Don Cherry: an improvised film in black and white

Gabriel Bristow

Don Cherry during filming at Notre Dame, on the cover of Jazz Hot, 1967



Extreme close-up: black and white bug-eye goggles atop a nose, the eyes remaining immobile amidst a fury of electronic noise like machine gun fire or the shuddering of an incoming spaceship.

Cut to angular buildings shot from ground level, stark and futuristic.

Wide shot: The goggle-eyed man jumps into the left side of the frame, landing on planet earth. Camera zooms in on him as he removes his propeller cap.

Cut to a new frame as the man removes goggles and observes his imposing surroundings. A shop sign in the background reads “berlin.”

Zoom in as he replaces his cap with a feathered leather skullcap, squishing it on his head. Sound: a series of bleeps, squeaks, and sonorous drones.


This sequence cuts to the opening credits: the short film’s title is DON CHERRY, directed, shot and edited collectively by Jean-Noël Delamarre, Philippe Gras, “Horace”, and Natalie Perrey. Cherry himself plays the lead part, as well as providing the poem around which the film is based and, of course, the music. Shot in Paris and Berlin in short, improvisatory bursts over the course of 1967-1968, this film is a record of an encounter between an African-American avant-garde jazz musician and a group of young Parisians fresh out of the capital’s art schools. Old and new worlds meet, past and future mingle in a mystical present – the hallmarks of Cherry’s oeuvre condensed into 16 minutes of cinema.

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The film was first and foremost an improvisation. Almost every aspect of its creation was improvised: the genesis of the idea, the choice of locations, the loose narrative development, and of course the music. In an interview published in the French Jazz Magazine in June 1965 – when Cherry was in Paris playing with his first group as leader – the 27-year-old from Los Angeles stated the following: “I am an improviser. That’s all I want people to say about me: ‘there’s Don Cherry who improvises, that’s him and he improvises’”.[i] This statement takes on greater significance given the context.[ii] It was in fact a response to the interviewer’s question of whether Cherry wanted to be called a “jazz musician” or whether he followed Max Roach in preferring the term “African-American music”.[iii] But Cherry was more inclined to play with words, sounds, registers, gestures and forms than to pick labels. And it was precisely through such play that the idea for the film emerged. During Cherry’s March 1967 residency at the Left Bank jazz club, Le Chat qui pêche, Delamarre, Gras, and Natalie Perrey attended nightly to listen and take pictures. One evening Gras gave the musician a contact sheet of photographs he’d taken of him on the roof of Notre Dame the previous day. The next evening Cherry brought them back cut up into triangles and rectangles and stuck into a notebook with a poem. The idea for the film grew from this poem-collage and was shot largely over the following weeks.

The film is the result of a multi-disciplinary improvisation, play being the common thread. What began as music in a club was rendered in printed light, put back into Cherry’s hands, who cut them up, and arranged them with a poem that then outlined a film. The cycle was, if not completed, then at least bouclé several years later when Cherry finally – suddenly – arrived back in Paris to record the music for the film (the delay explains why it was only released in 1973). True to the spirit of his artistry and the film itself, this too was improvised. Following a method used ten years earlier by Miles Davis for Louis Malle’s film Ascenseur pour l’Échafaud and Ornette Coleman in 1965 for Thomas White’s film Who’s Crazy?, Cherry played and recorded live to a projection of the film’s various sequences. But whereas Davis and Coleman were improvising to films which they had had no part in devising – reflecting, evoking or embellishing the affective charge of images that formed part of a preconceived whole – Cherry’s soundtrack was an extension of the film’s improvisational method that he himself had furnished. The whole film is imbued with the grace of his tumbling playfulness: hence, we can assume, its self-title.

