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Mr. Music: Remembering David Ornette Cherry

As a pair of public tributes approach, longtime friend and collaborator Susan Banyas remembers the remarkable Portland musician, who died in November after performing in London.


David Ornette Cherry, making the music flow.


Music selections from David’s discography are in bold. Link to Spotify playlist at end. Excerpts from David’s visual essay We Hear Too Fast are in italics.


It is the Spirits that are at the root of all art. They are the dreams that have been there forever. It is not we who have created them. It is nature. They must have love for a person to give him power. – Ali Farka Toure


David Ornette Cherry died in the early hours of November 21, 2022 after performing at the Barbican Concert Hall at the London Jazz Festival, giving the performance of his life, surrounded on stage by his family and renowned Chicago Ethnic Ensemble in a tribute to David’s father, trumpeter and world/jazz composer, Don Cherry. His sister, Neneh Cherry, said David played like a man possessed. “The Ancestors were on the stage with us,” she said. “We could all feel it.”

“Great concert,” David texted his many friends worldwide. We talked briefly. “I’m having trouble breathing. I’ll call you later.” For a man with severe asthma and a heart condition, these words were not uncommon. He’d have to work through it, find the way back to the inhale and the exhale, moment by moment. But he couldn’t get there that night.“ The Ancestors swooped him up,” Neneh said. By the time she got to his hotel room, he was “completely gone.”


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For a musician and magician, the exit was perfect. He played his heart out, completed his earthly mission, and left us mortals to deal with the hole in the fabric of our universe. My naturopath, Dr. Metro, said, “That’s beautiful. Who gets to die like that?”


  • Lynn Darroch’s “Bright Moments Café,” April 11, 7-9 p.m., KMHD 89.1 FM, Musical tribute to David and some words with Portland collaborators.
  • “Our Cherry Jam”: An Organic Listening Club Portland Tribute to and Celebration of David Ornette Cherry, April 13, 6-9 p.m., The Historic Alberta House, 5131 N.E. 23rd Ave., Portland (doors open at 6). Performance, storytelling, beverages, snacks, desserts. Jazz ensemble includes Gordon Lee, piano; Renato Caranto, saxophone; Shao Way Wu, bass; Tim DuRoche, drums; Israel Annoh, percussion and African drums; Norman Sylvester, guitar; LaRhonda Steele, vocals. Theater/dance performers include Gregg Bielemeier, Stephanie Schaaf, Celine Boule, Intisar Abioto, Susan Banyas. Free; donations encouraged to pay performers and cover production costs.


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I called one of David’s good friends and collaborators–Renato Caranto–with the news, “I loved that guy.” Which summed up the outpouring of testimonials that speak to the spirit of this big man, who could dive into chaos and keep the thread of a melody alive until it found a way through the musical conversation to resolve into the most delicate heart-melting moment, or up in the air, depending.“He’s a Butterfly,” his cousin Karen said, “I watched him move around the crowd at the Hollywood Bowl, lighting up the conversations, and I thought, ‘He’s a Butterfly!’”

Cherry on Cherry; Cherry at the keyboard.

David Ornette Cherry was my artistic right-hand man for fifteen years, and I was his Nancy Drew. I discovered recently that he was voted Mr. Music his senior year at Locke High School, his Watts, L.A., alma mater, built in 1967 in the aftermath of the Watts Rebellion (1965). Locke offered Black students high-level academic classes, excellent music training, and Afro-centric Black history and literature. Imagine that. The marching band was famous for its high-stepping dance moves. Never mind football. People came to see the band.

S: You were Mr. Music?

D: Yes, in 1976. Each department had somebody who was special in that field.

S: Did you get that because of your Tuba playing?

D: I got it for playing tuba, concert band, piano, and having a jazz band.


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S: Wow. You put a jazz band together?

D: Yeah.

S: What did you play?

D: Some standards, but mostly my compositions.

S: What compositions?

D: You’ve heard most of them. Do You Really Feel It, that was in the ’70s.

