‘The baddest technician’: how Don Cherry is still making jazz new

The man who turned bebop upside down with Ornette Coleman went on to work with artists from Sonny Rollins to Ian Dury – and the London jazz festival is set to show he’s still inspiring

Nineteen fifty-nine was a pivotal year in jazz. In August, trumpeter Miles Davis released his landmark album Kind of Blue, which would go on to become the best-selling jazz record of all time thanks to its accessible blend of blues and modal voicings. But in November, self-taught tenor saxophonist Ornette Coleman blew Davis’s mainstream style wide open during a two-week residency at New York’s Five Spot Cafe. Coleman and his quartet premiered an entirely different, avant-garde sound that was lauded by critics but deeply controversial among audiences. Disregarding conventional chord structures in favour of an anarchic, unpredictable and often atonal improvisation, he birthed a new concept: free jazz.

Flanking Coleman on stage was 23-year-old Oklahoman trumpeter Don Cherry. Blending the saxophonist’s melodies and frenetic lines with his own self-assured, bright phrasings, Cherry was Coleman’s harmonic partner amid the cacophony. Using a compact pocket trumpet with a bell that sat closer to his mouth, as if he was singing when he played, he was the open ear capable of turning a monologue without form into a dialogue of its own.

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