Speaking Truth to Power, and Embracing Beauty: Bassist Charlie Haden (1937-2014)

Bassist Charlie Haden in 2010/photo by Steven Perilloux

In conversation as on the bandstand, where he played his bass with graceful authority and achieved great renown, Charlie Haden was both soft-spoken and outspoken. In his life and his music, he was exceedingly gentle, drawn to simple beauty yet also at home within wild complexity and unafraid of controversial ideas and hard truths.

Haden, who died on Friday morning at 76, was a towering figure of American music. His influence and appeal reached into all quarters of jazz, and well beyond that genre. His ability to innovate helped sparked at least one musical revolution, as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet. His unerring sense of time and love of melody anchored and focused many distinguished bands, some of which he led. His radiant humanity and stalwart voice for social justice was both rare and powerful in any field.

As Nate Chinen reported in a New York Times obituary:

His death was confirmed by Ruth Cameron, his wife of 30 years. For the last several years he had been struggling with the degenerative effects of post-polio syndrome, related to the polio he contracted in his youth.

Charles Edward Haden was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, on Aug. 6, 1937 into a distinctly musical family, and grew up in Springfield, Mo. Long before he helped seed what is known as “free jazz” while in his early twenties as a member of Coleman’s group, along with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins, before he spent a decade in another landmark quartet led by pianist Keith Jarrett, alongside saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Paul Motian, before he formed his Liberation Music Orchestra, which blended avant-garde, big-band jazz, Latin American folk traditions with bold political statements, and showcased the compositions and arrangements of pianist Carla Bley, before his Quartet West, which played noir ballads inspired by Raymond Chandler novels and movie themes, before he worked with nearly any musician one could name on jazz’s radar and good many off that screen too, he was known as “Cowboy Charlie,” singing his way into listeners hearts at the tender age of two on his parents’ country-music radio show, “Uncle Carl Haden and the Haden Family.”
Haden stopped singing at 15, after contracting polio, which affected his face and throat. He was house bassist for “Ozark Jubilee,” a country-music network television show broadcast from Springfield, Mo. In a videotaped statement when he was inducted as a 2012 Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts (he had fallen ill by then), Haden said that hearing alto saxophonist Charlie Parker at a 1951 Jazz at the Philharmonic concert drew him to jazz in a profound and lasting way. Yet he never stopped being a country musician, playing folk music. As has often been noted, Haden’s bass solo in “Ramblin’,” an early Ornette Coleman classic, ends with a quotation of the Southern fiddle tune “Old Joe Clark.”
In a particularly elegant and astute memorial piece at Slate, Fred Kaplan wrote:

Haden always saw links between jazz and country music. He told me, “The old folk music of England and Ireland and Scotland came over to America and evolved in the mountains of Appalachia and the Ozarks. Wherever there was a struggle in the hills, the music from that was very moving, very soulful. Jazz grew out of spirituals and the blues, which came from the struggle of the African slave and the freedom movement. So they’re both music of struggle.”

In the Times, Chinen quoted an earlier Haden interview:

“The beauty of it is that this music is from the earth of the country,” he said. “The old hillbilly music, along with gospel and spirituals and blues and jazz.”

At 2008, at 71, Haden released “Ramblin’ Boy,” inspired by a Haden family gathering 20 decades earlier for his mother’s 80th birthday. “The whole family had assembled,” he told me in an interview then. “Soon, a singalong took shape.” His wife, singer Ruth Cameron, urged him to do a record. Haden was the patriarch of this edition of the family band, which included his daughters, Rachel, Petra and Tanya, who have performed together as the Haden Triplets; his son, Josh, who is a singer-songwriter; and his wife, as well as a slew of guest stars, guitarist Pat Metheny, his duet partner for the 1997 recording, “Beyond the Missouri Sky,” which yielded the first of Haden’s three Grammy Awards. “It kind of makes me know how my dad felt when he taught us about beautiful melodies and singing harmonies,” he told me after making “Ramblin’ Boy.” “And we’re back on the radio.” (The album scored well on country and bluegrass charts.)
I like the way that Kaplan, in Slate, described Haden’s presence on a stage and within a musical group:

He seemed to be romancing the bass, swaying it back and forth, eyes closed, his head turned away, grimacing with intensity, leaning over at an almost perpendicular angle to hear his own playing more keenly, sometimes beaming when he heard someone else in the band play something remarkable.

