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Interviews

Charlie Haden: Making Beautiful Music, and Vice Versa

By Published: December 2, 2004

Forget about the concept of jazz bass playing. And that way you'll discover your music. If you go from the concept of preconceptualized style, you'll never get to your music.

Music has occupied the life of Charlie Haden, the superbly melodic bassist, from as early as he can remember. Before he was 2, he was singing harmony to songs he heard around the house, songs his mother sang, songs his family performed at the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s. Songs, beautiful songs, have been at the core of Haden's work since he took up serious study of music and moved to California, where he began playing with some of the jazz greats; where he first met Ornette Coleman.

Sonorous melodies and rich sound have been springing from Haden's bass ever since the 1950s, with Hampton Hawes and Dexter Gordon and in the seminal collaboration with Ornette, Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell that produced the difficult-then deified Shape of Jazz to Come. With John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, Pat Metheny, Abbey Lincoln, Bill Frisell, Joe Lovano and so many more of the jazz hierarchy, but also with people like Ginger Baker, Ringo Starr, James Cotton and John Lennon. With his own highly acclaimed Quartet West and the larger and influential Liberation Music Orchestra he developed with the remarkable Carla Bley. Haden's bass has been everywhere over the years. And while he has been influenced by the likes of virtuosos like Ray Brown, his playing is not marked by a flurry of notes and virtuoso, balls-out playing, but by ideas executed to fit the situation. And gorgeous sound from the contrabass.

For Haden, musical sounds, melodies that uplift or intrigue, are more important than the bass itself that he fell in love with as a child. He expresses himself through the instrument, but what the tries to accomplish (and succeeds with great consistency) is the creation of quality music. Not necessarily jazz.

His latest recording, Land of the Sun , exemplifies his fondness for beautiful songs. A compilation of music from Mexico, largely from the pen of Jose Sabre Marroquin, is a classically beautiful album. It's largely serene melodies - no fast tempos — arranged exquisitely by pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and brought to life by Haden and Rubalcaba with the likes of saxophonists Miguel Zenon and Joe Lovano, sensitive drumming of Ignacio Berroa, the bongos of Juan De La Cruz, and occasional sweet sounds from trumpeter Michael Rodriguez, flutist Oriente Lopez, and guitarists Larry Koonse and Lionel Loueke.

Some of the players, like Zenon, Lovano and Rubalcaba, are capable of probing, flashing streams of virtuoso playing. But not here. It's about lyricism and melodies and it is carried out with plenty of heart. At the end of October, Haden brought the band into NYC's Village Vanguard and other dates are planned. Haden's also brining around another incarnation of the Liberation Music Orchestra (new recording coming soon), but he is rightly proud of Land of the Sun.

Haden says the beautiful melodies are what attracted him to Marroquin. He says with the world in a state of turmoil, beautiful music is needed more today than ever before. Haden feels that the message of music can be used to help make people aware that there are other possibilities for humankind, and possibly help bring about change.

His recording Nocturne from a few years back contained a Marroquin song, "Nocturnal." After performing it one night at a concert, a woman came back stage. Patricia Mendes said she was the daughter of Marroquin and wanted to thank the bassist for doing her father's song. She also gave Haden more music her father had written

"I went back to LA (his home) and played the music... It was all really, really beautiful," he recalls. "I called Gonzalo and told him I had this music and probably nobody else had recorded it. I said, 'Let's do it.' He started writing arrangements."

"With the musicians I chose, it turned out to be more than I expected. I had no idea how beautiful it was going to be. One of my favorite things to do is to get together musicians who have not played together ever, together. Then sit back and watch the magic happen." The music has no "cooker" that record companies might want these days as hooks. Haden said his producers have always given him the chance to do as he pleases. His fine taste shows, as the recording has a singular beauty; elegant and intricate.

