Overtones: A Collage

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Mom leans against the keyboard of the old upright piano in the den. She puckers her lips and gently fingers the valves. A couple of times a month, she frees her trumpet from the purple velveteen lining its case—out of love or frustration I can never tell. She stares hard at the bell, pointed somewhere near my feet. She inhales deeply, pressing the silver mouthpiece to her crumpled lips. A silent moment passes—torn by a noise pitched past the sun, a shrieking flare sound. Another follows and another, bright glissandos blinking out somewhere below middle C. They shatter everything I know about her. Everything I thought I knew. What sound was that, what cry? What aspiration to be free? After those initial stabs, she falls into familiar melodies: “Bugler’s Holiday” by Leroy Anderson, maybe, or “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I’m unsettled for the rest of the day.

Trumpeter Don Cherry’s sound unsettled me too. I was much older when I first encountered it on Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come. It took me back to Mom’s cries. I heard her sound in his: bright, high, and transient: less pitch than smudge, transmitting unknowable overtones. On “Lonely Woman,” for instance. Cherry states the plaintive melody in hazy unison with Coleman, blurs the third note, wavers and plays his peculiar temper, untimely and free to move beyond the platitudes of harmony until, after Coleman’s baffled cry, he parts company to play a sixth above (if such language matters, and it doesn’t), descending in half steps to resolve (not happily) on a minor third, Cherry now pitched below.Their unison breaks apart to reconverge, and the brief bridge feels like a heaving between sobs. This isn’t music. It’s too raw for the repartee of bebop or the sociability of swing. But everybody can feel it, which explains the scandal of Coleman and company’s extended appearance in late 1959 at the Five Spot in New York’s East Village. Writing in the New York Times Magazine years later, Joseph Hooper likened it to the furor erupting after Stravinsky’s Paris premier of “The Rite of Spring” in 1913. In an interview with Terry Gross, Cherry remembers everyone who was musically anyone being there—from Leonard Bernstein to Thelonious Monk—to witness the sacrilege. The implacable trickster Charles Mingus appeared one night with Phineas Newborn, a keyboard virtuoso famous for his perfect pitch. Newborn sat and stared at his cufflinks. He never played a note. After the set, Mingus barreled onto the stage and, with his long arms and big hands, crashed all the keys. “That’s where it is,” he bellowed. “It’s all there.” Everywhere and nowhere. Cherry and Ornette decentered intonation. They distempered tradition’s scales. Afflicted with perfect pitch, Newborn couldn’t follow their cries and whispers. They flew free from the comforting staff. Still you feel them, hear their immeasurable sound.

Don Cherry: “I’ve always been on the outside, and that’s a good quality for the music to have, like the wind in your face.”

Cherry’s mother Daisy gave him his first horn when he was fourteen. It breathed life into him, offering a way to express sounds his body harbored. Born in Oklahoma City in 1936 to “Negro-Choctaw Indian parents” (his words—his mother’s mother was half native), Cherry heard gospel, blues, and Indian songs from the start. The family’s move to the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1940 only multiplied the sounds of diverse ethnicities mixed with the rumble of jazz from the Cherry Blossom, his father’s club, where Don and his sister sometimes danced for dimes. His horn funneled all this sound—all the music he’d ever make—through a peculiarly powerful feeling: “that feeling to me, through as much music as I’ve learned, I still remember just that feeling when I first got that horn.” What feeling exactly? “Infant happiness” (in-fant, not speaking). The feeling of life before language: “infant happiness, infant happiness, beautiful! That’s what music is really about. And that’s what’s important to me.” From his mother comes a gift that expresses happiness without words, a baby’s happiness being alive. Cherry’s trumpet channels that feeling, broadcasts it from a beyond lodged in mother-born bodies. Infant happiness: “like a dedication to the absolute. And the human sensitivity, the naturalness of human senses.”