Here, Kaplan hints at the deep listening and compassion Haden projected in all musical contexts. Haden seemed to extend the familial bonds that marked his entry into music and his life with his wife and children throughout his career, to those with his chosen professional partners: As is so often the case in jazz, it was his ability to form and grow relationships built on this compassion and on a commitment to common purpose that elevated his art; that’s part of what made him a great bandleader and wildly sought after as band member.
Those qualities are perhaps most clearly evident in his work in duos, including his most recent release, the glorious “Last Dance,” in duet with Keith Jarrett, which is drawn from the same 2007 sessions as the previous “Jasmine,” likely Haden’s last work in a studio. There were other duet classics, among them: “Soapsuds, Soapsuds,” with Ornette Coleman; “Steal Away,” with Hank Jones; “Night & the City,” with Kenny Barron; and “As Long As There’s Music,” with Hampton Hawes, who was among the first jazz musicians Haden connected with upon relocating to Los Angeles in the 1950s.
I’ll never forget a two-week run at Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club to celebrate Haden’s 65th birthday, in 2002—a series of duets with pianists he favored. At the time, he told me that he saw the duet setting as a chance “to break through the clutter of modern life with something simple and direct.” It was also a way to span his stylistic reach and explore the depths of personal connections that gave rise to some of his best music.
With Kenny Barron, the usual distractions at the Blue Note were overtaken by a reverential hush. The warmth and softness of Haden’s tone on bass stood out, as did his cunning sense of restraint—most obviously on ballads, but all also Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology”: Haden bit into the classic bebop line with forceful energy, but his rendering was most effective for the notes he left out. With pianist Geri Allen, Haden displayed the intuitive connection that elevated Allen’s formative Blue Note recordings. And since Allen was among the few pianists hired by Ornette Coleman, it was only natural for the two to delve in Coleman’s catalog. When they finished playing two Coleman classics, “Lonely Woman” and “Ramblin’,” after the crowd roared, Haden took a moment to recall the winter of 1959, when, in his early 20s, he came to New York to play the Five Spot in Coleman’s quartet. And he cited the tunes he’d snuck into his solos, learned much earlier, as a very young boy: “Barbara Allen,” “Old Joe Clark,” and “Fort Worth Jail.” With Brad Melhdau, Haden highlighted the ambience of romance and intrigue that he conjured with his Quartet West. And with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Haden reveled in his love for the bolero form, and in a relationship that began at a 1986 festival in Havana. (“Gonzalo’s band came on, he took a piano solo, and I nearly fell of my chair,” Haden told me in an interview. “I told the organizers, ‘Take me back to meet him.’ He spoke very little English at the time. But we arranged to meet the next day. We played for hours.”)  Haden played on Rubalcaba’s 1990 Blue Note Records debut; Rubalcaba played on and produced two Haden albums, “Nocturne” and “Land of the Sun,” both Grammy winners.
If Haden’s music celebrated intimate bonds, it also frequently embraced further-reaching connections, and an awareness of injustice and suffering at home and abroad. In that respect as much as through his aesthetic achievements, Haden touched me and informed my own sense of direction as a writer.
That sense of a connection between the actual music and Haden’s larger sense of conscience comes across in riveting fashion through an excerpt (accessible here) from “Rambling Boy,” Reto Caduff’s 2009 documentary about Haden. In it, Haden recalls how, while on tour with Coleman’s group in Portugal, he dedicated his composition, “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, and was promptly jailed.
A government official warned him, “You should not mix politics with music.” Yet that’s precisely what Haden did, throughout his career.
There’s a nice 2006 segment of “Democracy Now!” in which Haden reflects on that connection at length with host Amy Goodman.
I’d interviewed Haden in 2000, after George W. Bush had been elected president, and he’d lamented what he saw as “a world growing colder, with no room for sensitivity and no time for measured statements.”
We talked again during his 2002 Blue Note run, which he characterized as both a way to mark a milestone birthday with friends, and a subtle offering of tenderness for a city he loved, which was harmed a year earlier and, he felt, still yet to fully recover. We discussed his 2002 album, “American Dreams,” which featured a large string section and a fairly straightforward version of “America, The Beautiful.” He told me that he’d originally intended to make another Liberation Music Orchestra recording. (The group’s four studio albums were released during Republican presidential administrations, which was no coincidence, Haden once pointed out to me.)
“But after the events of 9/11,” he said, “I just couldn’t go there — it seemed too delicate.” He crafted something aimed more at comfort and affirmation instead, he said. The next Liberation Music Orchestra album, 2005’s “Not in Our Name,” released as a protest against the Iraq War, Haden said, included a distinctly minor-key rendering of the “America, The Beautiful,” as arranged by Carla Bley.
When I began writing about New Orleans, in the wake of the 2005 floods that followed the levee failures resulting from Hurricane Katrina, and the further suffering born of a botched and indifferent federal response, Haden told me this, which I quoted in a 2005 piece for Salon:
“I guess it took something like this hurricane to blow the mask off the Bush administration, and to fully expose its cruelty and ugliness and cynical indifference. Playing with my Liberation Music Orchestra is my way of demonstrating, and expressing things a lot of us are thinking and feeling through music.”
On that note, and in Haden’s honor, I’ll sign off here with the last half of a 2008 Village Voice article, for which I spent election eve with Haden, at the Blue Note.

