Charlie Haden was far more than one of the greatest bassists in jazz history. A child of the Midwest who gained renown in New York City in the late 1950s, he spent the majority of his life in Southern California, where he made his presence felt on and offstage as a bandleader, educator, composer and patriarch of a sprawling creative clan.
As news of the 76-year-old Haden’s death on July 11 spread over social media last week, it was striking how many musicians took his loss so personally. Some described encounters with Haden, citing his generosity and down-to-earth nature, while many others wrote of his music’s enduring power and beauty. But more than anything, his peers recognized Haden as a creative force who helped change the face of jazz while infusing the music with his passion for justice.
His passing wasn’t a surprise. Complications from the polio he contracted as a child had been racking his body for several years. But even in his last performances, he could summon an entire world with a single perfectly placed note. In an age when virtuosic soloists were taking the bass into new territory, Haden followed a different path.
He arrived in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s, as a Hollywood-besotted teenager wide open to new sounds. After several formative years performing with piano greats Hampton Hawes and Paul Bley, he joined Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking quartet. With Coleman’s deep roots in the rough- and-tumble Texas blues, it can be hard today to hear just how radical the quartet sounded. But the band’s epochal 1959 run at the Five Spot in New York City left many jazz musicians perplexed by the group’s unorthodox practices. With his oblique sense of harmony and intuitive approach to form, Haden undergirded the band’s searing flights with lines informed by the folk music on which he was raised.
After use of narcotics sidelined him in the early ‘60s, Haden eventually got sober, and there are many stories of him reaching out to help other musicians in crisis. His first album as a leader, 1969’s politically charged Liberation Music Orchestra, featured arrangements by Carla Bley and drew on songs of the Spanish Civil War for inspiration. Over the decades, he reassembled the band whenever he felt the need to weigh in on American policy, as in The Ballad of the Fallen, a cry against U.S. involvement in Latin America.
In the 1970s, Haden anchored pianist Keith Jarrett’s great band with Dewey Redman and Paul Motian (usually referred to as the “American quartet” to differentiate it from Jarrett’s contemporaneous European quartet). And in 1982, he established the influential jazz studies program at CalArts, helping shape a generation of brilliant improvisers.
In duo and trio encounters, he could explore just about any style, meeting the musical needs of the moment with his passionate lyricism. Over the years, he recorded electrifying encounters with pianist Denny Zeitlin, Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti, Portuguese fado guitarist Carlos Paredes, and my favorite, his 1995 album with pianist Hank Jones: Steal Away, a project focusing on hymns, spirituals and folk songs.
Every time I got to sit down with Haden for an interview it was a memorable experience, but the first time was the most revealing. Twenty years ago, for a feature in the magazine Musician, he gathered with his son Josh -- at the time with the band Spain -- and his triplet daughters, Petra, Tanya and Rachel, who were in the early stages of their musical careers.
While his kids talked about the various ways growing up with Haden influenced the music they were making, Haden himself was quick to point out that they were influencing him too. Josh had turned him on to the iconic LA punk band Minutemen, which led to a friendship with Firehose bassist
Mike Watt. Charlie beamed as he described inviting Firehose to open for his Liberation Music Orchestra at McCabe’s in Santa Monica. “Then they asked me to sit in on a tune with them at the end,” Haden recalled.
He wasn’t concerned about musical styles. If he connected with the players, Charlie Haden was always game.