Charlie Haden: An Analog Guy in a Digital World
“ Everybody hears music differently, just like we all have different fingerprints. You ”
Born August 6, 1937 in Shenandoah, Iowa, Charlie Haden came up in a musical family. After moving around the Midwest, he eventually settled in Los Angeles playing bass with Hampton Hawes, Elmo Hope, and Paul Bley. A fateful meeting in 1958 with Ornette Coleman netted Haden one of his most infamous gigs, which continued with brief interruptions into the late 1960s. While noted for his sideman work on numerous landmark avant-garde recordings, as well as co-leading the star-studded Liberation Music Orchestra since 1970, Haden has always had a penchant for the tuneful and melodic. This quality has marked not only his bass solos, but his choice of compositions and band mates, who in recent years have included Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, and John Taylor. What follows resulted from a December 9 phone conversation between the estimable bassist/composer and AAJ staff writer Clifford Allen.
All about Jazz: So you first started playing bass in your family’s traditional music group, right?
Charlie Haden: No, I was singing with my parents on the Grand Ole Opry, and as all of my brothers and sisters came along we were added to their band. I started singing on the radio show when I was two, so I sang up until I was fifteen every day on the radio and later on TV (we had a TV show in Omaha). I had polio when I was fifteen and it paralyzed my vocal cords and part of my face, and I finally got over it but lost the range of my voice. The only time I ever sang again was on this record called The Art of the Song (PolyGram, 2001). I tried to sing again on that, which was horrible. But I didn’t start playing the bass until I was in high school.
AAJ: How did you come to play the bass specifically?
CH: Well, my older brother was playing the bass on our show, and when he would go out on a date or whatever, I would grab his bass and play it. 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. When I was around fourteen, I went to a concert in Omaha, “Jazz at the Philharmonic,” and I heard Charlie Parker and that was it for me. I started getting a lot of jazz records and I applied for a scholarship to Oberlin, a full scholarship, 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. I started working so much that I dropped out of school after a semester, working every night out there with Hampton Hawes and Art Pepper.
AAJ: That was the impetus to go out to LA?
CH: It was to get involved with studying at this school, and it was supposed to be a jazz school but it turned out not to be that great. But the real reason I went to LA instead of Oberlin (because they offered me a full scholarship; I wouldn’t have to pay any money) was finding my favorite pianist, Hampton Hawes. He lived in LA, and I found him. I met him and played a lot with him.
AAJ: What year was this?
AAJ: Before he went to jail?
CH: Right. We played a lot in LA and recorded a lot together, and we became really close friends. I miss the guy, I cried like a baby when he died. He was one of the most creative bebop players that ever lived. He 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.
AAJ: The sessions he cut for Contemporary were amazing...
CH: Yeah, that’s what I used to listen to when I was in high school. After I got out of class in Springfield, Missouri, I would go to this music store called Hoover Music Store; this was back in the day when they had booths you could go into and listen to records. I spent all my time in there listening to different things, but mostly to Hampton Hawes records.
After graduating high school I worked for a year on this network television show, like the Grand Ole Opry, called the Ozark Jubilee with Eddie Arnold and Red Foley. I saved enough money to get to LA and went and played every night while I was in school. Then I dropped out of school and met Art Pepper, started playing with him, and that’s when I met Hampton Hawes, Sonny Clark and all the cats, Elmo Hope... I played a lot with Frank Butler too. There were a lot of great musicians in LA back then. There were also a lot of great clubs, and I played a lot with Chet Baker and Stan Getz, and that’s where I met Scotty LaFaro, my best friend in life, who was killed.
AAJ: Did he introduce you to Ornette Coleman, or how did that come about?