By Joe Milazzo and Laura Vena
“There’s no yesterday or tomorrow, there’s only right now.” —Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden, widely revered and wildly influential jazz bassist, composer, arranger and educator, passed away last Friday, July 11th at age 76 of complications from the polio he contracted as a young boy. Haden was an adventurous explorer of music—his music was both deeply grounded in American traditional music and radically innovative; he was not afraid to be romantic in his playing or utterly risky, controversial, and unconventional. He was deeply committed to humanity and justice, standing up at all cost to racism, imperialism, and oppression (he was once jailed in Portugal for dedicating a song to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola). Haden was also an enormously generous teacher, with a teaching style that was rooted in his humanity, and verged on the secularly spiritual. “If you strive to become a good human being,” says Haden, “with the qualities of generosity, humility and having reverence for life…just maybe you’ll become a great musician.” As witnessed by the numerous, effusive tributes written about him since his death, Charlie Haden is remembered by musicians, students, and fans as the greatest and kindest of men. Below we discuss and share the music and loss of this generous, soulful, inspirational artist.
Laura: So…. Charlie Haden.
Joe: Is the [stand up] bass in your house weeping?
Laura: A musty, dusty wheezing-weeping. Man, I love Charlie Haden. Always have. Kind of hard to say anything more right now.
Joe: What is the first thing you ever remembering really hearing him on / playing?
Laura: I think it was the stuff with Paul Motian, but damn, I can’t remember, can you? I grew up with KLON [Fantastic jazz radio station, now KJazz, located in Long Beach, CA]. So, I was a jazz dummy and jazz lover long before I knew a damn thing about it.
Joe: Ornette’s Quartet… I remember the first time I spun Shape of Jazz to Come. Left me feeling a little light-headed, like I’d just taken a big pull off a tube of model airplane glue. But that was more about Ornette than the rest of the band I think. So it was probably Change of the Century and “Ramblin’,” where Charlie gets to play those sort-of chords in the spaces between Ornette and Don’s thematics.
Laura: Right. My brother [a jazz musician and composer, the guy I grew up listening to jazz with, and my “expert” authority on the topic] talked about Charlie’s playing on Shape of Jazz to Come. He talked about how on his own, Haden’s “time keeping and playing for solos and the heads of tune was very folksy, but still experimental. But the fact that he was playing this super modern and conceptual work was an indication where he was at as a player; he wanted to create a different landscape.”
Joe: Ornette’s music was more confusing than anything I’d heard before. More so than later-period [John Col]Trane, [Albert] Ayler, Sun Ra, even Cecil Taylor. Charlie was, like they used to say in the day, “deep.” Incredible musical knowledge, but he never let it interfere with his playing and simply being in the moment. Like, knowing can be to your detriment as an improviser, if that makes any sense.
Laura: Yeah. Absolutely. Does the “folksy” description ring true at all to you? Because his background with his family is interesting. [Haden grew up performing country music and American folk songs with his family in the Haden Family Band.]
Joe: Let me put it this way… Charlie Haden is an honorary Texan.
Laura: Hahaha. Noted like a true(ish) Texan, Joe.
Joe: His solo on “Ramblin'” is straight-up cowboy prosody.
Laura: But, to be able to not just hang with Ornette….that’s pretty amazing. But no. Not just hang. Participate, contribute, push the music and his instrument forward into this new landscape. To put it in context, my brother talked about the album’s “nontraditional harmonic ideas, which were reflected in Haden’s playing; it was very adventurous, avant garde, experimental for 1959, very different (risky).” It must have blown people’s skulls open.
Joe: Hardly anybody understood what Coleman was doing when he first emerged. It was true for me and I think it is probably true of a lot of people approaching Ornette’s music for the first time: Haden is the most immediately “relatable” member of the group. You eventually come around to the incredible emotional vulnerability—or is it just generosity?—of Ornette’s playing. And Don Cherry’s cool can be more forbidding than pretty, all things considered, But Haden is always there, happily percolating away, leading as often as he follows, or happily making you forget there’s much distinction between the two.
As to what your brother says—well, yeah, Haden and Higgins (later, the great Ed Blackwell) had perhaps the hardest jobs in the quartet—to take these instruments whose primary role in the ensemble had traditionally been constitutive, “glue,” and to make those instruments sing as much as the lead voices.
