I.M. Charlie Haden

16 July 2014

I just wanted to say a few words about the bass player Charlie Haden, who died late last week. He was one of the radical spirits of jazz, both culturally and politically. I’ve written here before about his Liberation Music Orchestra, which he formed in the Nixon era and re-formed with every subsequent Republican president. I was fortunate to see them play in 2009. And I’ve also written about his impromptu tribute when news of Obama’s election in 2008 was confirmed.

He’d played with everyone, from John Coltrane and Archie Shepp to Carla Bley, Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett, and, along with the older Charle Mingus, had been instrumental in dragging the bass out of the shadows of jazz. He seemed to be able to fit into any combination of players, from the big band of the Liberation Orchestra, to his long-standing Quartet West, to duetting with Metheny and Jarrett, for which he won awards.

Haden announced himself to the jazz world in 1959 (the jazz annus mirabilis) when he waspart of the band on Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come, the path-breaking record that announced free jazz to the world. Haden was 22 when the record was recorded. On a documentary about the jazz of 1959 – Kind of Blue, Take Five and Mingus Ah-Um were all released in the same year – I recall that Haden approached Coleman after watching him play at a club and said he’d like to play with him. Coleman’s response, from memory: “How about now?”

He’d travelled a long way: it would have been hard to predict that the childhood Haden Family country and western performer, from deep in the mid-West, would be such a radical presence in jazz. His father, as it happened, took him to the concert in Omaha where he saw Lester Young and Charlie Parker play. But as ever, it’s down to a restless attitude, a curiosity to keep testing the limits. As he said in an interview in 2005 with the website, All About Jazz:

To me it’s important to play something that’s never been played before. To approach music as if you are playing it for the first time every time you pick up your instrument. To create something that has never been before. To really put your life on the line. I tell my students at Cal Arts that you should be willing to give up your life for your art form. To risk your life for every note that you play and to make every note count.

There’s an excellent guide to some of Haden’s best work at The Artery by the bass player Rick McLaughlin.

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