My mother bought her trumpet second hand, inspired by her father’s playing. Elmer August Newstrom was the fifth of six children born to John Newstrom and Amelia Rackborg Nilsdatter. Swedish immigrants, they worked a small farmstead in Amador township near Amelund, Minnesota, not far from the St. Croix River. Elmer had an ear for the sound of brass. An old photograph of the Amelund Brass Band shows a young man with a face resembling Elmer’s standing in the back row holding a euphonium. I found a euphonium mouthpiece under some papers in a desk drawer after Mom passed away. But I knew Grandpa Elmer the way you know a grandparent who dies before your birth—through family stories—and the story was that he played the trumpet, serving in the Army (1st Company Infantry Replacement and Training Troops, Camp Grant, IL) as bugler. He taught Mom to play the trumpet. His instrument disappeared, but hers lives with my brother: a Harry B. Jay Columbia tented trumpet, manufactured in Chicago around 1925, broken now into four pieces where the pipe and slides meet the valves, but still a beautiful embodiment of sounds still reverberating in my head. Cherry played a pocket trumpet. To some it seems a toy for its stumpy size and shape. Not so. A pocket trumpet uses the same length of brass tubing as the conventional model, but more tightly wound and bunched, yielding its dwarfish look. Cherry liked it because, foreshortened, it fit his slender build, allowing him instantly to hear the sounds he made, bright to mellow. He acquired his first pocket trumpet in the 1950s when playing with Ornette, an instrument made in Pakistan. He later received another as a gift, reputed to have been played in Paris behind Josephine Baker. “I like it because it’s compact. It’s more like your tonsils,” Cherry said. “I mean, it has a vocal-type feeling.” Prosthetic tonsils—or more. “The horn itself is really part of my heart, it’s part of me.” Cherry plays with his heart in his hands.

A horn traps vibrations in a tubular chamber, sound waves created by a player’s lips buzzing against the mouthpiece. The waves in the chamber align along peaks and troughs of intensity, producing a pattern of pitches—a harmonic series based on simple numerical ratios giving rise to multiple overtones. Cherry’s heart pours into his trumpet in sounds made to fit the series by the shape of his buzzing lips, his “embouchure.” A natural horn, my grandfather’s bugle for instance, makes sounds in a harmonic series determined by the length of its coiled tube. Because these overtones arise through simple ratios they cannot render the twelve tones of a chromatic scale. To play such a scale—or to change keys—would require several horns of different lengths, capable of creating multiple harmonic series of overtones. Hence the addition in the early nineteenth century of valves on brass instruments to vary a horn’s length by opening or closing different sections of tubing. A horn with three valves can explore the harmonic range of eight bugles, gaining access to otherwise inaccessible sounds, especially in lower registers. The valves divert vibrations into complimentary circulatory systems that multiply harmonic choices, the many sounds Cherry makes. But his breath, technically speaking, does not produce them. The buzz of his lips disturbs the air he blows, making the waves his horn captures. Breath sustains what the heart circulates: waves of sound, music, life.

