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Charlie Haden: An Analog Guy in a Digital World

By Published: March 1, 2004

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?

CH: 1956.

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?

CH: No, I didn’t know Ornette when I knew Scotty; he met Ornette after we got to New York. I was playing a club called the Hillcrest Club with Paul Bley, and we had an off night every Monday. 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 he played a few notes, and the whole room lit up for me it was so beautiful, and [Mulligan] immediately asked him to stop. He packed his horn up, and before I could reach him through the crowd, he was gone out the back door. So the next night on the gig at the Hillcrest I asked Lennie McBrowne, who was our drummer from Brooklyn (he studied with Max Roach and he was my New York connection, always talking about New York), I said ‘I saw this alto player last night’ and he said ‘was he playing a plastic horn?’ I said ‘how’d you know?’ He said ‘that’s Ornette Coleman.’ I said ‘would you introduce me’ and he said ‘he’s coming in a couple of nights to the after hours session; I’ll introduce you.’ So he introduced us and I went over to his house and we played for about four days without stopping.

AAJ: Just as a duo?

CH: Yeah, then we started going over to Don Cherry’s house and rehearsing with Billy Higgins. I knew Billy and Don before I met Ornette; I played gigs with them when Don played piano.

AAJ: I guess it’s hard to put into words, but how did Ornette’s music affect you? How did it maybe change your conception of the instrument and what you were trying to do at the time?

CH: Well it didn’t really change my conception, it confirmed it. I had been going to a lot of after-hours sessions, and I wanted to play on the inspiration of a composition rather than the chord structure. But whenever I tried to do 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. He was playing on the inspiration of a song and modulating from one key to another. When we played together for the first time, I thought ‘Man! Finally I’ve got permission to do what I’ve been doing!’ It was like a situation where this is how I’m hearing, and here’s someone who hears like I do. I had played gigs already with Don and Billy, and we all got together and played at Don’s house, and then I got them on the gig at the Hillcrest Club, and that’s where [producer at Atlantic Records Neushi] Ertegun heard us.

AAJ: And that’s when Paul Bley’s conception got turned around too, probably.

CH: Yeah, Paul was thinking about playing free for a minute before Ornette; we would go into free improvisation once in a while. After he heard Ornette, it became a big deal. I was in the quartet with Dave Pike, Lennie McBrowne and Paul Bley, and we made a record called Solemn Meditation (GNP, 1957).That was the first album I ever made; I was about 19. Then Paul hired Ornette, Don and Billy and the three of us made a couple of records with Ornette, and we went to New York and opened at the Five Spot in ’59.

AAJ: How long did that Five Spot engagement last?

CH: Months, I don’t know, it was a long time and the place was packed with people every night. That’s when I met all the great painters, Mark Rothko, Larry Rivers, and Bob Thompson – I used to go over to his loft while he sat and painted all day long. I got a sketch he did of us at the Five Spot.

AAJ: Did you ever paint?

CH: No, I love painting and I love art, and there are a lot of painters I met, but I could never be able to afford to buy their paintings now. I got a couple of Ray Parkers, Fred Browns, and Thompson... the one he did of us, called “The Garden of Music,” that’s in Connecticut.

AAJ: When did you stop playing with Ornette? There was a hiatus, right, in the early ‘60s?

CH: We went out on tour and we played Chicago and Philly, made the rounds of the jazz clubs on the East Coast. And then I went through a period where I wasn’t feeling well, and Scotty [LaFaro] started to play with the band. He played a couple of gigs right after the double quartet record [Free Jazz, Atlantic 1364, 1960] but he didn’t really last that long with Ornette; I don’t think he really enjoyed playing the music. And he had already met Bill Evans by then.

AAJ: At least according to discographies, there were a few years where you weren’t recording, right?

CH: Well I recorded with Coltrane, and I made a couple of records with Denny Zeitlin; this was around ’64. The last time I had recorded with Ornette was ’62. I also made an album with Joe Pass around that period. Then I moved to New York and started playing again with Ornette.

