DON CHERRY AT DARTMOUTH:
THIS SPECIFIC SILENCE, 1970-
By Mark Weiss (2006)
Don Cherry, African-American, avant-garde of the jazz avant-garde and
Choctaw Indian from Oklahoma, taught two ten-week courses at Dartmouth
College in the winter and spring of 1970. He came to the College at the
invitation and instigation of Jon Appleton, a young music professor and
early adopter of electronic music, who was interpreting and acting on a
college-wide self-conscious and deliberate attempt to bring more black
perspectives to the faculty and curriculum. Cherry’s stint was actually
part of a jazz recruiting trifecta that also yielded short fecund
sojourns on the rural New Hampshire campus from tenor sax legend Lucky
Thompson in 1973 and bassist/French horn player Willie Ruff in 1974.
Cherry’s visit was by far the most fruitful, leaving indelible
impressions on his colleagues and students, who can clearly recall that
intriguing chapter of Dartmouth (and American:
think Woodstock, Kent State and Vietnam) history even decades later.
Cherry’s offerings were by far the most popular music department courses
in Spring, 1970, their enrollment surpassed the combined total of all
other music classes combined.
When questioned about the story, Appleton retrieves from a file the
curriculum vitae that Cherry submitted at Dartmouth’s request. The two
musicians had met the previous year at a recording session in New York
of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra (Appleton was an
observer). Suitably impressed, Appleton put the wheels in motion to
bring Cherry to campus.
STUDENT OF LIFE UNIVERSITY OF LIFE
headlines the document which is typed on a manual typewriter with
charming hand-written addendum.
Although 33 when he wrote it, Cherry’s 1969 c.v.
recounts an already legendary career:
In 1955 I won a scholarship to LENOX SCHOOL of JAZZ.
(“Boston, Mass” is handwritten in the margin).
Directors: JOHN LEWIS, GUNTHER SCHULLER, GEORGE RUSSELL.
I moved to New York in the winter of 1959 with Ornette Coleman’s
In 1960 I began studies with Director, JOHN COLTRANE.
The five-page document continues to list other accomplishments such as
his recording contract with Blue Note – then, as now, the world’s most
prestigious jazz label –, and studies or collaborations with a pantheon
of jazz greats such as Sonny Rollins, Archie Shepp, John Tchicai,
Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler and Pharoah “Little Rock” Sanders. It also
lists travels, studies or commissions in Turkey, Sweden, Denmark,
Germany and France, and his co-founding of an elementary school music
program Arbetarnas Bildings Forbunde in Stockholm.
The last page – “1969*” – is written in quite legible cursive prose and
mentions more Ornette Coleman (Cherry’s original collaborator and
band-leader, acknowledged as a pioneer of “the new thing”, still with us
and gigging at age 74), and lectures at Long Island University and at
five elementary schools “with small children ages 7 to 10.” The “essay
section” here ends with a note:
I hope this information is satisfactory. So sorry I was so long. Have a
Happy summer. Don Cherry (the signature includes a trademark doodle of
three doves over the Y.).
Although Appleton had his secretary, reformat the document, it augurs a
jazz course akin to having a religion course taught by someone present
at the Last Supper.
Cherry was accepted and came to campus. The following people have
offered vivid and animated recollections about the course:
Fred Haas, ’73. He is a professional musician, a saxophone player,
living and teaching in Vermont. He actually took all three of the
courses offered by this initiative, those of Cherry plus Lucky Thompson
and Willie Ruff. He remembers practicing individually with Cherry in
Cherry’s office. Cherry would make him play a piece of music then flip
the score upside down and make him play it backwards. Haas remembers
hearing that Cherry was coming to campus, going to the record store,
buying Symphony for Improvisers (1966) and being blown away by the lp.
“It was the first jazz music I had ever heard that did not take a
traditional song format.”
Nelson Armstrong ’73, who has worked many years in the alumni office of
the College, was an undergraduate football player and music major, as
well as one of the fews African-Americans in the student body. Armstrong
says that Cherry had a “Pied Piper” effect on students – he developed
quite a following. He said that Cherry was like “apple in a bowl of
grapes” among the other Dartmouth faculty of the day.
Steve Herzfeld ’73 took the course as a freshman, and eventually dropped
out College to travel to Europe with Cherry. He is either by far the
best example of Cherry’s students, or the worst. He, too, took
Thompson’s course. (Thompson, by the way, recently passed away at age
81. He was a legendary sideman, accompanying a dizzying array of
luminaries like Count Basie, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. He is
famous for his disgust with the music business – and American society in
general. After leaving Dartmouth he taught one year at Yale then dropped
out of society completely. In the last ten years before his death in
August, 2005 he was said to have lived as a squatter in Seattle;
music-community members there rallied to get him preferential treatment
in Seattle social services and adult day care, but he died pretty sad
and lonely, and disoriented. Herzfeld remembers several outbursts and a
terrifying account of racism that Thompson claimed he and his band
including his pregnant wife experienced touring in the South in the
1950s. Herzfeld recalls these classroom sessions as if they were
Jonathan Sa’Adah, ’71, is a professional photographer based in Vermont
and Montreal who others remember as copiously documenting on film
Cherry’s course as well as several public performances. He too traveled
to Europe either with or for Cherry.
