Charlie Haden 1937-2014
The night before Barack Obama’s first US presidential election, back in November 2008, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra opened a week’s residency at the Blue Note on West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village. It was 40 years since the ensemble had begun its mission of performing politically conscious music, and before the first set began Charlie told the audience about a remark made by Joe Daley, the band’s long-serving tuba player, in the dressing room while they were readying themselves. “If Obama gets elected,” Daley asked Haden, “can we call it a day?”
Everyone laughed, not least the band. And when I went back the following night, with Obama’s success assured, the set was infused with a special sense of joy. But there was no question of calling it a day. Six months later most of them were in London, chosen by Ornette Coleman to appear during the Meltdown festival at the Festival Hall, where their numbers were rounded out by Jason Yarde (alto), Andy Grappy (tuba), the incandescent young Shabaka Hutchings (tenor) and Robert Wyatt, who sang Silvio Rodriguez’s “Rabo de Nube” and played cornet on a spellbinding version of Haden’s “Song for Che”, first heard on the band’s self-titled debut album, which is one of the great classics of large-ensemble jazz (or any kind of jazz, for that matter).
Both in New York and London they concentrated on material from what I guess will turn out to be their final album, 2005’s Not in Our Name, with which they brought their protests home in pieces like Pat Metheny, Lyle Mays and David Bowie’s “This Is Not America”, Ornette’s “Skies of America”, a sardonic treatment of “America the Beautiful”, a wonderful recasting of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings, and Bill Frisell’s “Throughout”, which at the Blue Note featured the tenors of Chris Cheek and the amazing Tony Malaby. As ever, the music was arranged by Carla Bley.
Charlie Haden died on Friday, aged 76. For more than 50 years he was one of the most important musical figures in my life, ever since I first clapped eyes on him as the skinny white kid over on the right hand side of the Lee Friedlander’s photograph on the cover of Ornette’s This Is Our Music. It’s still probably the coolest picture of a group of musicians ever taken, but there was much more it than that. I loved his sound on the double bass, which was dark without being heavy, the resolute economy (probably no great modern bassist played fewer notes) that sometimes gave way to dark strummed solos, and the way he seemed to be able to follow the improvisations of Ornette and Don Cherry so closely despite the absence of formal guidelines. (If you want to know how that happened, read Ethan Iverson’s fascinating 2008 interview with Haden here.)
Mostly, however, it was the sheer weight of emotion he conveyed in every note he played and in everything played by any band he led or with whom he performed. The Atlantic recordings of Ornette’s 1959-60 quartet are up there with Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens and Parker’s Dials and Savoys, of course. But I also loved the way his Quartet West delved into the noir moods of post-war Los Angeles (particularly on Haunted Heart in 1991 and Always Say Goodbye in 1993), his collaborations with pianists such as Paul Bley, Hampton Hawes, Hank Jones, Chris Anderson, Kenny Barron and Keith Jarrett (notably on the recently released Last Dance), and the albums by Old and New Dreams in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
And, of course, there are the Liberation Music Orchestra’s five albums, four made in the studio and one live, essential documents reflecting current and historical liberation struggles in Spain, Central and South America, South Africa, Portugal and its colonies Mozambique, Angola and Guinea, and elsewhere. Here were the songs and hymns of the International Brigade, the Sandinistas, the MPLA, the ANC: this was music that mattered, its attention firmly fixed a greater scheme of things. It was an attitude that got Haden arrested by the Portuguese secret police while on tour with Coleman in 1971.
He was unique, absolutely, but he was also completely emblematic of the very best of America’s musical gift to the world. Born in Shenandoah, Iowa, he spent much of his childhood singing country and folk songs with the Haden Family Band, a background he revisited six years ago in Ramblin’ Boy, a well received album that featured his son, Josh, who leads the band Spain, his triplet daughters, Rachel, Petra and Tanya (whose own bluegrass album appeared a few months ago), and many other guests, including Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Jerry Douglas and Bruce Hornsby. From those beginnings he made his way to the leading edge of jazz at a very early age.
He had a wonderful life and a marvellous career, despite health problems that began with childhood polio, and he left so much for us to enjoy and to contemplate. I suppose if any single performance sums him up, it must be his playing on Ornette’s “Ramblin'”, recorded in October 1959 and released the following year on Change of the Century. Haden had just turned 22, and no one had heard anything like this before: the daring combination of harmonically free 4/4 walking and a powerful strumming that seemed to carry the echoes of all sorts of folk music. That combination of sophistication and deep soulfulness turned out to be typical. Thanks, Charlie, for all of it.