AAJ: That was around ’66?

CH: Yeah, that was around when we made The Empty Foxhole [Blue Note 4246, 1966] and I recorded with a lot of different people then. After that, I met Keith [Jarrett] and we started a trio and then a quartet.

AAJ: With the exception of Zeitlin, you weren’t playing much with pianists in the early ‘60s, right?

CH: No, I played with Hamp [Hawes] a lot, and I played with Elmo [Hope] a lot, and I played with different piano players in New York on different gigs. It was just here and there. And Sonny Clark I played with too, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

AAJ: I guess I was getting the idea of an Ornette-related conscious avoidance of pianists during that time, but that’s not true.

CH: Well, I was seeking 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 with beautiful intervals that made up chords, modulating from one key to another and so forth.

AAJ: Right, so the term ‘piano-less quartet’ is not entirely appropriate conceptually.

CH: Well, it is because you do not have a chordal instrument in the band.

AAJ: Speaking of piano-less quartets, one question that has always plagued me is how that gig with Alan Shorter [Orgasm, Verve 8768, 1968] came about.

CH: Oh, he called; you know I used to hang out with him. I played a club in New York called the Dom with Tony Scott, and I met Keith there. A lot of musicians used to come through there and Alan came in a lot, playing trumpet. He asked me to make this record with him, and Gato [Barbieri] was on it. I can’t remember much about it, but he brought a copy of the record over to my house with this wild look on his face saying, ‘here’s the record, man; it’s called Orgasm!’ I said ‘What? Why in the world did you call it that?’ The guy was a little bit ‘out there.’ I just remember going to the studio and recording, and cracking up hanging out with Alan. He was so funny and such a great player. If he had ever gotten his mind straightened out, he would’ve been a tremendous musician. He wasn’t in good shape mentally; he had some emotional problems.

AAJ: It’s a shame he dropped off in the early ‘70s. Wayne [Shorter, his younger brother] doesn’t really seem to want to talk about him either, so it’s hard to piece anything together.

CH: Well, Wayne is kind of out there himself, you know.

AAJ: Yeah, Alan’s just one of those people I wonder about...

CH: It’s a good thing to wonder about him. He’s one of those players nobody really knows about, and he was a tremendous player. There were so many musicians living in New York at the time that nobody ever really knew, like Tony Fruscella, a trumpet player who was so beautiful. He made one album under his own name for Atlantic. Oh man, that guy was amazing.

AAJ: And you played with [reedman] Giuseppi Logan on the Roswell Rudd date.

CH: Oh yeah, and Carlos Ward, Roswell, Grachan Moncur III, Don Pullen, Charles Brackeen, Henry Grimes. Henry has come back, from what I hear.

AAJ: Yeah, he’s hanging out in New York. William Parker found him a bass and is getting gigs for him and stuff. He was a real powerhouse.

CH: He used to come to the Five Spot every night smoking his pipe, sitting at the bar and looking right in my face while I was playing.

AAJ: Did you do any teaching of the bass during that time?

CH: Not then. I founded the Jazz Studies Program at the California Institute of the Arts 22 years ago, and that’s in Valencia.

AAJ: I was actually talking with Buell Neidlinger about Cal Arts recently.

CH: Oh, yeah, he got there before I did. I don’t think there was a jazz department at that time.

AAJ: No, he was doing more classical stuff; that was the impression I got.

CH: Yeah, he was teaching classical, and that’s mostly what he did. But he wanted to play jazz with Cecil.

AAJ: How did your involvement with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra come about?

CH: The Jazz Composers’ Orchestra started out with Mike Mantler and Carla [Bley] when they were together, and we did an album called Escalator over the Hill [JCOA EOTH, 1969] and one called The Jazz Composers Orchestra [JCOA 1001/1002, 1968], and there were a lot of different musicians. We played some concerts, but mostly we made those records. It was nice, but it didn’t last long.

