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I’ve dug deeply into Charlie Haden’s recorded legacy since his death on Friday. I’m impressed all over again by how vast and varied his output was, and humbled to acknowledge how easy it is to take such creative achievement for granted. I heard Haden’s impeccable bass playing in person numerous times, first with Ornette Coleman at Newport in ’71, later with Old and New Dreams, Quartet West, Dewey Redman, Pat Metheny, Joe Henderson, and the trio he co-led with Paul Motian that featured Geri Allen. I was always moved. But the last time I saw him was in 2004 with Michael Brecker at Carnegie Hall and I was bored by the performance, which was larded down, or should I say, sweetened up, with a string ensemble and musicians playing behind translucent acoustical panels. TheTimes called it “a long and roundabout route to easy-listening music.” By contrast, Ornette was the headliner and he wailed that night, my favorite performance of the several I’ve seen by him.

Charlie Haden in Ottawa, 2008; photo by Peter Hum

I passed on a couple of subsequent opportunities to see Haden. But I’m suddenly appreciating him in a different light, as a romantic with an acute melodic sense, a “lyric directness,” as Martin Williams put it 45 years ago, and I’m overwhelmed by the beauty and spirit of it all: the sublime duos with Keith Jarrett, Hank Jones, Jim Hall and Pat Metheny; trios that included Paul Bley, Lee Konitz, Denny Zeitlin, Joe Henderson, Bill Frisell, and Brad Mehldau; the rumbling drive and cliff-edge spontaneity of the Coleman Quartet; the ragged, salt-of-the-earth lyricism of the Liberation Music Orchestra; the soundtrack-like conception, bebop anthems, and bleak-hearted ballads he invited Shirley Horn, Bill Henderson, Norah Jones, and Diana Krall to sing with Quartet West; and the haunting Scots-Irish-Appalachian songs he revisited on Rambling Boy. To Haden, who was born during the Depression into the Haden Family Band of radio and Grand Ole Opry renown, it was all of a piece. “The beauty of it is that this music is from the earth of the country. The old hillbilly music, along with gospel and spirituals and blues and jazz.”

Haden is the subject of the feature-length documentary Rambling Boy, which was released in 2009, a year after he’d recorded the album of that name with his wife, Ruth Cameron, his son Josh, and his daughters Petra, Tanya, and Rachel, aka the Haden Triplets. John Kelman, writing in All About Jazz, said it was “proof of the inestimable value of music and kin, joined together to create the kind of close bond that sadly no longer exists for so many.” Haden’s sojourn took him from the Ozarks to South Central to the Five Spot to Syananon to interrogation rooms in Portugal and the FBI to concert halls worldwide, the NEA Jazz Masters Award, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Referring to the latter in a conversation with Tavis Smiley (see below), Haden said he was impressed to learn that Bing Crosby and other figures more famous than himself had been previous recipients.  Rambling Boy suggests that, after all, he’d found his direction home.

A springboard to Haden’s return was the duo record he made with pianist Hank Jones in 1994. Steal Away was a collaboration between two down home modernists playing spirituals, hymns, and folk songs ranging from “Going Home” to “Danny Boy.” It was unlike anything either had recorded before. In a feature review for The Village Voice, Gary Giddins noted that it fell in line with “the autobiographical edge” of Haden’s recordings, and that his “looming, sonorous, shivery bass tone always seems to have a hellhound on its trail.” In this NPR feature, which followed their second release, Come SundayHaden hints that he was more accustomed to taking liberties with such sacred material than Mr. Jones, whose father was a Baptist deacon.

Like most creative musicians, Haden bristled at categories, telling Dan Morgenstern in 1967, “I get the same good feeling from listening to all sorts of music, from Bach to Bird, from seeing a painting by a beautiful painter…It all comes from the same place; the place where all creation comes from. In a categorical sense, perhaps things have to be labeled, studied, analyzed…But in the end, as a poet has said, ‘Word knowledge is but a shadow of wordless knowledge.’ Feeling came first, words later.”