When I met Mr. Music, I didn’t know anything about Watts, and he didn’t know anything about Quakers. Louise Steinman was the matchmaker, my SO&SO&SO&SO co-creator and dream sister, who morphed our performance experiments in the ’70s and ’80s into…ta da & drum roll…ALOUD in LA, a dynamic series at the Los Angeles Central Library that brought artists and scholars, international writers and local poets into conversations—for free! She had produced the LA poet Kamau Daáood, “so powerful he was scary,” with David Cherry “doing his David thing” on his multi-instruments and keyboard. They were making World Music. (Justo Almario on sax in this recording.)


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Louise had also produced my dance monologue, No Strangers Here TodayStrangers code for fugitives from slavery–featuring the voice of my Quaker great-great Grandmother, Elizabeth Edwards. Her diary entries four years into the Civil War indicated that she and her family were a link in the great multi-racial resistance movement, the Underground Railroad, a “counterforce to the machine” (Thoreau). “I loved your piece, but thought, damn, she needs a live musician instead of canned music. When I saw David perform with Kamau, I saw it! I knew he was the one.” She had summoned the dream and then commissioned a duet.

I handed David my No Strangers visual script, and he handed me his Organic Groove CD, and the deal was struck, a soul deal, but first, we had to go to the bank to withdraw half of the advance so he could get started with the gig. Oh, and he played Miles Davis, Kind of Blue on the way to the bank.

David and I lived in different cities then, so we had to figure out how to collaborate, using our combined toolkits of sound grammar & everyday dancing & organic music & soul stories. We communicated through images–photographs, scenes, music sketches, drawings. I sent him this photograph of White Oak Creek, near my grandparents’ house, an escape route that would leave no scent for the trailing bloodhounds, in the winter, when the masters were partying. “I knew what to do,” he told me later. He went into the hills around Altadena where he lived, before dawn, took off his clothes and immersed himself in the raw elements.

White Oak Creek, Highland County, Ohio.

He created a powerful sound foundation for Elizabeth’s daily notations of life on a farm, the landscapes and scenes, the pulse of the times, faith in action. Africa was never far away in the compositions. We were feeling our way through history.

From We Hear Too Fast:

We are tribal beings possessing a certain sound and rhythm, a certain groove. You represent your community, your culture. Music is in the listener’s blood, an unspoken memory without language, a universal progression bringing people together—in spirituality and consciousness.

I choreographed physical images and text over his music scores, with direction from choreographer and dancer Gregg Bielemeier, who joined our collaboration to refine the images of “our hideous history. Where was my family? We were here,” Gregg said. “This white German farm boy was exposed to something real. You were very clear about telling the story through images that highlighted the story, not preacherly, that bring us into a cinematic sense of the story. It’s a movie! David’s music brought real surprises.”


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David and I went to the memory places—to the Edwards’ farm, a “safe house” where fugitives were hidden in a secret room off the cistern. He opened Elizabeth’s diary to see the handwritten words, No Strangers Here Today, and wept. We both did. We were touching history, together, healing something through it.

Video clip from “No Strangers” rehearsal–film by Jack Quincy Davis, lighting design for Interstate Firehouse Theatre production by Bill Boese.

Fifty miles south of the Edwards farm was the town of Ripley, where fugitives crossed the Ohio River, including the character of Eliza in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Stowe heard the story of a woman crossing the ice floes in the dead of winter from John Rankin, a conductor on the railroad. The fugitive woman made it to Canada, then returned later to help her daughter and grandchildren escape from a Kentucky slave owner, passing through Highland County on the way north. True story.

Meanwhile, in the modern age, David met the owner of Snappers Saloon in Ripley, featuring snapping turtle soup. He invited David to go on a snapping turtle hunting trip on the river, but David said, “No man, I have to protect my fingers.” He did perform at Snappers one night. The bass player showed up, but forgot his bass, so the gig got started a little late.

Left: Edwards Farm. Right: Ohio Rover.
Watts Community Center.