AAJ: How did the Liberation Music Orchestra come out of that? How are they related?

CH: Well, they’re related because I became really close friends with Carla; I was closer to her than I was to Paul. When she was with Paul and we were playing at the Hillcrest, she and I were very close and we really felt [we had] a lot in common in our ideas about life. When I moved to New York, and I think it was when Cambodia was bombed, I was in my car one night (I was playing at this stupid club with somebody) and I heard the announcement. I thought to myself ‘something’s got to be done.’ I’m not really politically involved that much, and I wasn’t then, but 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.’ And she said okay, so we did the record, and the next record was done under Reagan, and the next record was done under Bush’s father.

AAJ: Is there another one in the offing?

CH: As a matter of fact there is, we’re going to tour this summer and Carla’s involved.

AAJ: Who else is still a mainstay in the group?

CH: Well, that’s a secret.

AAJ: So it’s essentially convened whenever there are some major political high jinks.

CH: Everything’s getting more out of hand. Just even thinking about it makes me so angry, the way the culture’s going and Bush is taking the culture with him. It’s a pickup truck-driver mentality in this country. And even among the professionals there’s this mentality, to see these mothers taking their kids to school in Hummers and big trucks, listening to gangsta rap. Nobody reads literature anymore, nobody thinks anymore, it’s like everybody’s becoming a redneck.

AAJ: You go to art museums and nobody’s in the galleries...

CH: There you go. I tell people every time I do a concert, I say ‘you people are so beautiful’ and every time I go into a gallery and I see people looking at paintings, I have the same feeling. I just want to multiply everybody thousands and thousands of time so that we’ll have more people like them in the world.

AAJ: Well, this is the first time I’ve been totally conscious of an administration tanking everybody. I can’t understand what’s going on.

CH: I understand completely: it’s the result of greed. It’s these guys, most of whom are stupid, and with the ones who have a kind of intelligence it’s not a creative intelligence. It’s very narrow-minded, thinking of ways to acquire power and money. They’re from a world that most people don’t know about, and most people don’t know what’s going on, and if they knew what was going on they wouldn’t believe it. There are a lot of sensitive, creative and intelligent wealthy people. That’s not the problem; this is about cruelty and greed, not caring about who you hurt, not caring about anything that’s sensitive or meaningful.

AAJ: Well, if a CD of the orchestra was sent to every politician...

CH: The thing is that they’re too far gone and they’re surrounded by people who don’t care about life, who don’t understand the preciousness of life and of creativity.

AAJ: How did you get your start composing music? Where did you get the impetus for that?

CH: Well I used to write songs when I was a little kid on the radio with my parents; I’d sit at the piano and write melodies. The first song that I felt the need to write was when I did the first Liberation Music Orchestra record, “Song for Ché.” And from then on I wrote a lot, and I’m still going.

AAJ: And you got a Guggenheim [fellowship], too, right after the Impulse record. How did that come to be?

CH: Well, when you apply for a fellowship, whether in medicine or whatever, you tell them what you want to do and they just send you the money. I told them I wanted to write more music, and that was that. You have to be good, you have to fill out an application, and you have to have some pretty good references. There are stipulations; it’s very strict and there’s a different jury every year. They give them in biology, archaeology, architecture, everything.

AAJ: So you’ve recorded in all these different settings: orchestras, duets, the Ornette group, piano trios, Bolero. Is there a particular setting you find most fruitful for your work, or an ideal one? Or do you just try everything?

CH: Well, I don’t really put music into any category, and my kids have hipped me to all sorts of things in alternative rock [Josh Haden is in the band Spain; Petra and Rachael were in that dog. and The Rentals] that they’re all recording and playing. One of my daughters just made a beautiful record with Bill Frisell for violin and guitar. And so I seek out musicians that have the same musical values that I do. It’s about making as much beautiful music as you can. I’ve recorded with Egberto Gismonti from Brazil, Salucci from Argentina, Carlos Peredas on an album called Dialogue. I’ve done albums with Rickie Lee Jones, Bruce Hornsby, Beck, and I just recorded on Ringo [Starr]’s new record called Ringo-rama. I’m interested in people who create meaningful music.