Haden has been written about extensively. Here’s a selection of quotes about him by longtime observers and biographers, to which I’ve added excerpts from obituaries and appreciations published over the past few days. (I’ll pay memorial tribute to Haden in Jazz a la Mode tonight and tomorrow, July 15 and 16.)

“Haden begins with half-time single notes, to which he adds a sitar-like vibrato. He pauses, and, strumming his instrument like a guitar, shifts into flowing tremolo chords, which gradually separate until the chords fall on the beat, behind the beat, and finally are barely sounded…”

Whitney Balliett on Haden’s solo on Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz, 1961

“Haden is a prominent member of the new school of bassists who consider their instrument a full orchestra. He took three brilliant solos, one of them spelled out in great, booting single notes and another in luxurious flamencan strumming passages.”

Balliett on Haden’s appearance with the Denny Zeitlin Trio at Monterey, 1965

“Haden was from the first a passionate impulsive player. He has avoided the current bass fads (sliding, sing-song notes, wooden tone, empty technical displays), and he has developed his melodic sense. He has become a hornlike voice in the group.”

Balliett on Haden’s appearance with Old and New Dreams at Lush Life, NYC, 1982

“Haden seems always to be involved in several projects at once, either as leader or sideman, and it’s typical of his remarkable career that he is currently represented by three new releases…The Quartet West records have an agenda, part philosophical speculation, part nostalgia, to revisit the mythic Los Angeles of the ‘40s and ‘50s—the L.A. of Raymond Chandler, noir movies, and Central Avenue; the L.A. that lured Haden from rural Missouri to the mean streets.”

Gary Giddins on the Quartet West album, Haunted Heart, 1992

“Against Haden’s buoyant rumble and Higgins’s pneumatic suspension of time, Coleman’s gorgeously ragged riffs swan-dived and jackknifed, ageless and serene, freely reveling…”

Giddins on the Ornette Coleman Trio, 2000

“Haden’s bass is here bowed, there in contrary rhythm, then there in Ornette’s own fast tempo, there again in descending double stops or in isolated tones—he’s motivated, it seems, by impulsive responses to the very sharp angles in Ornette’s ferociously aggressive lines.”

John Litweiler, Ornette Coleman, A Harmolodic Life 1992

“Haden’s participation is particularly important, for if Coleman had played with competent bassists before, the twenty-one year old Haden was the first who could match the harmonic liberty of the saxophonist with correspondingly free counterpoint in the bass.”

Peter Niklas Wilson, Ornette Coleman, His Life and Music 1999

This excerpt from the Ken Burns documentary Jazz has become available since Haden’s death. It’s entitled “Adventure,” and Ornette is the focal point with Haden bearing witness.

“His approach to harmony was deeply intuitive and sometimes deceivingly simple, always with a firm relationship to a piece’s chordal root. Along with his calm, unbudging aplomb, this served him well in settings ranging from the ragged and intrepid to the satiny and refined…Coleman’s clarion cry…grabbed much of the attention, but Haden’s playing was just as crucial, for its feeling of unerring rightness in the face of apparent ruckus…For all his affinities with the avant-garde, Haden was a lifelong proponent of melody…and a conviction in a uniquely American expression. ‘The beauty of it is that this music is from the earth of the country. The old hillbilly music, along with gospel and spirituals and blues and jazz’.”

Nate Chinen, New York Times obituary of Haden, July 11, 2014

“He was often called a “free jazz” musician because of his association with Ornette Coleman, but Haden was above all a romantic; he loved a gorgeous song, and when he played one, he didn’t want to be boxed in by the standard chord changes, he wanted to take the music where he felt it should go…He was a man of the left…But even in this phase, the music, more than the politics, is what moved him. You could see it in the way he played. He seemed to be romancing the bass, swaying it back and forth, eyes closed, head turned away, grimacing with intensity, leaning over at an almost perpendicular angle to hear his own playing more keenly, sometimes beaming when he heard someone else in the band play something remarkable. He was youthful at whatever age he happened to be…Haden was a master listener above all else.”

