In the case of Cherry, it wasn’t the only revolution he would be part of. But what he did in the years after that legendary quartet has never been fully seen, much less grasped. He went on to record with the greatest saxophonists of the era: Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, Gato Barbieri, before his music took a curious turn toward the beatific and expansive. “Organic Music Societies,” a hefty 496-page new book from the not-for-profit arts organization Blank Forms, seeks to clarify this time period. As editor Lawrence Kumpf writes in the introduction: “His work outside of or adjacent to jazz receives little attention: his personal philosophy and his attempts to reshape . . . improvised music but also the spaces in which it is apprehended are hardly understood.” In addition, the organization is releasing two unearthed concerts from 1968 and 1972, capturing fascinating permutations of Cherry’s musical vision.
And if Cherry was misunderstood, his creative partner and wife, Swedish visual artist Moki Cherry, was ignored outright. “Moki was kind of a genius at creating a creative space, a home space wherever we were,” her daughter Neneh Cherry says via Zoom from her home in London. “As I’ve got older, I really appreciate how bold it was, stepping out of the treadmill of everyday life. There was a lot of love and energy and focus and discipline that went into making the places and the life and the world that we grew up in.”
A pop star herself (along with her brother Eagle Eye Cherry), Neneh and her daughter Naima Karlsson have taken up the mantle to have Moki’s role elevated to that of her husband’s creative equal and a visionary visual artist in her own right, her hand-sewn tapestries and paintings now on exhibit at the Blank Forms space in Brooklyn in vivid, eye-popping psychedelic color.
“Smoky basements or cellars with no air conditioning had become weary,” Moki Cherry once wrote in a journal from that time period, collected in the book. “Wherever we were was home, so we started working together — and living it. The stage is home and home is a stage.”
That mantra, blurring the border between work and home, between performance and home and presenting it all as life, wasn’t simply one of health, but of a revolution that reflects the times themselves. Loft jazz historian Michael Heller notes that this movement went against those classic jazz clubs, spaces “of exclusive male dominance, in which women appear only as sexual objects, the act of performing (in) the home worked to unravel commonly held associations.” As Neneh put it: “We live in a society where women have constantly been undermined. The journey that Don and Moki took together . . . the world that the two of them created and that they drifted through together was a beautiful thing.”
Fittingly, Don and Monika Karlsson met in a smoky jazz club. The year was 1963 and Cherry was on a European tour playing trumpet with Rollins. Karlsson, then 19 and a fashion design student, caught that gig then went to another Swedish club for the late set, only to find Rollins and Cherry sitting in. The two hit it off, with Karlsson suggesting that Cherry meet another saxophonist friend staying in Copenhagen. His name was Albert Ayler. Their first night together, Karlsson dyed Cherry’s long underwear pink, a hint of the color to come.
Slipping from the strictures of jazz in the late ’60s, Cherry sought a form of democracy that accounted for all the musics of the world, a way for artists from different disciplines and cultures to find common ground, a place far from the smoky subterranean jazz club where master musicians as well as neighborhood children might all make a joyful noise together. During the Summer of Love in 1967, Don and Moki envisioned a new kind of concert experience, audience and band seated at the same level and close to each other. By 1970, the couple were living in a converted schoolhouse in rural Sweden.
“It was always a really stoned time,” Terry Riley remembers with a laugh about visiting the Cherry farm in Tågarp. The lauded American composer and father of minimalism crossed paths often with Don Cherry during that time, their open sensibilities and deep interest in other musical cultures leading them to become fast friends: “We had a similar lifestyle. Don and I had talked about living on a farm and the experience of getting up in the morning and lighting a bunch of wood stoves to start the day. I always thought of him as a medieval minstrel, a guy who was obsessed with music and played it all the time no matter where he was. And I remember Moki’s beautiful tapestries on the wall. I’ve always liked folk art and outsider art. It was in that genre, really vivid and psychedelic. It was very much like she was.”
Moki’s name might not have been on the album covers, but it’s a collaboration hiding in plain sight. Her work is seen on the cover of the album “Where Is Brooklyn?” and with the fresh rainbow knit sweater that Don wears on “Symphony For Improvisers.” Her visuals accompanied Don’s work, evolving as his sound did. “My paintings . . . are all dedicated to all the invisible powers that are ruling man and the universe,” she writes in the book.
By the time of their 1973 classic “Organic Music Society,” Cherry had transformed from jazz trumpeter to world musician and Moki’s vivid art serves as the perfect accompaniment, full of fantastical deities and friends at play in a magical, childlike landscape. Amid a whirlwind of music that draws on Brazilian ceremonial hymns, Indian raga, American and South African jazz, one would be hard-pressed to even find Cherry’s telltale trumpet amid the mosaic. Follow-up “Relativity Suite” is just as ambitious, a through-composed work weaving strands of Turkish and South Asian music with Chinese zither, Malian donso ngoni and Indian tambura. “Weaving” is not a coincidental description. “Moki’s tapestry was the symbol, score, and at times lyric sheet for the music,” archivist Ben Young notes in the book.
“Ornette’s stuff was still very traditional in a way, they still played the heads and Blackwell and Haden were just swinging,” Chicago-based percussionist Hamid Drake tells me about hearing Cherry’s work for the first time. “But Don’s other work: ‘Organic Music Society,’ ‘Relativity Suite,’ ‘Hear and Now,’ that was more mind-blowing to me. You wonder, ‘Is this the same person?’ ” Drake has performed with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Fred Anderson and Sanders, but Cherry remains a touchstone for his own music. “Don was a walking representation of what he was doing musically. He created this wide and swinging door for us to enter into to explore the possibilities of really checking out other dimensions in music, other cultures.”
Playing music in the presence of Moki’s creations revealed to Drake that they were beyond mere cover art or concert backdrop. “Moki’s tapestries were a living part of the music,” he says. “They were part of the home, but also you begin to see how they became part of the music. There’s this whole beautiful intermingling between what you’re seeing and what you’re playing and you begin to get the sensation that the things being depicted in her tapestries — you’re not separate from them.”
But in the art world, Moki Cherry’s visual art career was a nonstarter. “There was an element of exhaustion in her spirit toward the end of her life, because I think she started to feel undervalued,” Neneh Cherry says. “She knew her worth and she had always been very ahead of her time and profoundly creative.” Her childlike wonder and visionary way of integrating world religions and cultures make her work now seem like that of an outsider artist, but at the time, it was mostly ignored. Outside of scant gallery shows at that time, her first solo exhibition and retrospective was in 2016 at Moderna Musket in Stockholm, about seven years after her death.
Near the end of her life, Moki’s own artist statement quipped: “I have not been very successful in the established art world, but children have always been great supporters.” But much like another neglected spouse of a famous jazz legend, Alice Coltrane, younger generations are beginning to fully appreciate her vision and understand how she empowered her partner’s own explorations. With these exhibitions and the book, her side of the work is finally being understood in context.
To Naima Karlsson, her grandmother’s will shines through despite the demands of home and muse. “She found a way that she could fulfill a lot of creativity as well as have a family and tour and be part of the whole thing that her and Don were doing together and create this home,” she says. “It was her way of doing all the different things she wanted to do — even if it wasn’t exactly the way she planned originally.” In that way, Moki Cherry reimagined how jazz might one day look, bursting at the seams with color and light.