Breath sustains everything. Cherry’s second wife, Moki, his closest collaborator for an extraordinarily creative time in the late 1960s and ’70s, expresses it this way in a journal entry: “Every time I breathe I exchange air. We breathe the universe.” Cherry’s time in Sweden with Moki, living in an abandoned schoolhouse in Tagarp, brought peace and creative comfort. “The north,” Cherry said in an interview, “it’s a beautiful thing about the north, the birds come up here to have babies.” Together Don and Moki Cherry would evolve a performing entourage they would call Organic Music Theater. The old schoolhouse in Tågarp became a school of another kind, a forest retreat open to musicians and artists themselves open to learning how to improvise, which is to say, how to breathe. “The most sensitive instrument,” said Cherry, “is the throat.” In 1968 he had offered a series of workshops for musicians in Stockholm for the Workers Educational Association, a non-governmental agency, in which he developed his approach to teaching. Cherry would open by asking participants to play long unison tones to create togetherness, then long dissonant sounds to conjure “ghosts,” his word for overtones. Then he added breathing exercises with songs to nurture awareness of sounds in the instant, the unexpected sonic convergences that drive improvisation. Breathing as consciousness of music as it happens. Cut off suddenly, sound opens to a silence—like a gong resonating—replete with overtones that lift awareness into a state of fullness: “Within that silence,” says Cherry, “it’s sound that’s related to the sound of sound.” Collective improvisation aspires to achieve complete communion. It breathes silence into being. Breath sustains the fullness of the sound of sound. For Cherry, improvisation does not disrupt musical form (it’s just sound!) but rather creates it—for an instant (holy shit!). Form emerges and dissolves as it occurs in the manner of respiration, which ends in another beginning: “I should define the word ‘form’”—Cherry—”to me form is a whole complete breath—and it is a beginning, and true, absolute form will have the feeling of rising where there is no end.” That’s the form of improvisational fullness, form reforming to begin again. Take a breath. Take another. Hence Cherry’s fascination with improvised music: “it can never be described as finished, it doesn’t solidify into a definitive form. The music sounds the way it does once, and then never again.” Cherry composes not songs but suites, mutual musical breathing among players tutored in common, ever variable melodies, rhythms, sounds, and silences. Hear what happens, for instance, on Eternal Rhythm, recorded at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 1968. Side One opens and closes (reopens?) with a flute that changes form as it returns. Cherry calls both occurrences “Baby’s Breath” to mark the simple infant fullness of being alive. And breathing. Endless beginnings. Collective improvisation. Always beginning. Infant happiness.

It requires care. Moki provided it during the Tågarp years, to the immense benefit of her husband, his students, and all who love the music they made together. “The breathing, the pulse. The veins in everything,” Moki wrote in her journal. “Believe in music being the true freedom.” Music, which is to say freedom, needs breathing room. Weary of performing in clubs, with their minstrel ways and bad air, Cherry found in Moki a partner in performing freedom, capable of creating a safe and nurturing space for its occurrence. She removed the divide that traditionally separates domesticity and performance. Her mantra: “the stage is home, and the home is a stage.” Her concept: “the idea was to create an environmental/atmosphere, the stage being the home and the audience part of it.” Moki turned the schoolhouse at Tågarp into a porous household that domesticated study, instruction, practice, and performance, opening it all to participation: by musicians, artists, school children, the simply curious. Trained in fashion design, Moki turned her magic hand to textiles, creating banners, tapestries, and hangings in a zany, polychromatic style somewhere between Peter Max and Jim Henson on a transcendental bender. Her enchanted work deserves wide acclaim, but in textiles and sonics alike, Art remains unkind to “ephemera.” Improvisors first and foremost, Moki and Don turned home into theater and vice versa, “improvising on stage and in living,” as Moki wrote. “The visual work consisted of images for the imagination, but also for music—scales, songs, rhythms—for people’s participation in concerts and workshops.” Moki’s medium made her home/stage portable. Taking it on the road became a matter simply of loading an old VW bus. Organic Music Theater was at home wherever it went—festivals, concerts, or TV stations. Moki played a foundational role in the music too: at the tampura, providing the fuzzy drone that sustains improvisation. She advanced Don’s efforts to fuse sounds from different musical traditions into fleeting combinations, ephemeral as dreams. Moki sewed and cooked and cleaned and planned and played to make it all possible. She raised two children on the movable stage she called home, her daughter Neneh, whom Don adopted, and their son Eagle-Eye. In the many photographs capturing her impetuous activity, she rarely smiles. “Moki out of breath”—Neneh’s words—”but the results—breathtaking.” She colored Don’s music indelibly, making it visually arresting, whether with her tapestries, LP cover art, the clothes she made her family, or their dancing during performances (as on Italian TV’s Om Shanti Om broadcast). Her creativity sustains his and the music he made with so many others. But at what cost? Only Moki could say: “Could I ever dream of how many meals I was to cook or overnight guest beds I’d make? No. With air and the atmosphere resounding with the most beautiful live music, it made me say yes to it all. Looking back, it all seems nuts. But it was beautiful. Live music at all hours. Musicians came from India, Africa, all over, and stayed to study with Don or in preparation for tours. It was an open house.” Or more simply: “I begin saying breath / breath, breath / and soon my body is a chamber for the Eternal Sound.” Moki Cherry. Om.