David showed me around Watts, the alleys and streets and schools, the houses where parents played jazz, learned the music from world-class high school teachers, invented music, “free jazz,” post-bop poetry, held listening sessions, traded albums, sat in at the clubs to learn the music when he was toddling around with big ears. His Aunt Barbara Lawrence, Don’s sister, the matriarch of the Cherry tribe, has the scrapbooks and stories, is the Living History. “David was like a son to me,” a deep love and loss and grief in her voice. She and her mother, Daisy McKee, raised David from age four, both of them the glue and anchors for all the chaos that a young Black child had to deal with.

When he was seven years old, tanks rolled in two blocks from Daisy’s house in Watts and “everything exploded.” Violence, killings, police beatings, gangs, drugs and also poetry, music, jazz, Black power, the Black Arts Movement. The Watts Towers, the epicenter. The World Stage, the training ground. The Watts Prophets on the streets. David was witness to all this as a young soul, the sounds and energy of the Watts Rebellion, the force, the counterforce, the music, sounds of freedom.

“I was in LA during the next one,” the Watts Uprising,1992. “I was doing a session with Don and the Watts Prophets–“Change is Overdue”–when the Rodney King verdict came out, and the neighborhood went wild, two blocks away, just like before. I was there for both of them. Can you imagine?”

Watts Towers, built by Simon Rodia, the patron saint of Watts.


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The Garage wasn’t home to a turquoise Thunderbird. It was the music incubator and hangout, a pure place. David’s longtime friend and collaborator Ollie Elder Jr. grew up down the street from Daisy. He’d see this guy on the porch playing the flute. One day the guy called out, hey, do you play an instrument?Ollie said yes. The guy said, come to the garage behind the house. Ollie showed up with his standing bass. Ollie asked, “When do I start?” Mr. Music said, “Start anytime.” Ollie asked, “What should I play?” Mr. Music said, “Play anything!” Ollie said this was the first time he realized music was something you created, not just something you read.“ This set the tone for my whole life as a musician,” he said.

No matter what’s coming down, there is always an Escape to Jazziland.

Justo Almario, flute and sax; David, piano, multi-instruments; Ollie Elder Jr., bass; John L. Price, percussion; Don Littleton, drums. Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).
Two photos above: In Sardinia, Italy, doing Rotation of Energy at a Don Cherry tribute.

In Portland, he called his groups Organic Roots. His first quartet, with Carlton Jackson on drums, Michael York on sax, Andre St. James on bass, and David on keyboards and multi-instruments, played at the Someday Lounge. All of them are gone now, including the Someday. Here they are doing One Drop to Victory. (Justin Durrieon bass in this recording.)

David collaborated with many Portland musicians and poets–played with sounds, textures, dynamics, composition, and stories—during this fertile time, as intent on the experiment as the outcome, in the spirit of his middle name, Ornette. He sent a groove track to his sister Jan Cherry Spears, then in LA, a masterful violinist and vocalist, then gave it to Devin Phillips in Portland to add his saxophone grammar, then composed the sounds into an Organic Music Society Cherry jam.

Two photos above: Norman Sylvester, guitar; Renato Caranto, saxophone; David, keyboards, multi-instruments; Glen Moore, bass; Carlton Jackson (not pictured), drums. Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland.

In his first Organic Nation Listening Club theater piece at Artists Repertory Theatre, the set was a garage, designed by Bill Boese. I was the choreographer and story director. Dancing by Renee Ward, Stephanie Schaaf, Gregg Bielemeier, Dorinda Holler, Celine Boule–comic bits, storytelling—the garage was a soul jam! The music ensemble played underneath each man’s story. A beautiful concept. Men came up afterwards with tears in their eyes to say that the musicians’ stories really got to them.

From We Hear Too Fast:


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Art does that, and artists demonstrate that life unplugged from the corporate world can be well lived. In this world, one must be creative to survive. To be able to dialogue and work with others—the creative process helps you find yourself and allows for pride rather than shame because you are odd or quirky, because you see and hear something different than the norm.

