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Charlie Haden (1937-2014)


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I first learned that jazz bassist Charlie Haden had died on Saturday by email while in Boston on assignment. The next email on my phone was from The Wall Street Journal in New York asking if I would be able to turn around an appreciation of Haden for Tuesday's paper. So I headed back to the hotel and spent the few hours writing and calling Denny Zeitlin and Geri Allen, two of my favorite pianists who played and recorded with Haden, to talk about Haden and what made him special. My appreciation of Haden is in today's paper (go here).

My apologies for not sharing my thoughts on Haden sooner at JazzWax, but they had to be embargoed until my Wall Street Journal piece appeared. I hope these comments were worth the wait. To fully grasp Haden's importance, you have to understand his family background and the times in which he emerged on the jazz scene in the late 1950s and the legacy he left behind.

Unlike most jazz musicians, Haden didn't come to jazz through the traditional routes—urban gigs, big bands or the conservatory. Born in 1937 on his family's farm in Shenandoah, Iowa, Haden began as Cowboy Charlie, singing country harmony with his entertainer parents at 22 months. Up until he was 15, Haden sang what was called “hillbilly music" with his parents and five siblings, appearing on their twice-weekly radio shows and in regional performances.

When the family moved to Omaha in 1951, Charlie's father took him to see a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, featuring Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Highly sensitive, Haden could immediately discern the folk roots in the blues of the performances. But the following year, when he was 15, Haden collapsed with a high fever and was diagnosed with bulbar polio, which affected the back of his neck and tongue. Ordered to remain in bed for the better part of a year, Haden spent lots of time listening to jazz stations on his bedside radio.

Once the polio went into remission the following year, Haden found that his singing career was over. Deeply influenced by Paul Chambers' [above] recordings, Haden picked up the bass, since it had a deep, rich singing voice. After hearing a recording by rhythmic pianist Hampton Hawes, Haden passed on a scholarship to Oberlin and went instead to Westlake College of Modern Music in Los Angeles. At Tiny Naylor's modernist hamburger stand on Sunset Boulevard, he met bassist Red Mitchell, who asked him to finish a gig with Art Pepper and Sonny Clark. Pepper liked what he heard and hired Haden for the next night. Clark was replaced that evening by Hawes. 

By 1958, the demands of record companies in the 12-inch LP, stereo era were making jazz rather formulaic. A couple of standards, a blues and an original or two was the going recipe for albums, and hard bop or jazz interpretations of Broadway shows seemed to be standard fare. In addition, the 45 was gaining ground rapidly among teens, particularly the music of R&B and rock artists, squeezing jazz sales.

Haden felt that jazz was losing its folk roots and story-telling qualities, especially when it came to improvised solos. When he heard Ornette Coleman try to jam with Gerry Mulligan's group at the Hague in the summer of 1958—before being told to stop—he immediately felt a kinship with Coleman and his efforts. An introduction followed a few days later, and Coleman invited Haden to rehearse at his house for three days. Next, Don Cherry and Billy Higging were added. When Atlantic's Neshui Ertegun heard the group, he signed them to the label.

What followed were four albums by Coleman and Haden that rocked jazz's world. Coleman and Haden's free jazz approach was and remains uncomfortable to the listener, but its expression came from a a deeply personal and soulful place. Rather than play explosive lines or ferociously fast improvisation on the bass, Haden actually created warm lines that harmonized with Coleman and anticipated his direction at every turn.

This was the birth of a new kind of bass articulation that Chambers, Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro [above] had been exploring—a conversational style in which the bassist handles two jobs: that of on-stage metronome, setting a firm pulse and cushion for the players, and a statement player who could engage with other instruments and support them with invented harmony to counter their melodic expression. 

What set Haden apart was his spiritual and folk background and his warm, honest soul. Artists picked up on this and he became among the most respected and revered bassists of his generation. 

Haden spent the next 50 years playing and recording with an amazingly wide range of artists—from Denny Zeitlin, Keith Jarrett and Geri Allen to Ringo Starr, Ginger Baker, Yoko Ono and Norah Jones. He formed bands and orchestras and performed in duets, a form he liked best because audience could hear him. Which is what also made Haden remarkable. He understood the bass's limitations—that listeners found it the least charismatic of all of jazz's instruments, largely because they coulnd't hear it and the instrument didn't have much of a distinct personality in the hands of different artists. What's more, bass solos were rarely welcomed or appreciated, with many fans finding them plodding and dreary compared to other solos by other instruments.

With all of those decks stack against him, Haden still managed to find an engaging way to play his instrument, relying largely on the simplistic art of folk storytelling and soft warmth that had been a hallmark of his family when singing hymns and country music in the 1940s. Free jazz has never been an easy listen. There's seemingly little logic or pattern to what's being played, the tonality often sounds harsh and there is little or nothing to hum or remember in terms of a cogent melody. And yet there is beauty in the chaos.

After listening again to Coleman and Haden's albums together (those in 1959 and '60 and beyond), I focused on Haden and what he was doing behind Coleman and the other free jazz players. What I discovered is that the music was much more approachable when my ear was glued to Haden's bass lines, which served as a friendly hand through a jarring forest. I finally could hear what Denny and Geri spoke about when we talked—the sacred source of Haden's playing and the ancient and soulful feel that led to a freer form of playing.

In 2010, Haden’s earlier polio symptoms returned, and he found swallowing and eating difficult. Though his last public performance was in September 2011, he continued to play his bass daily at home. I only wish I had had an opportunity to interview him.

JazzWax tracks. Here are my 32 favorite albums by Charlie Haden...
  • Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Things to Come
  • Ornette Coleman's Change of the Century
  • Ornette Coleman's This Is Our Music
  • Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz
  • Denny Zeitlin's Carnival
  • Denny Zeitlin's Shining Hour
  • Denny Zeitlin's Zeitgeist
  • Keith Jarrett's Backhand
  • Art Pepper's Living Legend
  • Charlie Haden's As Long As There's Music (duet with Hampton Hawes)
  • Denny Zeitliin's Time Remembers One Time Once
  • Chet Baker's But Not for Me
  • Charlie Haden's Quartet West
  • Charlie Haden's Etudes (with Geri Allen and Paul Motian)
  • Charlie Haden's Silence (with Chet Baker)
  • Don Cherry's Art Deco
  • Geri Allen's In the Year of the Dragon
  • Geri Allen's Segments
  • Paul Bley's Memoirs
  • John Scofield's Grace Under Pressure
  • Toots Thielemans' West Coast
  • Ginger Baker's Going Back Home
  • James Cotton's Deep in the Blues
  • Charlie Haden's Beyond the Missouri Sky
  • Helen Merrill's You and the Night and the Music
  • Lee Konitz's Alone Together
  • Michael Brecker's Nearness of You
  • Charlie Haden's Heartplay
  • Keith Jarrett's Jasmine
  • Charlie Haden's Come Sunday
  • Charlie Haden's Sophisticated Ladies (with vocalists)

Jazzwax clip: I can't think of a more fitting way to say goodbye to Charlie Haden than to play his duet with Chet Baker, Enrico Pieranunzi and Billy Higgins on Silence...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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