Charlie Haden - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            By the time he arrived in New York at the end of the Fifties as a member of Ornette Coleman’s ground-breaking quartet, bassist Charlie Haden had forged a new approach to his instrument as the first bassist who “consistently avoided playing changes or following pre-established harmonic schemes,” as Joachim Berendt describes his approach. With his full sound and self-taught technique, Haden played what fellow bassist Bill Crow calls “a sort of intuitive counterpoint” in the Coleman group. Over the years, in a variety of settings, his conception of how the bass relates to the overall sound of a group has become tremendously influential. Pat Metheny plainly states that Haden “set the standard for what is now several generations of musicians.” He’s also a well-regarded composer, with a small but choice list of compositions, including “Silence,” the well-known “Song For Ché,” and “First Song (For Ruth).”


            Charles Edward Haden was born on August 6, 1937, in Shenandoah, Iowa, the newest member of the Haden Family, a prominent act on the Midwest’s country circuit in the Thirties and Forties. As Cowboy Charlie, the boy was a regular on the family’s daily radio show starting when he was just 22 months old. In 1951, when Charlie was 14, he went to a Jazz At The Philharmonic concert in Omaha that featured alto saxophone innovator Charlie Parker. “It was country music all the way for me until I heard Bird,” Haden later told Nate Chinen in The New York Times.


            Haden contracted a mild form of polio in the early Fifties. It affected nerves in his throat and face, cutting short a singing career. He started playing the bass as a teenager, and was soon determined to go to Los Angeles. By taking a gig as house bassist for The Ozark Jubilee, an early television variety show, Haden saved enough money to make the move. He later said that he went there “just to find Hampton Hawes.” When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1956, there were plenty of opportunities to play, “lots of after-hours jam sessions, and playing as much as you could play,” he remembered. By 1957, Haden’s skills were developed enough for him to be on bandstands with Hawes, saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper, and pianist Elmo Hope. He also had a regular gig with Canadian pianist Paul Bley at the Hillcrest Club, making his first recordings in 1958 as part of a Bley quartet (Solemn Meditation, 1958 GNP).


            On a night off from the Bley gig, Haden went to another club in town to hear Gerry Mulligan. As he later recalled the scene for Frances Davis in The Atlantic, “The place was packed, and this guy with long hair like nobody wore it in those days asked if he could sit in. He took out this plastic alto saxophone and started playing, and the whole room lit up for me. But as soon as he started to play, they made him stop. He put his horn back in his case and left. I tried to run after him through the mob of people, but when I got to the door, he had disappeared." The long-haired man was Ornette Coleman, and Haden had found a true musical partner. Through drummer Lenny McBrowne, another member of the Bley band, Haden learned Coleman’s name. When McBrowne brought Coleman to the club, Haden stopped by his table to tell him “how beautiful I thought he sounded. He thanked me and said that not many people told him that...” They went back to Coleman’s small room to play, and although Haden “was scared to death that I wouldn't play right” they ended up playing all day, breaking for dinner, and then playing all night. The way he later explained it to Jay Cocks of Time was that "Sometimes I would want to improvise on the inspiration, the feeling rather than the chords. And that's what Ornette was doing.” Soon Coleman and Don Cherry joined Bley’s band at the Hillcrest, where the continued negative reaction to Coleman’s music perplexed Haden. “It was amazing to me that more musicians didn't respond to this immediately,” he told Davis in 2000. Several October 1958 recordings exist from the club, later issued as Live at the Hillcrest Club 1958 (1976 Inner City ) and Coleman Classics I on Bley’s own label (1977 Improvising Artists).


            Coleman signed to Atlantic Records in 1959 and that May, his group with Haden, Cherry, and drummer Billy Higgins recorded the prophetically-titled The Shape Of Jazz To Come. After recording the follow-up Change Of The Century (1959 Atlantic) in Los Angeles in October, the group traveled to New York City for an extended stay at the Five Spot. The band was an immediate smash, and the place was packed every night. During this period, Haden developed the habit of playing with his eyes closed, partly to help keep his mind clear and concentrate on the music, but also, as he told Davis, because otherwise he would see "every great bass player in New York, including Mingus, Percy Heath, Wilbur Ware, Paul Chambers, and Henry Grimes, staring me right in the face." Haden remained with the Coleman group until sometime in 1962, recording on This Is Our Music and Free Jazz (both 1960 Atlantic). He would frequently reunite with Coleman for recordings and concert tours over the next quarter-century.


            In the late Fifties and early Sixties, Haden had a heroin habit. To overcome it, he entered the famous rehabilitation program Synanon in Santa Monica in 1963. Leonard Feather wrote in his Encyclopedia Of Jazz In the 60's that Haden credited the program with saving “not only his career but his life.” By 1964, Haden was performing again, often in a trio with pianist Denny Zeitlin, who praised his “warmth of sound” and “basic strength.” Two years later, Haden was ready again for the New York scene. Just in the second half of 1966 he recorded with saxophonist Archie Shepp (Mama Too Tight, Impulse), trombonist Roswell Rudd (Everywhere, Impulse), and Ornette Coleman (The Empty Foxhole, Blue Note). But in a sign that Haden was not the strictly avant-garde figure that everyone thought he was, he also appeared on the traditionally-oriented Complete Concert of Pee Wee Russell and Henry “Red” Allen (1966 Impulse).


