Cherry walks past the band on a city street. His face is indecipherable, theirs is elated.
Don Cherry (center) and the members of the Multikulti Trio on Long Island in 1991. Courtesy: Peter Apfelbaum

Nearly 30 years after Don Cherry’s death, the time has come to celebrate the trumpet great and his abiding influence on the Bay Area jazz scene.

On Sunday afternoon at the Back Room, drummer/percussionist Josh Jones, bassist Bo Freeman and multi-instrumentalist Peter Apfelbaum reconvene as the Multikulti Trio for the first time since they served as Cherry’s final band in the mid-’90s. It’s a group that toured the world and recorded on Cherry’s final album, 1990’s Multikulti, but rarely played at home.

“I’m not sure why that was, but probably because it wasn’t the kind of money he wanted,” said Apfelbaum, a long-time Brooklyn resident who’s maintained close ties to his alma mater, Berkeley High. “We were playing festivals in Europe and Japan. We’d do stuff in New York and Boston, but Multikulti only played in the Bay Area once or twice.”

Cherry’s unbounded musical curiosity means that the repertoire for Sunday’s show will range across styles and eras. It’s music that hasn’t been heard before, at least now as presented at a Multikulti concert, “which might include an obscure Ornette Coleman tune he had in the bag,” Jones said. “He was really close to Thelonious Monk, and we’d do this Monk medley where he’d get on the piano and play these unorthodox voicings he got directly from Monk.”

Jones and fellow Hieroglyphics drummer Robert “Buddah” Huffmann co-wrote “Rhumba Multikulti” with Cherry, and Apfelbaum’s “Until the Rain Comes” was also featured on the album Multikulti. While Cherry wrote a lot of tunes himself, “Don didn’t think of himself as a composer,” Apfelbaum said. “He really liked to play other people’s tunes. He was always playing Ornette’s music, or in his solo he’d play a piece by Abdullah Ibrahim,” the great South African pianist. “He was this regenerator of music he liked.” 

So why is this tribute happening now? Jones and Apfelbaum have been performing as a duo for some two decades, building on a musical relationship that was born at Berkeley High (while he’s in town Apfelbaum will be working with the Berkeley High Jazz Band on a piece commissioned from him by Jazz Director Sarah Cline). When a slot opened at the Back Room for Nov. 19, the day after what would have been Cherry’s 87th birthday, the moment seemed ripe to revive Multikulti. 

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The initial seed for group was planted when Jazz In the City, the organization that eventually became the juggernaut SFJAZZ, set out to commission a new composition from Apfelbaum. As the leader of the Hieroglyphics Ensemble, a percussion-laden big band that emerged out of the Berkeley High jazz program in 1977, he’d already spent more than a decade developing a body of ideas and practices encompassing rhythms from West Africa, the Caribbean and beyond. 

The idea was for Apfelbaum to write a new work for a guest star to perform with Hieroglyphics. Bringing in Cherry (1936–1995), an early practitioner of global jazz, seemed like a propitious pairing. The Los Angeles-reared trumpeter had made his mark as a member of the epochal Ornette Coleman Quartet that shook up the New York jazz world in 1960 during a long run at the Five Spot. While steeped in the blues, Coleman’s unorthodox compositions opened up new rhythmic and thematic possibilities for improvisers, and the quartet heralded a rising movement known as free jazz.

Coleman and Cherry continued to collaborate intermittently over the years, but the trumpeter followed his own wending path around the world, embracing a global array of instruments and musical idioms. Approached by Jazz In the City founder Randall Kline about premiering a new piece at the 1988 festival Apfelbaum reached out to Cherry, who he’d first connected with as a kid after seeing him perform at the North Beach jazz mecca Keystone Korner. 

“I called him somewhere in Italy and he was really receptive,” Apfelbaum recalled. “He said, ‘I love the Bay Area and I’ve been wanting to spend more time up there.’ He’d been making records that were really wide stylistically, and gotten really into reggae, so I wrote some stuff with that.”

The premiere went well and Cherry evidently found what he was looking for in the Bay Area. The following year, he moved to San Francisco and spent the rest of his life based in the Haight. While Multikulti wasn’t a presence on the Bay Area scene, Cherry performed as a guest with Hieroglyphics Ensemble many times, from Yoshi’s and Great American Music Hall Kimball’s East. 

“He’d come to Sproul Plaza drum circles, and he touched everyone in the Hieroglyphics,” said Jones, who teaches in the Berkeley High jazz program and leads a nine-piece salsa band the second Saturday of every month at Cigar Bar in San Francisco. The influence can be heard today in the music of Apfelbaum and fellow Berkeley High alum Jessica Jones, and even Omar Sosa, said Jones, who spent the last year touring with the Cuban pianist.

“Don loved different world folk musics,” Jones said. “His own music had this kind of people’s music quality. He wasn’t thinking of it as art music. It’s really unique, even to this day, the way he’d use these folk themes that people could sing, and he would often sing. Even if he wasn’t near a mic, he’d get up and sing.”

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....