People bring themselves into improvisations. They may be remade through them too, but no one comes in baggage-less. Identities collide – are undone, or not. This improvised film is therefore also, as previously mentioned, a meeting: that of a nomadic jazz trumpeter from the Watts section of Los Angeles and a few young Parisians. While Cherry provided the impetus for the film, as well as its poetic narrative and improvisational method, the finished film documents the regard these film-makers had for Cherry (as well as, in the French sense of regard, their particular understanding of him). This is not to say it was conceived of as a portrait: in conversation, Delamarre made it clear to me that it was a filmic rendering of Cherry’s poem, as well as coming from their “fascination” for Don. The exoticism that tinged the reception of African-American artists in Paris has been well documented. Cherry was the latest in a long line of black writers and musicians to elicit such a response from the French capital’s intelligentsia. He was, however, a pioneer when it came to propagating the New Thing in Paris. While the Art Ensemble of Chicago seem to have made the bigger historical splash, Cherry effectively tested the water for them. As he stated in a WDCR interview with Christopher Brewster in 1970, “it was very difficult the first time I went to Paris because contemporary jazz had not reached Paris yet; and now it settled there, but at that time it was ... a very difficult period”. According to musicologist Eric Drott, jazz in France was marked by a “double alterity” – both American and black – that evolved in “complex counterpoint” over the course of the twentieth century.[iv] By the time Cherry arrived in Paris, both the Cold War and decolonization had led the tiers-mondiste part of the French left to ally itself to jazz as the music of an oppressed minority resisting American imperialism on its home turf.[v] These overt political projections mingled with residual associations of jazz with “a mythic (African) primitivism or ... an equally mythic (American) modernity”.[vi] It is in this way that we can understand the film’s opening sequence. Shot while Cherry was performing in Berlin in November 1968, the idea of having him land as if from outer-space came from Delamarre. Such was the vanguard role assigned to free jazz musicians in sixties Paris: music from an ancient future that had come to shake things up. The mysticism of the remainder of the film comes more directly from Cherry’s poem and his growing spirituality at that time.

Indeed, despite the improvisational quality running through the film, it is nonetheless underwritten by a poem, which acted as both catalyst and guiding thread. (The voice reading the poem is credited to fellow musician Anthony Braxton, though Braxton has recently denied this online. It certainly could have been him: he was in Paris at the time and the voice sounds similar to his.) Yet the passage from text to image is less than straightforward. Here I will draw on a musical analogy close to Cherry’s heart: Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics. This way of making music took definite shape while Cherry was playing in Coleman’s history-making quartet. Harmolodics is best understood in its relation to the historic jazz forms from which it emerged, namely bebop and its derivative hard bop, both of which relied on strict and complex harmonic development over which soloists could improvise using an expansive yet codified series of scales. Harmolodics did away with this strict harmonic structure. By replacing regular chord changes with shifting tonal centers, Coleman freed up melodic development: rather than melody being constrained by underlying harmony, “one idea grows from another” in a motivic stream of consciousness akin to James Joyce’s novels or the automatic writing of the surrealists.[vii] Unwittingly or not, this is precisely the approach that Cherry and Delamarre took to making this film. Rather than a detailed script with definite parameters (equivalent to the complex harmonic structure of bebop), Cherry’s poem acted as a loose, shifting tonal centre from which action, gestures, locations, scenes, and sounds could flow from one to the next. Cherry’s dancing is particularly evocative of this type of motivic improvisation – throughout the film his long-legged squatted pirouettes and elegant giant steps evolve in different settings and to various musical moods.

The mortal tension of the poem’s opening lines – “Always kept moving/He can be slayed when the Dragon is invisible/His Body gets Hot. So you can see, feel, him by the Heat waves/Defence, life or death/balance feet gripping/the earth. Just one wrong/Move etc”[viii] – provides the impetus for battles with Notre Dame’s gargoyles. The text then moves through three tonal centres: music, wisdom, love. This triple mantra (with “peace” joining sometimes as a suspended fourth) is repeated through the course of the poem, each word acting as a point around which to improvise.


A quick succession of close-ups of gargoyles to the sound of a driving, menacing piano vamp. The shaky camera work and zooms add tension.

Cherry attacks the gargoyles with his umbrella-spear. The camera work and fast cuts create a jolted, doubling sense of movement despite the ultimately motionless enemies.

Wobbling close-ups of gargoyle eyes.

Voiceover: “The last dragon pleaded for his life./I asked the spirit, we waited for the answer in silence.”

Cherry filmed from below, dancing against a grey, luminous sky: arms outstretched, up-stretched, face tilted skywards—pirouettes, squats, and steps.

Voiceover: “It finally came./Look, you can read it yourself. There shall be no more killing./Peace, peace, peace.”

Cherry receives a small, matchbox size drawing from the sky: a message of peace and wisdom. Cut to a close of up his thumb and forefinger holding the drawing up to the camera.