AAJ: How do you feel about the use of amplification in modern jazz, specifically with the bass? A lot of bassists stand on either side of the coin; do you feel that the bass being amplified is a necessary tool in the music now or not?

CH: Well, it’s not a matter of amplification; it’s just a matter of being able to be heard in an acoustic way. Sometimes I play concerts – for instance, with Nocturne – and we don’t even have any microphones. We play in concert halls with great acoustics, and you don’t need microphones. In a club sometimes you don’t need microphones. Sometimes I use a little bass amp for myself so I can hear myself a little bit better, and that’s turned way, way down. I don’t usually have monitors on the stage or anything like that. Sometimes, depending on which band it is, you need the mike. When I do concerts with American Dreams and strings, you’ve got to have a monitor in front of Michael Brecker so he can hear the bass and he can hear the drummer a little bit better. And you’ve got to put the monitor close to the violinists so they can hear the drummer. If you’re playing a big hall and the people in the back need to hear, of course you have to have a great soundman who knows how to bring out the sound of acoustic instruments.

AAJ: With woody instruments it’s very delicate.

CH: Most soundmen are real truck-driver mentality rock and roll guys, and all they know is cranking it up. We live in a cranked-up world, a dysfunctional, cranked-up world.

AAJ: I’ve never been able to successfully amplify my ‘cello, and whenever it’s amplified it just sounds awful.

CH: Well, I’ve got one of the best pickups ever made, and I got one of the first ones ever made 25 years ago by this guy Stefan Shirtler. His pickups cost a lot of money now, but he gives them to me and they’re made out of cork. They blend in with the wood of the instrument; there is no [independent] personality. I don’t know if he makes them for ‘cello, but one of my daughters, Tanya, plays the ‘cello and she always uses an acoustic mike.

AAJ: Well, it always ends up with this horrible, high-pitched electric whine that is certainly not what I’m looking for. But when you’re playing with a bunch of saxophonists who are very loud and a loud drummer it’s necessary.

CH: You just have to tell them to shut up. In my class at Cal Arts, I’ve been there for 20 years... its’ not about the bass, it’s not about jazz – it’s about beauty. In order for me to hear your sound, I want you to play as soft as you can so that you can hear yourself and you can discover your sound. 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. It’s all about striving to be the creative person you are when you’re playing in the other parts of your life. This is a hard thing to do.

AAJ: Living your life as an artist irrespective of what medium you work in.

CH: When you’re going to the bank or going to get your haircut, whatever you’re doing. Going throughout your day as a creative person and always having internalized the creative part of you that has objectivity.

AAJ: I wished that more people lived their lives that way.

CH. As I tell my students, as long as I have my bass in my hands I’m fine. When I put my bass down, I’m in trouble. You’ve got to live up to the person you are when you have your bass. But I tell bassists to forget they’re bass players; pretend you’re a pianist.

AAJ: Which is what you did when you were with Ornette: coming up with a creative solution to the context that you were in.

CH: Yeah, well 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. It doesn’t belong to you until you see that it doesn’t. So, when you’re in the act of creating and touching music, then and only then do you realize your insignificance to the universe. And as soon as you realize your insignificance, and that you’re unimportant, then you can see your true significance.

AAJ: And maybe only realizable in a creative context such as improvising with people, when you have that unified thing with people who are all simultaneously playing together.

CH: Yeah, but it’s difficult to think in terms of people playing together. First you have to think about it in terms of playing yourself, then in terms of seeking out someone who feels the same way that you do about music.

AAJ: Well, I think you’ve covered all the bases and more. Is there anything you’d like to tell our readers?

CH: You can tell them I’m just an analogue guy in a digital world.


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