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Charlie Haden: Making Beautiful Music, and Vice Versa

By Published: December 2, 2004
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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