            Pianist Keith Jarrett was still a sideman in the Charlies Lloyd quartet when he recorded the trio album Life Between The Exit Signs (Vortex) with Haden and drummer Paul Motian in May 1967. This marked the beginning of a ten-year collaboration among the three. Haden split his time in 1968 between the Jarrett trio, a Coleman quartet that toured Europe early in the year with drummer Ed Blackwell and a second bassist, David Izenzon, and recordings with Coleman and the Jazz Composers Orchestra, a project of pianist/composer Carla Bley and trumpeter Michael Mantler. The Bley connection would prove to be another of Haden’s important long-term alliances, beginning with Bley’s arrangements for Haden’s first outing as a bandleader with the first edition of the Liberation Music Orchestra (1969 Impulse) and continuing into the 21st century as new historical developments thrust this most-politicized big band back into action, notably in 1991 on Dreamkeeper (Blue Note) and 2005 on Not In Our Name (Verve).


            Tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman, another veteran of Coleman’s groups, joined the Jarrett trio in 1971, creating what jazz writer Chuck Berg has termed “an awesome juggernaut.” In a series of albums from 1971 through 1976, for Atlantic, Columbia, and finally Impulse, the band, usually augmented with a percussionist, created a lasting body of work showcasing powerful individuals in the service of Jarrett’s exuberant and dynamic compositions. The Atlantic material is ripe for reissue; the brief Columbia period resulted in the double-album Expectations (reissue 2000 Legacy), and the Impulse albums were collected in a pair of boxed sets, The Impulse Years, 1973-1974 (1997 Impulse) and Mysteries: The Impulse Years, 1975-1976 (1996 GRP/Impulse), compiled by Ed Michel, producer of many of the original albums.


            Throughout the Seventies, Haden continued to work with Coleman on special projects, while playing on record projects with Alice Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Don Cherry, Joe Henderson, and Paul Motian, among others. He reunited with his early Los Angeles pals Art Pepper and Hampton Hawes for Living Legend (1975 Contemporary), followed up with a duo album with Hawes, As Long As There’s Music (1977 Artists House). The duo format has been a creative inspiration for Haden for many years, and his two out-of-print duo albums from the mid-Seventies, Closeness (1976 A&M/Horizon), which pairs him with Coleman, Coltrane, Jarrett, and Motian, and The Golden Number (1977 A&M/Horizon), featuring Shepp, Cherry, Coleman, and Hawes, are among the most esteemed entries in his imposing discography. Haden and Coleman went on to make a full duet album together, Soap Suds, Soap Suds (1977 Artists House).


            In the fall of 1976, Haden, Redman, Cherry and Blackwell joined forces as Old And New Dreams, a band dedicated to the compositions of Ornette Coleman. Haden’s field of acquaintances expanded in the late Seventies and early Eighties to include such disparate players as guitarist Christian Escoudé, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, guitarist Egberto Gismonti, percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, and the Mingus Dynasty. In 1980, he joined Redman, saxophonist Michael Brecker and drummer Jack DeJohnette to perform in guitarist Pat Metheny’s 80/81 band, which recorded one album for ECM and toured Europe in the summer of 1981. Haden and Metheny would continue to collaborate over the decades, in bands led by Brecker and saxophonist Joshua Redman, in Metheny’s Song X album (1985 Geffen) that included Ornette Coleman, and on the duet album Beyond the Missouri Sky (1996 Verve), which evoked their common roots in the American Midwest. The two also became close friends, and Metheny was the best man at Haden’s 1989 wedding to singer Ruth Cameron.


            In 1982, Haden founded the jazz program at the California Institute of the Arts, where he is still on the faculty today (2008). His straight ahead Quartet West, another on-going project, made its debut in 1986, with saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent and drummer Higgins, soon replaced by Larance Marable. The repertoire was specifically designed by Haden to evoke the Forties and Fifties-era Los Angeles of his memory. Later projects with the group have included Haunted Heart (1992 Verve), which mixed Forties-era vocals by Jo Stafford, Jeri Southern, and Billie Holiday with the quartet’s renditions of the songs, and The Art of the Song (1999 Polygram) with vocalists Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson. Haden has kept up a career-long association with Paul Motian since their first meeting in 1967, and together the two have worked with such significant individualists as pianists Paul Bley, Geri Allen, and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and trumpeter Tom Harrell. The bassist has also participated in a number of Motian’s ensembles over the years, alongside guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonists Lee Konitz and Joe Lovano.


            In the summer of 1989, Haden was honored by the Montréal Jazz Festival with a full week of concerts that featured nearly the full range of his significant projects up to that point, culminating in a performance by that year’s edition of the Liberation Music Orchestra. All the concerts were recorded by Radio Canada, and most have appeared on CD. Other honors have included a Guggenheim Fellowship for composition (1970), multiple NEA grants for composition, and three Grammy Awards (in 1997, 2001, and 2004).


            Throughout the Nineties and the early part of this century, Haden continued to mix his own projects, high-profile gigs with established artists like David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, Abbey Lincoln, Kenny Barron, Rickie Lee Jones, and Ginger Baker, and situations that team him with lesser-known performers like pianists Bheki Mseleku and Chris Anderson and many others from around the world. Haden’s already wide range of styles has grown to incorporate spirituals, as on a memorable duet with Hank Jones (Steal Away, 1994 Verve), and Latin music with his own Land Of the Sun (2003 Verve) featuring Rubalcaba, guitarist Lionel Loueke, and drummer Ignacio Berroa. With the 2008 release of the country album Rambling Boy (Decca), by the Haden Family featuring his son Josh Haden (of the band Spain), and triplet daughters Tanya, Petra, and Rachel, his music comes full circle, back to the sounds of his boyhood. Asked about how he could move from country to jazz, Haden says simply “It’s been a natural convergence for me.”

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