It Could Be Different features his formidable musical family—Don Cherry, Bird Boy Remix, Neneh Cherry, Tyson McVey, Eagle Eye Cherry, and Christian Cherry. Neneh does the vocals for David’s lyrics—Freedom of Music–here with dancers Gregg Bielemeier, Stephanie Schaaf, Elisabeth Tschaeler, Dorinda Holler, and me in rehearsal and performance with It’s Been a Busy Week, Christopher Rauschenberg photographing the process from the inside out and outside in.

Photo at right by Christopher Rauschenberg.

From We Hear Too Fast:

The lesson is to practice observing our environments, still and distilling our minds so that we can really hear.

Main Street, Hillsboro, Ohio.
Walnut Street, Hillsboro, Ohio.

Mr. Music came to Hillsboro, Ohio to get the vibe and write the soundtrack for The Hillsboro Story, a play that became a book, about an early (1954-56) Civil Rights protest happening outside my third grade classroom window. David brought the town to life in an Overture of images, captured the dreamlike quality of Memory, the energy of the Marching Mothers and their steadfast two-year protest that challenged white power to uphold The Brown Promise, the elegant character of The County Engineer, who went to prison and into the FBI files for his act of civil disobedience.

Here he is, describing his music for the show in an interview (video above) with Tom D’Antoni. David also talks about the curriculum (scroll to bottom) designed by the Portland Public Schools based on the story and also his beautiful CD, called The Story (Part I).

David went to Columbus and Cincinnati to play with the jazz cats, grabbing them for a session to record music–Careytown Pike with Stan Smith on banjo. He couldn’t believe the Amish Elder, trotting into town, who pulled his buggy over to help a stranded car. Watching all this from the apartment window, David rushed out to meet the Elder and asked him if he could come out to the farm for a visit. Yes, he could. “Do you have music?” No, we don’t. “Oh, man, thanks, but I don’t think I’ll be coming out.” But he did buy an Amish hat and walked around town like he belonged. Imagine that.


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He talked his way into the old high school, slated for demolition, the grand piano still in the dusty auditorium. He created and recorded this haunting piano solo—the last music to fill the beloved music hall of my hometown—Friendship–woven into the fabric of The Hillsboro Story and into the fabric of our lives.

I was writing the script in scenes, working with voices of the real people (more than 60 interviews) who shaped the real history–characters and images, with soundtracks being created daily, a “kaleidoscope history,” from the memories of the people, against the backdrop of the cold war, a political history, a soul retrieval, a thick stew. Mr. Music added the “filé to the gumbo.” We were a team!

Peter West designed the lighting for the theater version of The Hillsboro Story that premiered at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland (he also designed Blue Wheel). He wrote to me after hearing of David’s death:

“My memory of working on The Hillsboro Story with David has all to do with interaction. There were moments when the words and music handed off to each other–a percussive squeal that made the line ‘Jazz takes off like a Corvette burning rubber’ vividly echo the lines from Howl and David’s riff on Monk. Your work and his were so logically intertwined that I never was unsure of the mood or rhythm of each scene. It was an amazing experience. The willingness to create in space. I got to play with toys and make the hooks with light, a batch of talented collaborators, choreography with an intellectual framework, self-expression and co-leadership that pushed the project forward. David was focused. He thought out a lot of stuff. I’m in awe of people who can do that.”

ART production (L-R): Jennifer Lanier, KB Mercer, S. Banyas, Laverne Green. PhotoS: John Klicker

One of the first Black female civil rights attorneys in the nation—Her Name Is Motley—represented the mothers and children of Hillsboro. The late Honorable Constance Baker Motley argued Clemons v. Board of Education, Hillsboro OH, 1956, in the courthouse pictured above in Cincinnati, the first test case for the Brown decision in the North.

The eye of the law is equal protection. The heart of justice is love.

“The nucleus of the heartbeat is sound,” David told me recently.


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From We Hear Too Fast:

It’s simple. Creativity gets you outside the system’s box. When you travel outside your comfort zone, you get to mingle, to perform, to find out what irritates or inspires others. How fragile we are. No matter the aesthetic, the beauty or the ugly—art will emerge from the empire’s ashes of redundancy.

