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Charlie Haden 1937-2014

Charlie HadenThe 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.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent memory of a great musicians. Thanks.

    July 12, 2014
  2. crocodilechuck #

    “He plays all the music, not just the background”, Ornette Coleman

    July 12, 2014
  3. philip putnam #

    Lovely obit, Richard. It was only apt that Saturday lunchtime drinks with friends concluded with a track from ‘Last Dance’: and that was before Birdland, Sydney’s jazz record store, had posted news of Charlie’s death.

    July 12, 2014
  4. Thank you for a very beautiful piece about a musician that forever changed the way I hear music. I have been fortunate to see him with The Ornette Coleman group, doing solos and duets alongside Don Cherry in a church, and With Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet.

    I had the fortune to bump into Charlie on a NYC Subway, both of us headed to The Village for his gig. And there were so many other moving live performances.

    But I guess what he taught me most about jazz, or really about music, is that one must listen. Not just to the notes, but this beautiful, aching empty place between the notes. It is that space that defines the song.

    I will miss his calm and joyful hipster soul. But I know that I will have the rest of my life to spend with his music.

    July 13, 2014
  5. Dave #

    Aw thanks Richard-nicely painted- just landed at JFK from LA and hadn’t heard about Charlie passing. Sid Griffin worked with me back at the old Rhino Record store The Haden’s all shopped or worked there- I saw Charlie w the Minutemen at McCabes ?! The Rhino Store made LA a small town.

    Dave Crouch


    July 13, 2014
    • HI Dave Crouch! I used to work for you at Rhino and was at that Minutemen show cos you made me stay after work to look for shoplifters during the show 🙂 and because Double Nickels was my fave album of all time.. I was ’91/’92 crew. Gladys, Josh H., Greg Dulli, Darren. What a crowd!
      If you see this, send me a tweet so I can say HI.

      July 15, 2014
  6. John Harvey #

    I met Charlie Haden once, it would have been around 12 – 15 years ago; I was giving a reading at a bookstore on Venice Beach where his son was working at the time, and he came along before the reading to say how much he’d enjoyed reading my stuff and to give me a copy of whatever was the most recent (the first?) Quartet West CD. I think if I have a favourite album of his it might be ‘Steal Away’, his set of duets with Hank Jones.

    July 13, 2014
    • geoffnoble #

      A lovely story and a good album choice. Haden clearly loved the intimacy of the duo and made fine recordings with the likes of Ornette, Alice Coltrane, Paul Motian, Kenny Barron and Archie Shepp, as well as bestselling albums with Jarrett and Metheny. One of the best was his 1977 pairing with Hampton Hawes, “As Long As There’s Music”.

      July 13, 2014
  7. John Kieffer #

    Wonderful Richard – thank you.

    I seem to have so many important records in my collection featuring Charlie that I hardly know where to start paying tribute to him. Ornette’s Science Fiction, Rambling Man, Steal Away and In The Year Of The Dragon with Geri Allen and Paul Motian have all come out of the box today.

    July 13, 2014
  8. Jon Reder #

    The bass is often described as the heartbeat of the music. No bass player embodied this more than Charlie Haden. I never got to see him live, but my record collection would be much poorer without his great work. Thanks for a great blog and a fitting tribute to a musician who will be much missed.

    July 13, 2014
  9. Great obituary. You sum up so much of what I think. I only saw Charlie Haden once, at the London Southbank show you mention in 2009. I dashed down from an afternoon commitment in Leicester for the gig and I was never so glad of taking the trouble. It was a wonderful night. One of the highlights was hearing Amazing Grace, that over-played and often over-sentimentalised song, as I had never heard it before. It was the early hours before I got back to Leicester but that gig remains a treasure- even more so now. The one song I wanted to hear which he didn’t play that night was ‘Silence’ and ‘Silence’ is a great way to remember the passing of a man who created so much beautiful and inspiring music.

    July 13, 2014
  10. Jonathan Spencer #

    Yes, yes and yes. Another perfect post, Richard.

    Ramblin’ was the first thing I turned to when I heard the news, then a bit of the Liberation Music Orchestra, then some of the achingly beautiful duets with Hank Jones. Then Silence with Chet Baker. What is extraordinary is how beautiful his music was across so many apparently different genres. And live, my happiest memories are of him holding down the pulse to let Ed Blackwell’s drums sing with Old and New Dreams in the late 70s and early 80s.

    There’s a great quote on the NPR blog A Blog Supreme:

    ‘In interviews and onstage, often Haden spoke about the artist’s duty to introduce beauty into a conflicted world. “That’s what I tell my students at California Institute of the Arts where I teach for 27 years,” he said to Martin. “I tell them if you strive to be a good person, maybe you might become a great jazz musician.”‘

    July 13, 2014
  11. Thanks Richard, for a beautiful reminder of a beautiful musician, and for first introducing me to his beautiful music in 1970.

    July 13, 2014
  12. Russ Titelman #

    Magico ain’t bad…..

    July 16, 2014
  13. Grey Morris #

    Thank you for this. He was such a prolific and eclectic player – a wonderful musician. Jonathan Spencer is right – he produced some achingly beautiful music. Managed to make Quartet West in Now is the Hour (especially Left Hand of God) sound as intimate as the duets with Hank Jones.

    July 16, 2014
  14. David Chilver #

    What a lovely tribute to a wonderful musician. It reminded me of an interesting observation made by another great musician, Joe Pass about Charlie Haden. My late father was a friend of Joe’s and when Joe was in the UK, they often met up. On one occasion in the mid to late 1970s Joe stayed the night at my parents’ home in Edinburgh. I happened to be there too .They were playing and discussing records, one of which was Art Pepper’s Living Legend which featured Charlie Haden. Joe was commenting on Charlie’s distinctive bass lines and said that although he hadn’t played very often with him, he had made a big impression on him. The first time he had thought Haden was playing the wrong notes but he soon realised they were not wrong, but different. On the few times they had subsequently played together Joe described it him as one of the very few bass players whose lines (and time) made him “think” and play differently. He contrasted this with playing with the marvellous Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen, who he loved and admired greatly . Niels he found more comfortable to play with, Charlie more challenging. It’s a pity that Joe and Charlie never recorded anything together (so far as I know). It would have made for fascinating listening I’m sure.

    July 17, 2014
    • Grey Morris #

      Thank you for posting this. It’s a lovely memory of a great player.

      July 17, 2014
  15. Lovely stuff. Thought you might enjoy this grainy but compelling footage of Mr Haden with the Minutemen which someone at Oxfam in Folkestone unearthed – it’s the Necks before the Necks

    July 27, 2014

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  1. Charlie Haden 1937 – 2014 | Mountain*7
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