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Artist Profiles

Charlie Haden: Liberation Music

By Published: January 9, 2004

It's about the music inside you, not the instrument you're playing.

The unaccompanied bass solo is something which cropped up with ever-increasing frequency on free jazz recordings during the ‘60s and ‘70s; yet unlike some front line players, these unaccompanied forays were often soliloquies rather than monologues. The introspection and depth of feeling (attributable to the sheer physicality of wood, gut string and horsehair or fingers) made these bass players into poets: Lewis Worrell, Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock, and of course Charlie Haden. His perfect intonation, honest simplicity and his steady repetitions of phrase have driven many a horn player to new heights. Of the slew of innovative bassists who came up in the new jazz of the ‘50s and ‘60s, many are inactive, but Haden has applied the precise melodicism and relative austerity that graced sessions like Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come and Roswell Rudd’s Everywhere to a variety of recorded settings in recent years: filmic folk music and South American romanticism, orchestras and duets, all of them belying the same solid sensibility that constituted his early statements.

Charlie Haden was born on August 6th, 1937 in Shenandoah, Iowa, into a family of folk musicians that formed the Haden Family group (contemporaries of the Carter Family) which performed on the Grand Ole Opry radio program. Charlie sang in the ensemble from age two, “and as all of my brothers and sisters came along, we were added to their band.” The Hadens moved from Iowa to Omaha and sang on a local television station, but at age 15 a bout with polio paralyzed Haden’s vocal cords and part of his face, which effectively ended his singing range. At around the same time, he became interested in the bass: “My older brother was playing [it] on our show, and when he would go out on a date or whatever, I would grab his bass and play. He always told me I couldn’t play it (I was never to touch it) and of course after he told me that, I wanted to touch it all the time.”

This was also the point where Haden gained an interest in jazz, for the Jazz at The Philharmonic tour came through Omaha, and he was exposed for the first time to the music of Charlie Parker. After this watershed night, Haden began buying records and playing bass seriously; his family moved again, this time to Springfield, Missouri, and soon after he was offered a full scholarship to Oberlin College, but “I turned it down because I wanted to go to this new jazz school called Westlake College of Modern Music, which was in LA.” Westlake was just the ticket he needed, for the real impetus for moving west was finding and meeting Hampton Hawes, his favorite pianist: “[Hawes] was straight out of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell but he had his own chords and his own intervals, and he had time like no other person - it was impeccable. He could breathe and it swung.” His real studies in LA turned out to be the after-hours jam sessions he played with Art Pepper, who introduced him to Hawes, Elmo Hope, Sonny Clark, Frank Butler and others in the LA bop scene. Haden and Hawes quickly found musical empathy, and played and recorded together into the late ‘50s: “We became really close friends. I miss the guy; I cried like a baby when he died.”

By 1958, Haden’s regular gig was at the Hillcrest Club with pianist Paul Bley’s quartet, featuring vibraphonist Dave Pike and drummer Lennie McBrowne (the group recorded one LP, Solemn Meditations, for GNP, Haden’s first recording). This turned out to be a prophetic gig, for on one of his off nights he experienced firsthand the music of Ornette Coleman: “I went to another club on one of those off nights to see Gerry Mulligan, and this guy came in and asked if he could sit in. He brought out a white plastic horn and played a few notes, and the whole room lit up for me - it was so beautiful; Mulligan immediately asked him to stop.” A frequent occurrence for Ornette at this time, the saxophonist walked out the back door before Haden could reach him. McBrowne, however, knew where to find Ornette and introduced the bassist to him, “and I went over to his house and we played for about four days without stopping.” Rather than an about face, Ornette’s playing confirmed some of the things Haden was interested in doing: “I wanted to play on the inspiration of a composition rather than the chord structure. But whenever I tried that, musicians would become very upset. In order to bring them back in after my solo, I’d have to play the melody so they knew where I was. When I met Ornette, the night I heard him, that’s what he was doing.” Haden subsequently brought Ornette over to trumpeter Don Cherry’s house, and they recruited drummer Billy Higgins. Paul Bley hired them for another engagement at the Hillcrest that year, and soon the Ornette Coleman Quartet (sans Bley) was born.

