Charlie Haden

Compiled by Louise Vogel

Charlie Haden (Charles Edward), bassist, composer, and bandleader was born in the Midwest in 1937 into a musical family. The Haden Family Band played folk music, and sang country and western songs for the Haden Family Radio Show, with Charlie joining them at the tender age of two. He contracted polio as a teen, which affected his ability to sing and was unable to continue with the band, but he took music lessons, learned to play the double bass, and became interested in jazz. Perhaps because of some of the physical changes from the disease, Haden developed a special technique in playing his instrument. Jazz journalist and musician, Keith Shadwick, described Charlie’s playing, “Haden produced a huge resonant sound and unique phraseology, based on eloquent simplicity of phrase.” In The Penguin Guide to Jazz, Richard Cook and Brian Morton wrote of him, “Haden is the ultimate timekeeper, bending and stretching the pulse like a true relativist, but never once forgetting his duties. This, coupled with a heartbeat tone, has placed him at the center of literally hundreds of important sessions.”

In 1957, Haden moved to California, played briefly with Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, and Dexter Gordon, before being hired by pianist Paul Bley for his trio. In 1959 he met Ornette Coleman, becoming associated with what is now referred to as the “free jazz movement”. Haden described how it happened in an interview with JazzTimes magazine, “We did it all by ear. At first when we were playing and improvising, we kind of followed the pattern of the song, sometimes. Then, when we got to New York, Ornette wasn’t playing on the song patterns. Like the bridge and the interlude, and stuff like that. He would just play. And that’s when I started just following him, and playing on –the- spot chord changes, according to how he felt. The truth is that when we had first met, we were kind of all hearing that way already.” In the early 1960’s Haden took a year off while going through drug rehabilitation. Though he got together with Coleman on and off for years, he had a prolific and varied career. He continued to play with Denny Zeitlin, Archie Shepp, Don Cherry, Keith Jarrett, and others throughout that decade.

Haden held strong political convictions, was opposed to the war in Viet Nam, and was greatly inspired by the freedom fighters in the Spanish Civil War. In 1969 he and Carla Bley formed the Liberation Music Orchestra dedicated to freedom and human rights. He was inspired by Che Guevara and supported freedom fighters in Latin America. Haden and Bley included in their 1969 self-titled album (arranged by Bley) a suite of revolutionary songs from the Spanish Civil War, “Song for Che” (which he had previously recorded with Ornette Coleman) and “War Ophans”. He was arrested after a 1971 concert in Lisbon (which was still under military rule) for dedicating his “Song for Che” to black liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies. The Penguin Guide to Jazz describes this collaboration – “the LMO was a blend of collectivism and radical individualism. The ensemble was everything – but solos were everything, too.” Later the orchestra reformed to make two more political albums “The Ballad of the Fallen” and “Not in Our Name”.

In the 1970’s Charlie played with Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet which included Paul Motion and Dewey Redman. He also joined Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell, Jan Garbarek, and Egberto Gismonti for other projects. He increasingly became more interested in world music, and perhaps because of his upbringing, he was keenly aware of the emotional power associated with traditional music, often using old recordings in the making of his productions, to inspire himself and his fellow artists.

In 1982 he took over the Jazz Studies program at the California Institute of Arts where he “conceived a program predicated on small ensembles, allowing each musician to influence the direction of the bands in which they played.” (Downbeat 2014/2105 Education Guide) Haden believed people across all cultures could feel spiritual connection through music. He taught a weekly class entitled “The Spirituality of Improvisation” and was also a strong supporter of the school’s world music program.
In the 1980’s Haden formed Quartet West with Alan Broadbent, Ernie Watts, and Billy Higgins, which earned him three Grammy nominations. He continued a very busy schedule in the next two decades, recording with Pat Methany, Hank Jones, Jim Hall, Chet Baker, Paul Motion, Kenny Barron, Joe Lovano, Gonzlo Rubalcaba, Enrico Pieranunzi, and others. Sometimes he worked with classical or popular artists, as well as jazz musicians, and collaborated in the production of film scores.
He was described as a “Renaissance Jazzman” for a JazzTimes article (May 2011) and Downbeat wrote of him, “Haden’s experience, as well as his influence, reached far beyond the realm of jazz. He performed and recorded extensively with musicians from numerous genres, including classical, world music and pop. He defied categorization, and was outspoken regarding the universality of his diverse musical associations. In 2008, Haden brought his personal history full circle to record Ramblin’ Boy (Decca), which connected the music of his childhood to his present family, which includes his wife, vocalist Ruth Cameron; triplet daughters Petra, Rachel and Tanya; son Josh; and son-in-law Jack Black.”
Charles Haden passed away in 2014 at the age of 73. For JazzTimes magazine John Patitucci offered this tribute, “This is someone who had such a long and prolific career and had his own voice…Charlie could be a traditionalist in the way he fulfilled the foundational role of the bass player, but he was also very wide open and free in his playing, and used the bass in coloristic ways…With Charlie, what blew me away was how he remained a folk musician. In the way that blues musicians are folk musicians, Charlie maintained a deep folkloric element in his playing, and when he played those slow-moving solos…just gorgeous melodies that were so clear. There was no posturing or trying to impress people. He was very concise, and he was very mature in the way he expressed himself. Each note was crafted and delivered with a lot of emotion. It was straight-up soul.”

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