Jazz great Charlie Haden has died after a long illness.
The NY Times has an exemplary obituary that makes sure to highlight his radical politics:
The Liberation Music Orchestra, which released its debut album in 1969, was Mr. Haden’s large ensemble, and an expression of his left-leaning political ideals. The band, featuring compositions and arrangements by the pianist Carla Bley, mingled avant-garde wildness with the earnest immediacy of Latin American folk songs. Mr. Haden released each of the band’s four studio albums during Republican administrations; the most recent, in 2005, was “Not in Our Name,” a response to the war in Iraq.
Mr. Haden, who liked to say he was driven by concern for “the struggle of the poor people,” hardly restricted his opinions to the Liberation Music Orchestra. While playing a festival with Mr. Coleman in Lisbon, in 1971, he dedicated his “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, and was promptly jailed.
I strongly recommend reading the entire obit.
This is a tribute I wrote to Haden in 1999. It overlaps with some of the material in the NY Times obit but from a fan’s POV. I follow it with some prime performances by Haden with various groups at the early, middle and late stages of his career.
I have been moved to write about jazz bassist Charlie Haden after listening to his latest and greatest CD, “The Art of the Song”. It is consistent with a number of others that he has released over the past half-decade evoking a sort of romantic and retro approach to jazz, strongly influenced by a vision of the more innocent Los Angeles of post-WWII years and of movie culture.
The songs on the latest include some decidedly obscure tunes drawn from even more obscure films. Typical is “You My Love”, a ballad originally sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1954 “Young at Heart”. With west coasters Ernie Watts on tenor sax, Larance Marable on drums and Alan Broadbent on piano, vocals by Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson, and a 28 piece string section, the lush mood created is reminiscent of Charlie Parker’s famous (infamous to some) Verve records backed by string section and led by Mitch Miller.
I am not sure what led Haden to make these kinds of old-fashioned CD’s, but I have a feeling that it is the same impulse that leads me to buy each one faithfully when they come out. Haden, like me, is somebody who was deeply involved with the 60s radicalization but on the cultural front. Although his politics have not changed, his mood has become more wistful and nostalgic, not unlike my own. Perhaps this is what it takes to keep old time radicals going in a cold and heartless world, where cash seems to be the only thing that matters.
Haden, who is white, burst on the scene in 1959 as the bassist in a combo led by African-American Ornette Coleman, who played a white plastic alto saxophone. Ornette Coleman had completely redefined the jazz idiom by emphasizing his own highly original approach to melody in a departure from the typical bebop style of the time. The beboppers, still strongly influenced by Parker who had died only 3 years earlier, played superfast improvisations over tightly wound “heads” derived from popular tunes, scarcely recognizable from their source.
Coleman believed the bebop obsession with chords or key changes had led down a blind alley. He also had ideas about rhythm at odds with conventional thinking of the time. His drummers sounded more melodic; his bass players were freed from having to signal chord changes. Ultimately, this type of music gave more freedom to the players, but it also required more responsibility. Coleman was constantly evolving each tune during performances and demanded that the musicians’ listen to each other with much more attention than the beboppers were used to. In a typical bebop performance, each musician took lengthy solos and it was not unusual for one to walk off the stage in the middle to go smoke a cigarette until it was their time to blow. The collective improvisation of the Ornette Coleman combos was in some ways a throwback to the earliest days of jazz in New Orleans, before the solo had been invented.
After 40 years of avant-garde jazz, none of this sounds particularly controversial but in its day it unleashed tremendous passions. In 1959, when Coleman’s band made its first appearance in New York at the Five Spot, fights broke out between Coleman partisans and those convinced that he was perpetrating a hoax. One night, Miles Davis showed up and sat in; another night, a stranger walked up to Coleman and punched him in the face. Coleman was 22 and his bassist, Charlie Haden, was the same age.
For all of their connections to the avant-garde, both Coleman and Haden had roots in working-class dance hall culture. When Coleman was traveling around the country in the ’40s and ’50s with rhythm-and-blues bands and in tent shows, Haden was performing with his family, a country-and-western troupe from Springfield, Missouri. In the liner notes of “The Art of the Song,” there’s a 1942 photo of the Haden family standing in front of the American flag at country station KWTO. They are all wearing cowboy boots, including the 5 year old “cowboy” Charlie. A January 19, 1997 LA Times profile on Haden reports:
His father, Carl, was an itinerant Midwestern country singer who married another singer, Virginia Day. A country vocal group with echoes of the Carter Family and the Delmore Brothers, they played the Grand Ole Opry. A little later, when children arrived, they became Uncle Carl Haden and the Haden Family. Charlie was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, in 1937, a brief stopover before the family settled in Springfield. Carl began broadcasting daily radio shows from the Haden home. The house was full of country music and products from radio sponsors–Green Mountain Cough Syrup, Sparkalite Cereal, Cocoa Wheats with vitamin G. Chet Atkins and Roy Acuff performed on the shows with the family, and Charlie remembers the Carter Family visiting and Mother Maybelle singing him to sleep.