Following the first two recordings for Nesuhi Ertegun’s Atlantic Records (The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century, both 1959), the quartet went east to New York and opened the Five Spot for several months. The band was extraordinarily popular; musicians like John Coltrane and Henry Grimes came to see them nightly, as did painters like Mark Rothko and Bob Thompson (the latter painted the group). They toured extensively during 1959-1960, but Haden fell ill and returned to LA, replaced for a time by his friend Scott LaFaro (who was featured prominently on Ornette!). By the mid ‘60s, he was back in New York, playing with pianist Denny Zeitlin, clarinetist Tony Scott and Ornette, as well as making innumerable recordings with New York’s cream of the avant-garde crop including Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd, Alan Shorter, and Charles Brackeen. Haden also renewed contact with composer and pianist Carla Bley, whom he met at the Hillcrest club during her then-husband’s engagement: “She and I were very close and we really felt we had a lot in common in our ideas about life.” Bley and trumpeter Mike Mantler were, by the late ‘60s, running the Jazz Composers’ Orchestra, a star-studded organization that grew out of the ashes of the Bill Dixon-Bley-Mantler Jazz Composers’ Guild. Haden played in the Orchestra, and out of this context came the fruits of his first recording as a leader: “I think it was when Cambodia was bombed, I was in my car one night and I heard the announcement. I thought to myself ‘something’s got to be done.’ I had all these old songs from the Spanish Civil War and I called Carla and said ‘let’s do an album about the tragedy of what this administration is doing in the world.’”

Thus, in 1970, Haden, Bley, Mantler and a large cast of compatriots recorded Liberation Music Orchestra for Impulse!, an impassioned and eclectic meeting of traditional Spanish folk music, free soloing, and orchestral weight. The recording also featured a Haden composition based around a lengthy, powerful bass solo, “Song for Ché”, now effectively canonized in the avant-garde fakebook. The Liberation Music Orchestra has been reconvened during times of political crisis: 1982’s The Ballad of the Fallen (ECM) during the Reagan administration; a 1989 concert was recorded during the Bush Sr. administration, and a new record and tour are slated for 2004, Bush Jr.’s election year.

With the varied pedigree Haden has led, including duets, quartets, and orchestras, one would be hard pressed to nail down a preferred recording context. Following his work with Ornette, there seemed to be a preponderance of piano-less quartets: the session with trumpeter Alan Shorter ( Orgasm, Verve, 1968) or tenorist Charles Brackeen’s Rhythm X (Strata-East, 1968), to name just two. In fact Haden always sought out pianists “because playing with Ornette, I was the pianist! I was playing all the chords of the notes in my bass lines, and that’s how I learned about constructing bass lines.” Of course, Haden has also found many like minds in the piano chair: Hawes, Bley, Keith Jarrett, Kenny Barron and Gonzalo Rubalcaba have all been worthy foils. His conceptual explorations have also included Brazilian music ( Works with Egberto Gismonti) and Cuban traditional music ( Nocturne, with Ignacio Berroa and Rubalcaba) in addition to rural American aesthetics ( Beyond the Missouri Sky with Pat Metheny) and use of string orchestras ( The Art of the Song; American Dreams ).

Haden returned to LA in the early ‘80s, and began the Jazz Studies program at Cal Arts. Far from being a traditional jazz department, Haden emphasizes the all-inclusive, empathetic approach that his koan-like bass statements engender: “It’s about beauty... everybody hears music differently, just like we all have different fingerprints. You’ve got to find your genetic musical makeup, and that’s one of the important things. What the class is really about is that if they strive to become a great human being, maybe they have a chance at becoming a great musician.” Yet for him, this is not a complex task, it just requires gradual initiation: “It’s about the music inside you, not the instrument you’re playing. Once you realize that the music doesn’t belong to you then you realize that it does...when you’re in the act of creating and touching music, then and only then do you realize your insignificance to the universe.”

Photo Credit
Joe Smith

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