Many people, if they don’t know
Cherry, may have heard of or heard songs by his children Neneh Cherry
and Eagle-Eye Cherry, both of whom had Top 40 pop hits on commercial
radio in the 1980s and 1990s. The Dartmouth Cherry students and Appleton
remember the very young Cherry kids crawling around on stage during
classes and during performances, or banging on the drumkits. Cherry
moved to Europe in the sixties, part of a larger trend of jazz
musicians, especially blacks, who received better treatment there, and
wished to protest Vietnam War by their absence. Cherry married Moki
Cherry, a Laplander from Sweden (i.e. She was indigenous minority in her
country; Neneh is actually Don Cherry’s step-daughter, while Eagle Eye
is the child of Don and Moki).
Appleton claims that more than 100 students took Cherry’s courses. In
his letter to the dean of faculty Leonard Rieser on January 23, 1970 he
asks the College to extend Cherry’s stay an additional term. Appleton
pointed out that Cherry’s course had more students than the other music
“I feel that the retention of Mr. Cherry is highly desirable for the
following reasons: 1) The number of students enrolled in his courses
during this term exceeds the total enrollment for all other courses
presently being offered by the department. 2) Having visited two of Mr.
Cherry’s classes I feel that he brings an entirely new dimension in
musical instruction that should figure prominently in the way all
colleges and universities approach the teaching of music in the future.”
Rieser wrote back to Cherry (cc:
Jon Appleton) on March 5 stating that he was “delighted” that Cherry
would extend his stay, and that beyond their popularity the courses
“enjoy the high regard of your colleagues” in the music department.
Beyond his voluminous stories and expertise regarding Don Cherry,
Herzfeld recalls his relationship with a Cherry sideman, the South
African bassist Johnny Dyani. Cherry pre-arranged then used some of his
teaching stipend to lure his international trio to perform and teach
clinics on campus. Herzfeld recalls Dyani making a point of
extinguishing a cigarette with his fingers to highlight the callouses
that a committed bass player would grow on his fingers.
Summing up what is obviously a special memory to him as mentor, Herzfeld
said of Dyani: “What made him unique is that when he heard hoof-beats he
naturally thought of zebras.”
Another musician who Cherry brought to campus for his combo is the
Turkish percussionist Okey Temiz. An avatar of “world music” Cherry
studied in Turkey with a trumpet player with the irresistibly
mentionable name of Muffuka Fallay (better known as Muffy Fallay
— Dizzy Gillespie met Fallay in Turkey and implored him to come to the
U.S. Saying “People will book you just for your name.”). Cherry was also
known for travels in, an music mastery of, Asia and Africa.
Cherry’s relationship with the percussionist Temez came out of his
studies with Fallay but truth be told I only walk this factual tangent
because I cannot resist that name, again, that Muffuka Fallay.
LADIES AND GENTS, PLEASE WELCOME…MUVAFFAK FALAY
Herzfeld remembers Cherry teaching a new way of listening. He would
train his students to continue listening to the “specific silence” that
followed that particular sounding of an in-class Chinese gong.
While on campus, Appleton and Cherry cut an album together that featured
Appleton on Synclavier and Cherry on horns and percussion. The two men
gathered every morning for two weeks for 15-minute improvisational
sessions, eventually releasing a four-song album culled from the
sessions. Appleton described the session in a July 1971 article in Music
Journal. He said that he wanted to contrast the world’s most modern
music – from a recently invented electronic keyboard, a synthesizer that
he helped design – with the primal sounds that Cherry had studied
worldwide and could bring forth. They also borrowed from Dartmouth
collections a rare African xylophone and a Native American flute from
the Hood Museum collection.
Cherry was so taken by the sound of the Hood wood flute that he borrowed
it from the college and took it with him to Europe in the summer of
1970. Appleton has correspondences in which Cherry is apologizing for
taking liberty with the loan:
We have finally arrived and all are well.
Yes, I do have the Taos flute. I borrowed it to use in radio shows in
I plan to return it in the fall for I am to return to the USA in
I hope that Mr. Whiting of the museum would understand How important it
is that I can play the flute and it must be heard and that the flute
will be returned and taken care of.
If necessary I will send it back immediately.
Miss you all.
June 25, 1970
In New York City, in October, 2005, there was a three-week, 20-show
tribute to the music of Don Cherry marking the 10th anniversary of
Cherry’s death. Blue Note in 2005 re-issued re-mastered versions of
Symphony for Improvisers (1966) and Where is Brooklyn(1966). Appleton is
negotiating the reissue of “Human Music”, done at the Dartmouth computer
music lab for Flying Dutchman label. Although not an essential part of
the Cherry’s catalog, it is inimitable and unique and a sonic
encapsulation of Cherry’s visit to Dartmouth, and the era. The gong that
Cherry struck years ago for Herzfeld, Haas and the other Dartmouth
students – and for many other musicians, fans and people – reverberates.
“Human Music” was re-issued shortly thereafter via Pat Thomas and Water Music. I also remember suggesting to the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine that they should put out a jazz cd insert featuring parts of “Human Music” plus the Dizzy cd recorded live at Dartmouth, plus various other Dartmouth related tracks.