Haden doesn't call it jazz and doesn't even prefer to call himself a jazz musician, though he's known for that. If music, as Duke Ellington professed, comes in two forms - good and bad - then count Haden in with the former. His goal has always been to produce just that. He has no time, no affection for that which falls in the latter category.

"Jazz has become very limiting... For example, I don't hear my music played on jazz stations very often. I don't consider myself a jazz musician," says Haden. "The most important thing to me is, especially right now with the culture of the society going down, getting more and more shallow, is creativity, making beautiful music and bringing more people to the art."

With some forms of music today, "people are exposing themselves to brain- damaged, dysfunctional mediocrity... I wouldn't even call it backbeat. It's very tragic, because it's everywhere you go. If you have a supermarket nearby and you go to get some milk or whatever, you're going to hear it. If you go to the Gap, or you go to Bloomingdale's or any type of clothing store, you're going to hear it. Chances are, you're going to hear it very loud. I have to put earplugs in when I go shopping. It's so sad. But I don't want to expose my insides to this ugliness. It's wasteful. I don't think people realize it.

"What I try to do is counteract it and try to make it as beautiful as I can make it, to bring forth to more people to beautiful sound. We need more and more people to come over to our side."

In addition to the new CD, Haden is working again with his orchestra. "I just made a new Liberation Music Orchestra recording in July. It seems like I do one every Republican administration," he says with a degree of humor. "I did the first during the Nixon administration, one during Reagan's, one during Bush's father, and now this one." (At the time, the Presidential election was still pending and it was Haden's hope that Bush would not be re-elected).

"It's always been a struggle to bring creative music to the public. It's a minority art form and it always will be. A minority of people understand, cherish and have a passion for creative music. Although I think that everybody is born with creative sensibilities. Not all of us are able to touch it. Some are and some aren't. Some need help and some don't. Some are helped by art and some aren't. that's why I tell my students at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts where Haden has been teaching since 1982), 'You have a responsibility to try to make the planet better. You should be thankful for the gift that you've been given. It's time to give it back to the world.'

Can it work? Can music really be used as an instrument of change, or have the many musicians with that vision been taking on more of a task than they can realistically hope to achieve?

"I think that it works when it is done in a way where there's an atmosphere of progress. Not where there's an atmosphere of negativity and selfishness. There are a lot of people that would like to keep peeling you away from people, because they are afraid (creativity) might be contagious. They don't want you to think. They don't want you to become aware that you're being exploited," says Haden. "I hope (creative music) is working sometimes."

The life in music that Haden pursued began in Shenandoah, Iowa. Haden's family was well known as the Haden Family Singers, regulars at the Opry and with their own radio show that brought them regional fame. His sister and two brothers were in the band and Charlie, less than two, joined after it was discovered he could harmonize with the songs his mother sang around the home. He sang with the band until he was about 15.

"I was very lucky growing up with that musical heritage. It was very much a learning experience. I learned songs every day. I learned how to sing all the harmony parts with all the melodies. That was very important."

One brother played bass in the band and the large instrument made an impression. "I loved the sound of it. I noticed the fullness of the music with the bass, and without it there wasn't that fullness," he says. When his brother wasn't around, young Charlie would play it. He was listening to jazz records too (checking out bassists Jimmy Blanton with Ellington, Walter Page with Count Basie among others) and had the chance to see the touring Jazz at the Philharmonic group when he was 14. Lester Young and Ray Brown were among the all-stars Norman Granz was taking around the country. "It changed my life," he states.

Haden won a scholarship to study the bass at Oberlin College, but decided to go to Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles to work on jazz. His formal education there didn't last long because he eventually dropped out to dive in as a working musician. He began to learn from the actual experience of working with Paul Bley, Hawes and Dexter Gordon.

"What I really wanted to do was to go to LA and find Hampton Hawes, because he was my favorite musician. That's what I did," admits Haden. While in LA, he gained valuable experience and also ran into Ornette Coleman at a jam session, marveling at the free way the saxophonist played - even if it baffled others. Coleman, the innovator, was a kindred spirit, born out of Charlie Parker and Texas blues, but with a vision of something else. Haden could hear it; feel it.