Before the pandemic, we piloted a third Ohio work-in-progress, Voices from the Great Serpent at the International Society for the Study of Time/Time in Variance conference at Loyola University in Los Angeles. The Great Serpent, a few miles from my childhood home, is a 5,000-year-old earthwork created by Indigenous people who embedded cosmic alignments, earth alchemy, and a vision of the elemental nature of life force, the Timeless Moment, in a quarter-mile-long coiled snake with a spiral tail and open mouth delivering an egg, a story, a sound.

David had been to the site several times and created a live and electronic sound design for vocal and movement storytelling. The Spirit Flute was on his altar when he left for Europe for the final tour.

Cherry roots go back to Indian Country. David was an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation. He produced and directed a Jim Pepper tribute in Portland and a Don Cherry tribute in L.A.—the two great jazz icons, collaborators and friends, fused jazz and Native American music and were being inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.

David took the train there to represent the family, teach workshops, and perform in a jazz festival in Tulsa. He went to the reservation to meet members of the tribe. “If you want to understand America,” he told me, “go to Oklahoma.”


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David, with Jim Pepper (middle), 1981 on tour with Don. Jim told David to move to Portland. Twenty-two years later he did.

David liked to travel by train, be close to the spirit of the people, witness and engage. “People are struggling,” he would say.

He knew struggle, every day. Asthma is a terrible disease, the struggle to breathe, overcome fear, stay positive, work a life around this risky, painful situation. “You can inhale,” he said, “but you can’t exhale.” Imagine that. Imagine a trauma that takes your breath away.

D: I was waiting for my basketball coach to pick me up to be at all-state because I was all-city basketball player and …

S: You were?

D: You have to go this meeting to fill out your papers…

S: You mean all of Los Angeles?

D: Yeah, I was one of the twelve.


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S: Holy cow!

D: Yeah, I was a bad basketball player.

S: What was your position?

D: Small shooting forward. I looked slow, but I was quick to my spot. They couldn’t stop my shot. I’d shoot from outside. I had a shot that went straight up in the air, so high, that it would stay in the air and then come down, boom through the net. Cherry Bomb, the crowd would shout. Boom!I was a legend. Averaging about 25 points a game.

S: Dang! What happened to your basketball career?

D: Me and my buddy, we were sitting there waiting for the coach and this car came up—a white station wagon and called me over and I went over, and they put a shotgun in my belly and said, “You’re a Crip.” With my calm nerves I said, “No man, I’m waiting for my basketball coach. I’m all city. I’m a bad dude and I play ball. But if you want some Crips, they’re probably over there in the alley drinking Old English Malt.” And they said, “Oh, ok.” They rode away and I missed that meeting to go to all-state. I wasn’t going to wait on the corner for my coach. I was gone. If they didn’t find no Crips, they’d come back and say shoot him. So,I didn’t go to the tournament.

S: Do you have regrets?


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D: I got recruited to a school across town with a good program, but I didn’t want to leave Daisy. I left basketball for good in the 11th grade. I went to the music. I have no regrets. I shouldn’t even be here. That was one time. There were many. But they didn’t mess with you if you were an athlete or carried an instrument.

S: So…the underground criminal class honors art, but the status quo pompous leaders could give a flying f&#k about art…

D: That blows me away! Musicians…they’ll take everything you’ve got…

S: Nickel and dime you to death…

D: That blows me away!

I was thinking about a prestigious Portland cultural institution that hired David for a fundraising shindig, people milling around with bubbly, his riveting explorations on the grand piano, dousnn’ gounni, spirit flute, bells, on a journey, fearless, focused, open. A rare kind of art. His pay? A hundred bucks. I was outraged, but he wouldn’t go there. “It serves no purpose,” he would say. He had to stay calm because the smallest upset, cigarette smoke, whiff of perfume could send him into an asthma attack. He kept things positive and stuck to business at hand, grateful for a little “ching-a-ling.”


