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David Ornette Cherry, Eclectic Son of Jazz Nobility, Dies at 64

The multi-instrumentalist/composer, one of trumpeter Don Cherry’s five children, suffered a fatal asthma attack in London

David Ornette Cherry
David Ornette Cherry

David Ornette Cherry, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and poet who worked to merge the jazz tradition with classical and various African and world music traditions, died November 20 in a hotel room in London, England. He was 64.

His death was announced on social media by the London Jazz Festival. Cherry’s death resulted from an asthma attack following a performance at London’s Barbican Theatre.

The son of trumpeter and composer Don Cherry, David Ornette Cherry was a devotee of his father’s “Multikulti” conception of music. His own work encompassed development of that fusion in its own right, as well as frequent tributes to his father (and his mother, pianist Carletta Hewitt-Cherry). “A lot of people, they want to say, ‘Well, I did it on my own; my parents, I want to get away from that,’” he remarked in a 2017 interview. “But I can’t hide from that.”

Indeed, Cherry’s final performance (the night of his passing) was a tribute concert to his father, performed with Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble.

He was also a regular collaborator with other members of his family, including his siblings Neneh, Christian, and Eagle Eye Cherry. His most recent album, 2021’s Organic Nation Listening Club (The Continual), featured his nieces, Tyson McVey and Naima Karlsson.

His first instrument was piano, but Cherry also played electronic keyboards, melodica, wood flute, and douss’n gouni. A poet as well as a musician, Cherry often incorporated spoken word into his music, as well as Indian, Chinese, African, European classical, and electronic instruments and elements. On his website, he explained his music as “a musical fusion of cultures laid firmly down on a foundation of purely garage-style beats. It’s a union of textures, sounds, lifestyles, surroundings, and messages in a universal language emphasizing a positive state of mind.”

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A native of the Watts section of Los Angeles, Cherry had lived for several years in Queens, New York before settling in Portland, Oregon, where he lived for the last 15 years of his life.

David Ornette Cherry was born April 13, 1958 in Los Angeles to Don and Carletta Cherry. He was named for Ornette Coleman, with whom his father was then working in L.A. (The two had recorded Coleman’s debut album, Something Else!!!!, shortly before David’s birth.) David was a child when his parents divorced, with his father remarrying artist Moki Karlsson and moving with her to Sweden. Cherry lived most of the time with his mother.

He had studied piano from junior high school. However, on a trip to Tågarp, Sweden, when he was 16, Cherry was injured in a woodchopping accident. Confined during his recuperation, he was left with little to do but study music with his father. “Don was my first teacher and it was all about doing with him,” he recalled. “After only a month of sitting next to him on the piano bench and learning by watching him play, he took me to a smoky club to perform. He was at the edge of the stage, blowing a deep sound from a big blue horn. I ran over and asked, ‘When are we starting?’ He looked at me, smiled and took it out of his mouth to say, ‘It’s already started.’”

Cherry graduated from Locke High School in Los Angeles, then studied at Bishop College and California Institute of the Arts. He also spent multiple summers at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York. He continued performing with his father until the trumpeter’s death in 1995.

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Cherry’s own first recording, The End of a Century, was released in 1999. He would make 15 other recordings between that album and Organic Nation Listening Club, and work with the likes of Ed Blackwell, Bobby Bradford, Charlie Haden, Billy Higgins, and Dewey Redman, as well as his mother and siblings.

Moving to Portland in 2007, Cherry became an active member of that city’s jazz scene, forming a band called Organic Roots that he led frequently in the area, as well as touring Europe and Japan.

He is survived by his sisters Jan and Neneh Cherry, his brothers Christian and Eagle Eye, his nieces Tyson and Naima, and several other nieces and nephews.

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David Ornette Cherry: Organic Nation Listening Club (The Continual)

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.