In 1959, Haden moved to New York. "That was very exciting. I met Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. I made a couple records with them. Great city, great people." The teaming up with Coleman, Cherry and Blackwell, and the recording of Shape of Jazz to Come is now well documented. The startling new music is, years later, more accepted. But it opened ears and eyes at the time, and the free form of the music took some lumps among critics, fans and even musicians.

Haden says he wasn't viewing that period as anything seminal. It was good music, to him, and the openness of escaping from chords and communicating among the four musicians was invigorating. He said many of the supposed "free players" to come along since never really hit that stride, never really followed the true essence of what Coleman was doing. "Very, very few were doing it," he said. It takes the right combination of people and the right approach to really pull it off. The "shape of jazz to come" didn't ever really arrive, in Haden's estimation.

"It was very unique and very special," he says of his time with Ornette, and there has been little like it since.

Haden went on to a long association with Jarrett, founded his own bands, played with a myriad of superb jazz musicians and created the Liberation Orchestra. He has recorded with the likes of Ringo Starr ("He's a character, man. A great drummer too.") and recently played on Alice Coltrane's first album in 26 years, Translinear Light . (He also recorded with Alice in the 1960s, as well as playing on John Coltrane's The Avant-Garde ). He seems to always be busy playing, and when he isn't, he's teaching at CalArts.

Haden has received numerous plaudits for his bass playing over the years and has been able to bring forward projects when he feels the need. His Liberation Orchestra was recorded earlier this year, for release next year. Through it, he hopes people will hear "great songs that speak about this country and how great it is, if seen through the eyes of someone who's looking for innovation and inventive people. You can't find more innovative people than are here (in the USA). It's the same with the people who started this country, back when they signed the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence," he says, though he admits that in the recent US administration that spirit is lacking.

It's not often bass players get the freedom to push projects forward as leaders, but Haden has transcended that.

"I really don't think about it in terms of the instrument I play. I think of it as the music that I hear. That's what I tell my bass students at CalArts, where I founded a jazz studies program 22 years ago. I have a private class where students come from all over the world to study. They're not just bas students. They're saxophonists. Trumpets. Once I had a banjo player. Drummers. I tell the bass players, 'Forget about being a bassist. Forget about the concept of jazz bass playing. And that way you'll discover your music. If you go from the concept of preconceptualized style, you'll never get to your music.'"

His son and two daughters are musicians who play rock or contemporary music in various forms, and Haden tries to keep up with what's going on. Creativity, not the form, is always the key. But as society has become less creative and more sterile in conditions that stifle creativity, Haden says some of the music reflects that attitude.

"It's insulting. Disrespecting... It's like: everybody calls this (in Iraq) a war. It's not a war, it's an invasion. It's an attack. It's an occupation. That's what's happening with (sterile, uncreative, even hostile music). It's like being violated. It forces something on you that you really don't want. When I get on an airplane, I say 'please turn that stuff off.' Sometimes they do, and if they don't, I put in earplugs."

What Haden wants to put across, in teaching young musicians and in the projects in which he involves himself, as a leader or sideman, is that there is more out there for creative artists. Creativity and beauty — art — should be pursued.

"I told my students the other day in class, which is about the spirituality and creativity as much as it is about music. I said, 'If you're walking down the street and you see a baby carriage, and there's a baby in the carriage; you look down and your eyes meet the eyes of the baby. The baby looks at you: That's the kind of moment you're in when you're playing."

Haden continues to seek that kind of freshness, innocence and beauty. With all that he has accomplished, he says there are still things he wants to do.

"I want to play a lot more with Ornette. I want to write a book about my experiences. I want to do another record with my wife (singer Ruth Cameron). She's a great singer," he says. "I want to teach young people about creativity."



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