From there, I cabbed down to the Blue Note to check in with Charlie Haden. Now 71, the bassist has long voiced anti-establishment ideas, both through his music—most overtly with his Liberation Music Orchestra, formed in 1968 and reconvened during each Republican administration—and simply by speaking out, as he did a few years back in a good, long interview on “Democracy Now.” I’d caught Haden’s Orchestra at the Village Vanguard on the eve of the 2004 election. After an ominous run through Pat Metheny’s “This Is Not America,” Carla Bley’s minor-key arrangement of “America, the Beautiful,” and a gripping version of Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” scored for horns, Haden grabbed the mic: “I’m Charlie Haden, and I approve this message.” He seemed tense.
“It was as if I wasn’t even there,” he recalled now, four years later, sitting at an empty table in the Blue Note, between sets. “There’s a person inside of me that wants to believe things can be different, the way I wish it to be, but I was scared to let that person out. I just knew. The next day, I cried.”
A guy with an iPhone poked a head in. It was 9:35. Obama was up, 200 to 87. “I want to relax,” Haden said. “But, you know, they can do anything.” Haden and his wife, singer Ruth Cameron, wore identical sterling-silver pins shaped like Obama’s rising-sun logo. We headed up to the green room. Drummer Matt Wilson and guitarist Steve Cardenas were already there, watching returns on TV. Tuba player Joe Daley asked: “Hey Charlie, if we win, that means the band retires, right?”
10:04 p.m.—Ohio and Pennsylvania both called for Obama.
Not long into Haden’s second set, I was reminded how subversive this music is, especially in its close-voiced, often-dissonant harmonies. During “This Is Not America,” tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby’s modal solo slithered through the tune like a snake in grass. Just after Carla Bley’s “Blue Anthem,” Allen Broadbent (subbing for Bley) jumped up from the piano bench, shouting, “Obama has won!” Someone had whispered the news in his ear, along with the Democratic electoral vote total: 297. It was 11:20.
“Are you sure?” Haden asked, clutching his bass.
Broadbent nodded.
“Man!” Haden sighed boyishly. He stood silent a few moments. “I guess it’s time to play ‘Amazing Grace.’ ” And they did.
I hopped into a cab. Over its radio, I caught a snatch of McCain’s concession speech, suddenly drowned out by a black man, head out the window of another cab, issuing a scream of pure joy. Like Haden, I have this person inside of me that wants to believe in better things—long ago lost, now found.

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