Is risk what you respond to in Charlie’s playing? Or is it something else?
Laura: Oh hell no. I liked him before I understood or, better, appreciated more complex works. What I responded to then was—I have never thought about this—so, right now I’m going to say a type of warmth that bubbles up. But, I think that might be an inept description, so I’m going to put on some Charlie Haden now and see if I can come up with a better response viscerally.
Joe: I feel like I can always hear Charlie fingers touching the bass when he plays. And not in a distracting way. But that sense of contact between person and instrument… that’s the only way I can think to describe his sound. His voice. Right now, I’m listening to Charlie, Paul Motian and Geri Allen play Ornette’s “Lonely Woman.”
Laura: Yes. that makes sense to me. And it makes me realize why I describe it as warmth. Because it’s not a warm sound that I mean, but a warmness in how it makes contact with you; there is a sort of emotional vulnerability always to me. And I’m witnessing a connectedness; I don’t mean he’s connecting with the listener, but with his instrument or something internal.
Joe: It’s not a particularly woody sound. Not to say it’s thin. Plangent? A lot of string in it, but never quite as cat-gut-y as Mingus (and no disrespect to the pride of Nogales, AZ).
Laura: Haha. Yes. Agreed. It’s stringy. Cat guts. All motion, emotion.
Joe: But you do know what I mean.
Laura: Absolutely. It’s difficult for me to describe my thoughts on Haden’s playing, because I have an emotional, visceral response, not an intellectual one. Not that it’s not worthy of an intellectual respond, not that you can’t engage in that way. Maybe it’s just how I interact with it.
Joe: What about his playing gets to you that way, you think? There’s timbre, right, but also articulation, the notes he chooses, drive… what do you feel most grabs you?
Laura: I believe I can’t unravel my nostalgia for the time of my life I was discovering Haden from the actual playing / body of work of Haden. Which is a horrible thing to admit.
Joe: I don’t think so. Music is so often soundtrack, even when it was never intended by the musician to be. What was happening for you then? Or with you?
Laura: Oh, god. I don’t want it to sound like I think of it as a soundtrack. That is awful to me.
Joe: Poor choice of analogy. I just mean, music is so associative. That’s an aspect of what makes it music.
Laura: No, you made a great point. It makes me reach more deeply. I was a young adult, really getting to define my own world and how I wanted to orchestrate it. And I’d sit and listen to Haden and others for hours on end. Nothing else. Trying to enter the music or let it enter me or whatever. But I remember my brother and I just listening and listening. Nothing else.
Joe: Well, there’s a lot of space in his music—a lot of avenues of entry, a lot of places to stretch out, if not luxuriate.
Laura: Definitely! How do you react to my take on his music? Coming from a reviewer’s / extremely savvy music dude” point of view, how would your take on him differ from this visceral response I refer to?
Joe: As to your question: all criticism begins in the body, with what you perceive. And then perception becomes experience, and then you, the critic, your job is to give as detailed an impartial an account of your experience as you can. So if you experience is deeply or primarily emotional…
Laura: Yeah, and I’ve definitely always felt Haden’s playing more in the body. You? By the way, I asked my brother to list three recordings to listen to. Always Say Goodbye, Liberation Music Orchestra, & The Shape of Jazz to Come is what he gave me. What do you recommend? That’s beautiful what you just sent me to listen to.
Joe: I probably have the most affection Haden’s duet records from the mid-70s: Closeness; The Golden Number; Soapsuds, Soapsuds with Ornette (on tenor!) and, most dear of all to me, As Long As There’s Music, which also happens to be pianist Hampton Hawes’ final recording.
Laura: It’s kind of amazing that we went to school together, Joe, where Charlie Haden was currently teaching. Didn’t we see him together at Red Cat in the Walt Disney Concert Hall? Joe: Yes, we saw a student performance of Liberation Music Orchestra. Charlie didn’t play, only conducted. He seemed incredibly happy with his students; not just proud of them but “turned on” by what they were playing.
Laura: Hawes and Haden: Fantastic. You can really hear their distinctive voices on these duets. Poetic, but swinging. Quietly bluesy.
Joe: Who said Charlie Haden couldn’t play the blues?