Having slain the dragons in the name of eternal peace, Cherry can then “ride all day on an elephant” (the film shows him astride a stone elephant). The latter had a double meaning. Through its associations in the Buddhist thought that Cherry was increasingly drawn to at the time, the elephant tied in closely with the poem’s tonal center of “wisdom.” Less obviously, “the elephant” was also Ornette Coleman’s nickname for Cherry because of the latter’s extraordinary memory for melodies. The film then sees Cherry sharing the wisdom handed to him on the roof of Notre Dame (freely accessible in the sixties – a burnt shell today) through another of the poem’s tonal centers: music. Finding his despondent friend hidden in the woods (le bois de Vincennes on the edge of Paris), Cherry teaches him flute. Close ups of the fingerings are accompanied by the sound of an extended flute duo with Karl Berger, who played with Cherry during these years. The scene culminates with a musical procession of two through the forest. With the flute lesson complete Cherry and his friend go on a pilgrimage to the Grande Mosquée de Paris (interspersed with shots of Egyptian statues from the Musée du Louvre) in search of deeper wisdom. The film closes with the poem’s final tonal center – love – as Cherry finds his imprisoned amoureuse (his wife Moki Cherry) playing pétanque with dove eggs in a bird cage. They kiss through chicken wire as Cherry’s doubled trumpets strain and soar, following each other like young lovers in an offset dance of repetition and variation.

Not many jazz musicians have been involved in devising films themselves. Louis Armstrong appeared in more than thirty, but had no influence on the productions. The same is true of Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker and Miles Davis. Sun Ra – the high priest of “Afrofuturism”, a term that has gained popularity in recent years – is the obvious exception. In the film he co-wrote, Space is the Place (1974), Ra, like Cherry, is an outer-space prophet – though the landing place is Oakland (rather than Berlin or Paris), and the landing itself is somewhat more spectacular (a beaming steaming spaceship in the shape of a pair of flaming yellow eyeballs, as opposed to Cherry’s humble propeller cap). Here the parallels largely end. Ra’s is a full color, scripted, feature-length sci-fi film, while Cherry’s is a short, improvised, impressionistic film-poem. And yet music is the bearer of life and wisdom in both, and here we see an echo of their later meeting – the recorded evidence of which can be heard on some of Sun Ra’s last albums such as Somewhere Else, Blue Delight, and Purple Night. Both punctured the present with music and left films for us to glimpse how.

The film feels fleeting. You can sense the transitory nature of Cherry’s several séjours in Paris, and, more broadly, the nomadic energy of his itinerant life. “Always kept moving,” as the opening line of the poem goes. None of these three words is dispensable. “Always” because he never stopped – the sheer number of times he crossed the Atlantic (not to mention other oceans) between 1962 and his death in 1995 boggles the mind. “Moving” because that was the gesture and spirit of his music – an absolute refusal of the static, an insistent blurring of boundaries, a transcendent transnational trajectory. And wedged in between these two words, the most enigmatic and compelling of the three: “kept”. What exactly kept him going? What was he moving away from, and towards? American racism and imperialism form part of the answer: in interviews, one of his stated reasons for moving to Europe was his disgust at the US bombing of Cambodia, as well as the fact that in America “it’s not possible to forget that one is black”.[ix] But the concomitant of this was a vision of cosmological oneness. Or to put it another way: music, wisdom, love; peace, peace, peace.

The short film Don Cherry ends with a still of the trumpeter’s face and the words “see you in a minute” printed at the bottom of the screen, almost coming out of his mouth, as if he were announcing a sequel. There never was one, but maybe Jean-Noël Delamarre thought there could have been, because every time Cherry said goodbye to him in Paris he left “with a big smile, saying ‘see you later!’”.[x]


[i] Don Cherry [translated from the French by the author] interviewed by Philippe Carles, “Le Don paisible”, Jazz Magazine, June 1965, pp. 24-29 (p. 28).
[ii] Eric Drott, “Free Jazz and the French Critic”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 61 No. 3, Fall 2008; pp. 541-581.
[iii] Philippe Carles, “Le Don paisible”, Jazz Magazine, June 1965, pp. 24-29 (p. 28).
[iv] Eric Drott, “Free Jazz and the French Critic”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 61 No. 3, Fall 2008; pp. 541-581 (p. 561).
[v] Ibid., p. 562.
[vi] Ibid., p. 549.
[vii] Ekkehard Jost, Free Jazz (New York, 1994), pp. 49-50.
[viii] While the original poem-collage made by Don Cherry has been lost, the poem was transcribed and printed alongside the photographs taken by Philippe Gras of Cherry on Notre Dame for the April 1967 issue of Jazz Magazine, p. 24.
[ix] Howard Mandel, “Don Cherry, World Jazz Spirit”, The Wire, 1998,; Philippe Carles interview, “Le Don paisible”, p. 28.
[x] Personal correspondence with Jean-Noël Delamarre.


© Gabriel Bristow

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