmed for me why I do this.

Favorite Recordings: Alice Coltrane's “Satchidananda”; Pharoah Sanders’ “Karma” (my father gave this to me in '68 and it had the original thirty-two minute rendition of the tune, “The Creator Has a Master Plan”); Gang be Brass Band “Gan-GBF”; Don Cherry, “Complete Communion,” “Codona” (all three), “Brown Rice,” “Where is Brooklyn,” “The Avante Garde”; Fela Kuti, “Black President”; Horace Tapscott, “Pan African Arkestra”; Sun Ra, “Space is the Place,” “Parliament” and “Mother Ship Connection”; Earth, Wind and Fire, “Gratitude”; and all of the recordings of Ornette Coleman. I like any world music too.

Gigs: Every Thursday I'm  either presenting or performing jazz at The Maiden, 639 SE Morrison, Portland, 8 pm. On October 11 at Jimmy Mak's, I'll be debuting my group “Ensemble for Improvisors” (the Portland version), which will include Thara Memory on trumpet, Renato Caranto on tenor, Glen Moore on bass, Carlton Jackson on drums, and I'll be on piano. I have several dance and theater pieces I'll be doing around the country, but here in Portland I've been commissioned to write music for dancer Gregg Bielemeier of Whitebird Dance (December 3-7).

Discography: “Organic Express: Back to the Electronic Garage”; “Cherry Jam: Open Mic”; “Organic Roots, Organic Groove”; “Ensemble for Improvisors”; and “End of the Century.”

Future Plans: I plan on continuing composing and writing; I'm also going to be teaching, I'll do a summer camp again next year. I'm working with Ethos and Thara Memory. I plan on becoming a contributor to the art scene here. A future goal of mine is to learn Mozart's “Piano Concerto #457 in C.” I'd love to play this with an orchestra.

Other: I like the possibilities here and the people here. I'm still trying to connect with the African-American community. It's not as condensed as Watts where I come from. I'd love to do for Portland what Billy Higgins did for LA with the art community of Leimert Park.

-- by Rita Rega


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