SA14: The Don Cherry Issue

The Listeners

Taylor Ho Bynum

When we began our series of Listener programs for Sound American 13: The How We Listen Issue, we had no idea your responses would be so great. There is something about the comfort of listening with and talking to an artist in their own space that allows them to quickly move the discussion to reflect a deeper experience. Many readers wrote in to agree that the intimacy of these programs provide valuable insight, even if the conversations are not always comfortable. So, as long as there are interesting people to talk to, we will continue to do a Listener program with each issue.


The question will always be how to coordinate a discussion so innately amorphous with each issue’s main topic. This problem was easily solved for our issue about free-jazz iconoclast Don Cherry, and the answer was composer and cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum*. Besides being well researched in and passionate about the entire history of jazz—and being an immediately recognizable musical compositional and instrumental voice in his own right­—Taylor is one of the great palavering souls.


If anything, the question would be how quickly we could set up the recording gear so as to miss as little of Ho Bynum’s thoughts as possible. The cornetist brought up a brick-sized stack of Cherry recordings from his basement, spread them out on the couch, planted himself cross-legged on the floor, and was off to the races.


Whether it was conscious or not, there was a general leaning toward the trumpet in this conversation, especially regarding Cherry’s perceived lack of trumpet technique as it contrasts to the generation of improvising brass men and women that Ho Bynum—along with Peter Evans, Jonathan Finlayson, and others mentioned in passing in this program—is firmly a part of. The recurring question became whether Cherry would find the same success in today’s jazz culture as he was able to tap into in the 1960s. The metaphor Ho Bynum so eloquently used of Herman Melville not being able to publish Moby Dick in the modern publishing climate hits close to home. Would Don Cherry find a place for his unique and wonderfully individual approach to improvising if he were trying to make recordings today?