“My mom would sing to me at night, but she didn’t know that I wasn’t really sleeping,” Haden says. “I was checking everything out, you know? Then all of a sudden one day, I started humming with her, and then one day I started humming the harmony with her. This was like when I was 11/2 or something, and when I was 22 months old, that’s when they first took me to the studio and I started singing. Charlie Haden made his musical debut with a version of “Little Sir Echo.”
Brother Jimmy was considered the black sheep of the family, drinking as a teenager, spending a few nights in jail; he also played bass on the show and was a jazz fan who owned Billie Holiday, Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie records. When Jimmy was out of the house, Charlie would play his brother’s bass. When Charlie and his dad caught Charlie Parker on a swing through town, the Future Farmers of America lost a prospect.
Haden eventually moved to LA, where his jazz career began in earnest. Paul Bley, the famed pianist, remembers the country boy bassist showing up barefoot for his audition. One night Haden went to a club to hear Gerry Mulligan’s group. The LA Times reports,
“The place was packed; there was barely room to stand. And then a well-dressed guy carrying a white plastic saxophone squeezed his way to the front. This was how Ornette Coleman performed back then: a shy, deferential insurgent requesting to sit in.”
“He starts playing, man, and it was so unbelievably great I could not believe it. Like the whole room lit up all of a sudden, like somebody turned on the lights,” Haden says. “He was playing the blues they were playing, but he was playing his own way. And almost as fast as he asked to sit in, they asked him to please stop.” Spotting a kindred spirit, Haden ran out after Coleman into the alley, but the saxophonist had already disappeared into the night.
Haden eventually tracked down the musician with the white plastic saxophone. Haden describes the scene at Coleman’s apartment:
There was music blocking the door; you couldn’t get the door open. Finally it opened, and the place was filled with music. Manuscripts, things he had written out all over the rug and chairs and bed and everywhere. I got my bass out, and he picked up one of the manuscripts off the rug and said, ‘Lets play this.’ I said, ‘Sure,’ but I was scared to death. He said, ‘Now I got some chord changes written below the melody here that I heard when I was writing the melody. You can play those changes when you play the song, but when I start to improvise, make up your own changes from what I’m playing.’ I said, ‘With pleasure.’ Man, we played all day and all night. And the next day we stopped to get a hamburger and we came back and we played some more.
Coleman solidified his free-jazz ideas at the Hillcrest Club, which closed down years ago. Like many famous venues for jazz, there’s only a barred front door today and no historical marker. (These are the Buena Vista Clubs of North America.) The Coleman group’s Hillcrest perfromances earned Haden a reputation among Hollywood hipsters. Actors Dean Stockwell and Bobby Driscoll came to hear him, and Martin Landau advised Haden that he might do well to try acting. Coleman’s band caused a stir that led him to the East Coast where fame and notoriety awaited them.
Haden eventually separated from the Coleman band and hooked up with the thriving avant-garde scene in NYC, where his political beliefs took shape. He eventually formed the Liberation Jazz Orchestra, which was co-led by Carla Bley, Paul’s ex-wife, and an outstanding songwriter and pianist in her own right. The 1970 classic recording of this band includes Spanish Civil War tunes “Song Of The United Front and “El Quinto Regimiento (Fifth Regiment) as well as “We Shall Overcome” and “Song For Che.”
A January 31, Minneapolis Tribune article on Haden describes the willingness of Haden to act on the belief that “music can’t be separated from politics.” In 1971, while appearing with saxophonist Ornette Coleman at a festival in Lisbon, Portugal, Haden dedicated his “Song for Che,” to the black liberation movements in the Portuguese African colonies. The day after the concert, he was arrested at the Lisbon airport. “I would actually have done some time if Ornette hadn’t gotten the American Embassy to come and get me,” recalled Haden. “It was really a fascist government then, and this was the first jazz festival that they had allowed there. But as soon as I made this dedication, they canceled the rest of the festival. It was scary.”
“Music can bring people of all races together,” he said. “My mom used to take me into the African-American church when I was, like, 8 or 9, and we’d sit in the back row and listen to the choir. That was one of the most meaningful experiences in my whole life.”
This is from an Ornette Coleman 1960 album titled “Change of the Century”. Although described as “avant-garde”, I regarded the album as clearly in the Charlie Parker tradition, in the same way that Charlie Parker was in the Lester Young tradition. I love the tune.
This 1983 record was undoubtedly the most political made by jazz musicians ever. Plus, it is great music.
This is from 2007 and displays Haden’s command of his instrument. Along with another Charlie–Mingus–he was one of the greats.
“Jesus, I don’t want to die alone…” Charlie Haden, friends, and family performs a musical tribute to himself.