Mom hadn’t blown her trumpet for years when a neighbor found her comatose on the couch and called an ambulance. The EMTs revived her, and emergency room doctors admitted her for a few days’ observation. They would be her last. Her status declined with each new test, landing her in the ICU. By then, her three sons, heeding the best available medical advice, had forsaken their daily lives to be at her side. An ICU inspires a desolation all its own, and not simply because a loved one lies supine on a gurney, gravely ill or dying. An electronic symphony of inscrutable alerts immersed us in a wash of staccato beeps, cycling warbles, intermittent hoots, and baleful glissandos, chiming singly or in random patterns, an improvised chorus of ambient alarm. Its intensity came in waves, inducing feelings that swung between annoyance and panic. Machines monitoring vital signs create a soundtrack for mortality: electrocardiograms, pulse oximeters, invasive blood pressure sensors. Designed to mimic the pitch of a human scream or a baby’s cry, these sounds untuned the room. Others droned beneath in smudged rhythms: infusion pumps, dialysis machines, and ventilators, the familiar instruments of artificial breathing that reduce respiration to a serial hiss. Mom’s condition worsened in the ICU. Doctors arrived at regular intervals to provide updates on the organs of their specialties (cardiac, pulmonary, renal). But the nurses knew the score, and occasionally they’d voice it, as when one of them said softly, “that’s a sick lady.” Her kidneys were failing and other vital organs would follow. One of the specialists determined she required more air (to live or die?) and ordered the use of a BiPap machine, a device that provides “bilevel positive airway pressure” (in and out) through a clear plastic mask blowing oxygen into the lungs. My brothers and I took turns at the BiPap, one cradling Mom’s head while another held the mask with its artificial wind to her face as the third, holding her hand, looked helplessly on. At one point she wrested loose of the mask. “I’m down,” she rasped over its low roar, “I feel down.” “We love you, Mom,” one of us said. But her breathing shallowed as time wore on. At some point she lost consciousness. At some point another specialist advised she be placed on a ventilator. Nurses put the flexible tube down her throat that, becoming part of her body, began to breathe on her behalf. Playing taps. Mom would not regain consciousness. We removed the ventilator. She breathed on her own for over a day, long draws punctuated by long silence (the end?), shattered to our relief and despair by another desperate inhalation. She gave us our first breaths—infant happiness, beautiful? After a lifetime of preparation (praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) and in the dead of night she breathed her last, her body become a chamber for the Eternal Sound. Om Shanti Om.

Works Cited

  • Cherry, Don. Eternal Rhythm. MPS Records, 1969. LP.
  • —. Om Shanti Om. Black Sweat Records, 2020. LP.
  • Coleman, Ornette. The Shape of Jazz to Come. Atlantic Records, 1959. LP.
  • Francheteau, Jean. Don Cherry: Le nomade Multikulti. L’Harmattan, 2020.
  • Gross, Terry. “Remembering Don Cherry.” Fresh Air, Sept. 12, 1990. Radio Broadcast. https://freshairarchive.org/segments/remembering-don-cherry.
  • Hooper, Joseph. “Not Your Average Family.” The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 10, 1989.
  • Kumpf, Lawrence, Naima Karlsson, and Magnus Nygren, editors. Organic Music Societies. Blank Forms, 2021.
  • Wilmer, Val. As Serious As Your Life: Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957-1977. Serpent’s Tail, 2018.
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