"I always dreamed of a world without cruelty and greed, of a humanity with the same creative brilliance of our solar system, of an America worthy of the dreams of Martin Luther King and the majesty of the Statue of Liberty." -- musician, dreamer, and American legend Charlie Haden, 1937-2014
On July 11, bassist Charlie Haden passed away after a long struggle with post-polio syndrome. He was 76.
In a year punctuated by loss, this one is particularly sad for fans of jazz and improvised music. Haden was a giant, a musician who defined and redirected the entire course of his instrument. His singular approach to the double-bass could easily be identified in just one note; such was the strength of his sound.
Sound. That’s the first thing you think of when Haden comes to mind. He had the unique ability to imbue every note with the weight and gravity of his humanity. He chose his notes carefully and always managed to cull the profound ones. He played slower and with more deliberation than almost anybody, even while navigating the twisting turns of bebop. A Haden solo would invariably draw the listener’s focus into the microdynamics of his inevitable logic.
Check out some of Haden's performances on YouTube:
Haden's musical career began at the tender age of 2 in 1939, singing on his parent’s radio show, which was broadcast on KMA from the family farm in Shenandoah, Iowa. Stricken with bulbar polio at the age of 15, Haden’s singing days were over, but he had already discovered the bass by then, and upon graduation from high school, he saved his money from a job selling shoes until he had enough to board a Greyhound bound for Los Angeles in order to explore jazz -- which he discovered over the radio.
Although he was completely self-taught, Haden had no problem finding work in the bustling LA scene, gigging with Art Pepper and Hampton Hawes almost immediately, ultimately making the connection with the scorned iconoclast Ornette Coleman -- a connection that continues to reverberate in the music world today.
Haden was the perfect grounding agent for Coleman’s loosely tempered, non-chord-based music. The bassist's sense of metric time was very strong to begin with and became as certain as an atomic-clock by 1960. Together with trumpeter Don Cherry, and drummers Billy Higgins and Ed Blackwell, the Coleman group arrived in New York in 1959 to both considerable acclaim and controversy. Although the jazz community was wildly divided on the value of Coleman’s work, Haden was often invited to perform and record with a who's who of modern jazz cognoscenti: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Tony Scott all hired him.
In the ensuing years, associations with Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny raised Haden’s public profile, and in the late '70s he formed a Coleman repertory band, Old & New Dreams, with alumni Cherry, Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell. The very first time I heard Charlie Haden play live was with this band, and it absolutely changed my life. There was something transcendent going on, and that gig still resonates with me more than 30 years later.
Haden’s stature as a man of principal was equal to his musical depth. He spoke out in favor of civil rights and against the war in Vietnam long before doing so was popular or convenient, and in 1971, when he dedicated a piece of music to the black revolutions in colonial Africa, he was detained, interrogated and briefly imprisoned in fascist-era Portugal.
You can and should read all of that in any of the dozens of tributes that are everywhere on the Internet now. I keep coming back to the sound. No one could make the bass sound like Charlie Haden. You didn't need to read about his humanity to understand him, because his humanity was crystal clear in every note. Deep and sonorous, Haden’s sound penetrated the sonic curtain and lingered in the brain. He made the whole instrument sing -- every creak of finger upon wood, every rattle of gut and steel on ebony, rang with the purity of intention. He figured out how to imitate whale songs with his bow -- and to hear his "Song for the Whales" on the epochal "Old & New Dreams" album is to be transported, literally, into the depths of the ocean where you feel each call coming at you; somehow, you can even feel the water in this magical performance done without overdubs or studio trickery.
And that's just one moment in a lifetime of sonic achievements.
Listen to "Lonely Woman" to understand how the history of the bass's role in jazz changed forever. Listen to "Ramblin" to hear Haden's early hillbilly roots; listen to the solos on "Survivors Suite" for their bone-chattering clarity; listen to "Our Spanish Love Song" for the deep romance.
Listen. Because that’s what Charlie did at the virtuoso level. Everything he was able to accomplish musically came from a capacity of profound listening. The great classical and free-jazz bass explorer Bertram Turetzky told me, "His ear is just incredible. He hears things coming from around the corner." Haden’s ability to listen deeply made him the ideal duet partner, the pared-down instrumentation allowed each performance to become a true conversation, and if you are looking for supreme examples of musical conversation, his duets with Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, Archie Shepp and Ornette Coleman, to name a few, are not to be missed.
Haden himself remarked to Musician Magazine in the '80s, "Sometimes I think about hearing music through someone else's ears and it frightens me -- if someone wanted to torture me, they could force me to hear music through Ronald Reagan's ears. He must be tone deaf."
In the mid-1980s, Haden moved to Los Angeles and, at the suggestion of his wife, Ruth Cameron, put together an LA group dedicated to exploring standards and film music, the remarkable Quartet West, with saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Allan Broadbent and drummer Larance Marable. They went on to record close to a dozen albums, several with strings, that are unparalleled in beauty and attention to detail.
When Haden was still finalizing the personnel for Quartet West, he brought an earlier version of that concept to Elario's in La Jolla, featuring San Diego pianist Mike Wofford and guitarist Peter Sprague.
"I really dug working with Charlie, and he had a way of setting up the music vibe so that going slightly 'out' was encouraged," Sprague said. "I loved the blend of freedom, stretched harmony, and then in the next moment, straight-up folk-y major chords. It was a special moment to play that week in La Jolla with him."
Hearing Haden with those cats in the intimate atmosphere of a small club is another piece of magic that I will never forget. So in these days following his passing, I’m doing a lot of listening to Haden's immense contributions -- all of those wonderful Ornette Coleman recordings on Atlantic from the late '50s on; the Keith Jarrett collaborations, the work with Pat Metheny, and Old & New Dreams -- listening, and reliving, those moments of seeing him live.
I did not know Charlie Haden. I never got to meet him, shake his hand, tell him how much his music meant to me, but his work connected me to my humanity, and that body of work, that singular, magical sound will live forever.
The world is a poorer place now that Haden is gone, but it is also immensely richer because he was here.
Robert Bush is a freelance jazz writer who has been exploring the San Diego improvised music scene for more than 30 years.