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“We’re Cultural Workers. We work hard,” David said. “A lot of people think your success is how much money you make, are you making movies, are you on the today show, the tonight show, record sales, big concerts … I feel successful because I hung in there and have integrity in what I do. The stuff I do has meaning. For instance, No Strangers Here Today. That has meaning. It’s not like a lot of money came out of it, but that’s not my concern. It’s getting something out there that is positive. It’s a hard thing. Being consistent. You know that.”

His close friend and long-time collaborator, John L. Price, said the last piece David sent him, a few days before he died, was titled Floating to the Next Riff and included recordings of the nebulizer, his breathing machine, of wheezing. “He was sending a message.” John and David met at CalArts in the ’80s, started the jazz program there, set up events, hung out with the African teachers from Ghana, with their families. This is Part I of John’s documentary, Rhythm and Relationship, about the deep nature of African music, how call and response works in music and our lives, and includes an interview with David. “Now I’ll have to re-think Part II.” John produced the collaboration Beyond the Electronic Garage/African American Grooves for the Common Man in 1998 that speaks to this powerful merging of African and jazz forms, with an early, sweet version of Doussin’ Gounni” Fantasia, featuring Jan Cherry (Spears) on violin; John L Price, percussion; David, melodica/keyboards; Mark London Sims, bass; Ralph “Buzzy” Jones, woodwinds; and Francis Awe, talking drum.

“Dave was a living example to all of us of moving forward and continuing to compose and create. He was always making things happen.”

“I loved him like a Brother,” Charles Rahmat Woods, one of David’s close allies in Washington, D.C., told me. Rahmat opens this tribute to David in D.C. on December 29 with the spirit flute to honor his and David’s Choctaw heritage. “My great-grandmother was full-blooded Choctaw, and my mother told me never to forget that part of the family. I connected with Don’s music this way. I played with Don on his D.C. orchestra project and with David’s sister, Jan, in the early ’90s. Carletta Hewit Cherry, David’s mother, would sometimes host the Listening Group,” the Washington DC Listening Group, founded “35-40 years ago by Tom Porter. Ron Clark. Good friends of the Cherry family. They were anchors in the community.”

Rhizome DC:

  • Jamal Moore–saxophone and clarinet
  • Luke Stewart–acoustic bass
  • Trae Crudup–drums
  • Charles Rahmat Woods–flutes/saxophone


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Luke Stewart: “The Washington DC Listening Group was a group of all Black men who came together once a month to listen to stories, music, talk about the community. Figures in music, politics, professions, advocates and aficionados who formed various relationships and partnerships.

“David was a true friend. We played gigs, made some recordings. He was a profound composer. That excited me the most. And his positivity. Oddly enough, that’s rare, to always be grateful, thankful that I’m a musician, an artist, doing what I love. He taught me to respect the music this way. His love for the music freed him up. He never worried about the music.” Luke’s verbal testimony, :34 minutes into the tribute recording, is important history.“ The spirit of David Ornette Cherry–a man who obviously possessed so much legacy, but in his own right, made quite a contribution to this community, to us four up here, and to so many others. David.” Luke’s hand goes to his heart and then to his bass, in a powerful solo in tribute to his brother.

Rahmat: “He had the creative energy of an artist who can bring the light out—life light, life culture. He was a prolific producer who went to the root of the people for the music. One of the pieces I played over and over when I first knew him—Moroccan Garage—he imagined the young Moroccan musicians, hanging out in their garage, making music. He brought world music to his platform. A lot of people in D.C. really appreciated him. He called frequently, like he did with others. A few days before he passed, we talked about playing the Keystone Corner in Baltimore. He was a special person and great musician.”

David, piano, dousin’ gouni; Ollie Elder Jr.,bass; Nadene Pita, violin/vocals; GemiTaylor, guitar; Randall Willis, sax, flute; John L. Price, percussions; Don Littleton, drums; Nichelle Monroe, vocals.