Joe: By the way, in looking back, the fact that Charlie Haden was an actual presence on the CalArts campus is, if not THE one thing, then an essential thing that made my time in California feel like a fantasy / Hollywood-y.
Laura: It definitely made me feel like I was involved in something magical.
Joe: I mean, I’d been listening to Charlie Haden for 10 – 15 years at that point. He was a “celebrity” to me. And there he was, shlepping his lunch across the cafeteria on one of those endless Wednesdays just like the rest of us. Not that I spoke to him, or ever dreamed of doing so.
Laura: Not your average college cafeteria encounter.
Laura: Maybe you did dream “in” Charlie Haden while you lived there on campus. Those could have been / may have been fertile dreams with the encounters with genius there.
Joe: I remember thinking: damn, he’s so SHORT. I remember a tinge of disappointment at that fact, like maybe his stature was out of proportion to his sound, his music, his accomplishments. But no, as with almost everything else about Charlie Haden, the proportions were just right.
Laura: I asked my brother what he’d miss about him being gone, and I thought I’d ask you the same question. My brother’s response to the question above (about what will you miss) was off the cuff: “He’s not gone. The most important thing for the musician is the music and that’s not gone. His presences as an educator, role model, conduit of the music and his legacy is no longer here. That’s a huge loss. As far as art goes, I look at what he contributed as an artist: embracing adventure in music, not being afraid of be adventurous, but also not being afraid to be romantic; that’s a hard line to walk.”
Joe: Romantic is the word for sure. He often sounded as if he were he cradling / playing his bass like a big guitar. A strong flamenco feel to his ballads, you know? Back to touch, contact, intimacy, the primacy of melody over strict propulsion and “here, boys, these are your chords!” And, yes, passion. Dare I say duende?
Joe: Charlie knew the aesthetics of the Iberian peninsula.
Laura: The other thing my brother mentioned about his Liberation Music Orchestra was the great anti-war statement; message in the music. It was a well articulated political sentiment. The playing of of that orchestra foreshadowed what was coming in the 70s and would become avante gard.
Joe: Damn, he got busted for them [his political convictions] once!
Laura: Did he?
Joe: Oh yes… he was committed to his radical politics. I don’t recall all the details… “Song For Che” was involved, so I have to turn to Wikipedia for support… Here it is: “In 1971, while on tour with the Ornette Coleman Quartet in Portugal (at the time under a fascist dictatorship), Haden decided to dedicate a performance of his “Song for Che” to the anti-colonialist revolutionaries in the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau. The following day, he was detained at Lisbon Airport, jailed, and interrogated by the DGS (the Portuguese secret police). He was promptly released the same day after the intervention of the American cultural attaché, though he was later interviewed by the FBI in the United States about his choice of dedication.”
Laura: Wow. I think I love him more now.
Laura: Can I give you a couple of questions and get a one-sentence or so response? 1. Describe what is unique about his music (playing, composing, arranging, choices of musical partners). 2. What is his larger role in jazz. What did he open up? Is this unfair questioning?
Joe: It’s like maintaining-amateur-stats-for-NCAA-eligibility unfair! But I will try… 1) Haden created a new role for the bass in the jazz ensemble, absolving future bassists of strict time-keeping responsibilities and showing the way for a more melodic, rhythmically fluid approach to both accompaniment and soloing. 2) Charlie Haden helped to remove some of the stigma attached to “eclecticism” in jazz; he was never a dabbler or a dilettante, but an explorer whose love for all the music he chose to play was always palpable.
Laura: Wonderful. And then I guess, is there anything else? Because I need to eat. Starved.
Joe: Bedtime for me, but I want to say this apropos 2)… Take the whole “folk music” thing. Isn’t it about honoring your own vernaculars? Jimmy Giuffre (Dallas’ own; Los Angeles’ own) did some beautiful pioneering work in this regard, and he worked with some excellent bassists (Ralph Pena, Jim Atlas), but these works were typically seen as mere “experiments,” almost as anthropological theses rather than expressive musical expressions. What made Haden’s work different or more successful? I feel like it would have been impossible without Giuffre’s example, but what Haden and Cherry and later Coleman associates like John Carer and Bobby Bradford did exceeds that example. I wish I could pinpoint Charlie Haden’s separation (like, into another stratosphere), but there are just too many intangibles.
…Just let the music speak it.