Fred Kaplan, Slate.com July 11, 2014

“Jazz is by nature a contradiction. No other music is so dependent upon individuality, but it hinges on an interplay with others in a giving, attentive way that emphasizes communication and communion. The single voice is key, but it takes on a rare power within the ensemble. Charlie Haden embodied that duality with a vital and beautiful grace.

“Listen to Haden on those landmark early Ornette Coleman albums, which were recorded after his move to Los Angeles in the 1950s. His rich and woodsy tone, buoyed by a childhood steeped in the “hillbilly music” of the Ozarks, provides both an anchor and an engine to a group that was redrawing the boundaries of jazz.

“Haden’s sound was another duality in motion, a sturdy guidepost that pointed toward both rhythm and melody.”

Chris Barton, Los Angeles Times, July 12, 2014

“Haden was no discreet prowler of chord-changes, quietly marking the bottom line and standing back from the stars. When his vaudeville childhood ended (he was the yodelling toddler Cowboy Charlie with the Haden Family hillbilly band and remained a member until the age of 15), he became a jazz bassist whose life was turned around by the revolutionary saxophonist Ornette Coleman, whose groundbreaking quartet he joined in 1959.

“Coleman’s mercurial mind was forming a new way to improvise jazz – one that demanded constant on-the-fly modulation of a song’s harmonic structure as well as its themes. Haden had a warm, rounded, quite traditional sound, coupled with an instinctive rather than formal understanding of melody, and a distaste for modern-jazz double-bass histrionics. Those qualities, and his ease with Coleman’s cliff-hanging methods, later made him a favourite with many musicians…”

John Fordham, The Guardian, July 14, 2014

Joe Lovano played in a variety of settings with Haden, including the Liberation Music Orchestra and the group with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Here’s an excerpt of the tribute he posted on his Facebook page.

“Reflections on Charlie Haden… I’m feeling tears of love and joy with the passing of Charlie Haden. I grew up listening to his spiritual, poetic music through recordings with Ornette Coleman and The Keith Jarrett Quartet. Charlie said once that Ornette gave him permission to be himself in the music, this gave me the inspiration to try and develop in the art of improvising…There was a searching exploration in Charlie’s melodic bass lines that created music within the music. He had a telepathic, magical gift in his harmonic and rhythmic approach that was amazing. It was a blessing for me to tour the world under his leadership…I learned from his generous loving spirit about sharing the blessings of life and music. Charlie was serious, meditative, introspective, fun, joyous, wild, cool, fearless and very politically active. The lessons I’ve learned from him will live on in my life forever. Charlie Haden was truly a bright light for all of us!!! Thank You, Charlie.”

Haden spoke with Tavis Smiley on December 4, 2013. He was fond of saying that a good person with the right motives might become a great musician. There’s no question but that Haden was the latter, and for those of us who didn’t know him personally, he comes across here as the former, too. Apropos of what a great listener he was, pay attention to how he turns around Smiley’s phrase, “Kept at bay.” Ω


One comment

  • I initially became aware of Charlie Haden in the early 1980’s, as a sideman on Pat Metheny’s ’80-81′ Double-Album – now an ECM classic and personal all-time favorite. As a fellow Midwesterner, his background was something I could personally identify with over the decades since. He of course had long been on the short list of musicians I intended to see whenever synchronicity would deem it so… Upon returning to live in Northern California in 2013, I was surprised to see Charlie headlining the Healdsburg Jazz Festival (far too important a figure in Jazz to be at such an insignificant local as Healdsburg) – we would arrive in the area just as the event was wrapping-up – I openly termed this near-miss, as the final chance. Unfortunately, it turns out that I’m right now & then. Charlie Haden’s legacy is part of a fast disappearing era of musicians that took decades to evolve a dynamic distinctive voice, at once being instantly recognizable and utterly inimitable.

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