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Interviews

Charlie Haden: Making Beautiful Music, and Vice Versa

By Published: December 2, 2004
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.


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