David’s last epic tour began in L.A. with Auntie Barbara, the big love of his life. He was taking the music back home to Watts and the World Stage–The Organic Nation Listening Club at the World Stage. He wanted each musician to tell a story about committing to the music. When did you say “yes” to your calling, how did you hear it? Where were you? My job was to listen to each story, note the key images and reflect back to the storyteller the poetry of the story, the soul of it. The stories were woven into the compositions unfolding on stage. A great privilege and wonderful experiment, to feel again the treasures embedded in memory—history, character, and sound.

The evening ended with a composition that began David’s musical career, Do YouReally Feel It, 48 minutes into the recording, now fleshed out in full. Nichelle’s final vocal riff, “Do you really feel it? I’ll be feeling this groove always. Always. Always….” is a perfect expression of the forever call and response of The Organic Nation Listening Club, the Continual, the legacy of the great muse, Mr. Music.

Kamau Daaood was with David the day before he left for Europe. “He was helping me with Garage Band, and I sent him off with one of my flutes.” We talked about David’s desire and ability to pass on the spirit of the music to youth in the ways he received the teachings. “It’s a beautiful thing, to love something that doesn’t make sense, this thing that’s pulling you, a world system around you abandoning you, labels for things like jazz. Jazz is an expression of being through the art form. David focused on sharing with others.”

From We Hear Too Fast:


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It’s a learning process, to be honored with time and space and to give back to those who are just beginning their journey. Perfect timing. It’s completion and a return to the beginning of the self. You learn the music, you own the music and then you give it back.

Ideas come when they come.

If we trust our instincts, something is going to hit.

Off he went to Copenhagen, Tågarp, London. He saw every member of his family, spent quality time with each sibling, sat at the piano in the farmhouse in Sweden where his Dad taught him how to play, practicing for the London gig, passing on his musical spirit to his beloved niece, Naima Karlsson, a pianist and composer, who took David’s place after his death in London, to complete the Ethnic Ensemble tour. Naima’s tribute to David here.

The family came together in L.A. for the tribute there—with his L.A. group playing mighty musical libations, led by Jan on violin and keyboards, Ollie Elder Jr., Don Littleton, Justo Almario, Nadene Pita on viola, Roberto Miranda on a bass solo, Naima on a keyboard solo for her uncle, family members from LA and Europe rapping at the end, dancing on stage, Kamau, the wise, uplifting MC. The pastor told us that when you feel David around, he’s actually there. He’s with us in many forms in many places now, he assured us. His cousin Karen ended the tribute with her Butterfly message of love, and his cousin Daryl, with help from other cousins and their kids, served us a great feast. At the center of this happening was David’s Aunt Barbara, who has watched the big story of all this unfold during her lifetime. Can you imagine?

The musical tributes continue—Dwight Trible, Kahil El’Zabar, and the Ethnic Ensemble at the Jazz Bakery in L.A. a week later. The Portland celebration is coming on David’s birthday, April 13, with a powerful lineup of musicians and artists gathering to pay tribute to his multimedia legacy at the Historic Alberta House; and two of his art works will be shown at the Portland Art Museum in a show guest curated by Intisar Abioto (opening in August).


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Before he left for Europe, David recounted our journey back to me in detail—the places and people, the Quaker meeting houses, drug rehab center, high schools, theaters, museums, chapels, clubs where we performed, Charlie Chaplin moments, cities, landscapes, the beautiful allies we met along the way. “Who gets to do this in a lifetime? Can you imagine?”

I did imagine, again. His memories opened mine, and I can see it, this journey of a lifetime, two people from different worlds, traveling around, learning and owning and sharing stories about the history of this country, making dances, creating theater, bearing witness to each other’s struggles and joys, building a friendship and kinship by putting our imaginations into action.

Our last conversation was a couple of hours before he went onstage in London. About pitch and timing, an education project in Cleveland, the nuts and bolts over the deep and abiding Love Ballad we shared on stage and off. I miss you.

“Wow, you’re big time!” I said when he gave me a virtual tour of his dressing room at the Barbican—not a room, a suite. “Naw,” he said. “I just want to be there for the music and represent my family. It’s good to be playing with the brothers. I think I’ll play barefoot.”



Seattle Opera Pagliacci

Deep bow of gratitude, Susan
© Susan Grace Banyas, March 2023


End photos by Jov Luke (lantern and dousin gouni) and Laurie Lambrecht (David at piano).


The Organic Nation Listening Club (The Continual) Spiritmuse, London

SO&SO&SO&SO slide show

We Hear Too Fast:
Painting and Scores and Music Narratives: Syncopated Conversations with David Ornette Cherry, transposed by DeJe Watson, created at the Robert Rauschenberg Residency Program


Seattle Opera Pagliacci

The Hillsboro Story, Spuyten Duyvil Press, NYC

Mr. Music/DavidOrnette Cherry Playlist on Spotify, Cherry Extract Music


With great appreciation for all the supporters and collaborators, family and friends along the way:

Neneh Cherry

Kahil El’Zabar/Ethnic Ensemble

Louise Steinman


Seattle Opera Pagliacci

Kamau Daáood

Quincy Davis

Luke Stewart

Charles Rahmat Woods

Christopher Rauschenberg

Robert Rauschenberg Foundation

Leimert Park Beat


All Classical Radio James Depreist

“Once Upon a Time in Watts,” The Wire (UK)

Organic Music Societies

Dwight Trible

Intisar Abioto

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Susan Banyas is a choreographer and writer who co-founded SO&SO&SO&SO in 1976 as a teaching and performance form that integrates movement, image and language into physical poetry. No Strangers Here Today and The Hillsboro Story, collaborations with jazz composer David Ornette Cherry, are multi-voiced investigations that illuminate the role her hometown played in American civil rights history and the journey to encounter that history directly. It is now also a non-fiction book, The Hillsboro Story/A Kaleidoscope History. Other multimedia projects with Mr. Cherry include Blue Wheel, It’s Been a Busy Week, The Great Serpent (in process), and Nu History, a teaching model in development to inspire students to create documentary art from their own experience.


16 Responses

  1. This is absolutely wonderful Susan and I am deeply grateful to you for it, as I continue to be for “No Strangers Here Today” and “The Hillsboro Story” and on a personal note, the several occasions when I got to know socially that gifted, intelligent, kind human being. He was a lot of fun, liked to riff verbally, too. All of these memories are a blessing.

    1. Thank you Martha. So moved by your response and the blessed memories you have and we share of our good friend.

  2. Super piece, Susan, beautiful documentary of David. it’s so rich that I’ll be returning to it over and over again to savor David’s work. Whatever inspired me to commission David to do a score for “No Strangers Here Today,” well, a deep bow to that and to your fruitful collaboration and shared adventure in art and history. much love, L

  3. Susan Grace, I feel simultaneously sad and buoyed by your story of David in your and the world’s life. You and David have indeed woven a magnificent hammock tapestry in which to cradle history, words, sound, movement, anguish, hope, generosity, love and daring. I am in awe and gratitude. Tamara

    1. Thank you so much dear Tamara, my Hillsboro pal, who understands so well how David transformed the important civil rights story we witnessed as children into a potent and beautiful soundtrack as part of the town’s history and in honor of the spirit of those early freedom fighters.

  4. Dear Susan, What a wonderful thing you two had/have/will continue to have. Grateful to you for sharing these layered memories and links to these layered, brilliant works. Summer

  5. David was a brother. Susan & Louise sisters. So & So & So & So a living history of the performers & the racialized backgrounds we grew up in! This essay really brings his memory, voice, humor, music & radicalism to life! A humble but comprehensive tribute🙏🏼 Thank you, Susan❤️ The videos of him making me want to cry😢

    1. Thank you Brother John, who gave us the SO&SO name, the poetry seeds that David spread/rapped about in his last album and that keep on drifting through time. Keeping the dreams alive! love to you.

  6. THANK YOU, Susan, for this comprehensive and soulful tribute to David’s extraordinary life and impressive musical legacy. Your deep and abiding love for him is clearly woven into every word.

  7. Beautiful story, Susan. Well told, and the soundtrack is magic, like the tracks a train glides along…. Mr. Music, indeed.

    *And, Ms. His-Story Teller, yourself.

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