The recent death of bassist Charlie Haden at age 76 was a huge blow to the jazz world. Along with losing a great musician, we lost an important spokesman for jazz, which to Haden was always more than just a style of music. “Charlie Haden’s music has its roots in Viva la humans,” Ornette Coleman once wrote—and while I tripped over that statement the first time I read it, I can’t think of a better way to put it.
If given a blindfold test, anyone grounded in jazz would be able to identify Coltrane, Miles, Monk, Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, or other distinct personalities on the front end of a jazz ensemble. Drummers would more often stump the non-experts, and bass players would thin the ranks even more. On the other hand, it doesn’t take long to peg Charlie Haden. Even at fast tempos he tended to use fewer notes than other players, and his tone and intonation stood out as well.
And when it came to ballads his imprint was even stronger. There his playing is particularly expressive, his deep, solemn sound bringing out the beauty of the bass. Early on Haden was associated with the avant-garde movement, but in many ways throughout his career his playing remained quite traditional. In the 60s and 70s many bassists, avant-garde or not, were exploring the higher range of the instrument and flying all over the fingerboard. By sticking to the low notes and making each note count, Haden provided an unshakeable foundation. He belonged to the same school as players like Paul Chambers and Ray Brown; essentially he was a bass player’s bass player. His discography includes many albums of duets with partners like Hank Jones, Pat Metheny, Hampton Hawes, Keith Jarrett, and Ornette Coleman. If you like the realistic reproduction of acoustic instruments, these closely miked albums offer ample opportunities to hear Haden’s exquisite tone in a sound that’s sometimes so realistic you can almost reach out and touch the wood.
At the risk of being branded a heretic, I think bass solos can be dreadfully boring and jazz concerts rely on them too much—yet they were a highlight of every Charlie Haden show I attended. The first was a club appearance of Old and New Dreams, a quartet of Ornette alumni that had just released the splendid live ECM recording Playing. The last set opened with “Lonely Woman,” and I well remember my friends sitting in awe as we witnessed, from a few feet away, a jazz god pour his heart and soul into a spellbinding solo on one of the greatest jazz compositions ever written. Haden’s solo had a haunting and mournful quality; technically he wasn’t playing the blues, but the powerful emotion that we associate with great blues music was certainly there. The original composition that Haden recorded most during his career was “Silence,” and when he soloed he made you acutely aware of the silence between notes.
For a jazz musician, Haden’s musical roots were anything but standard. Born in Iowa, he soon moved to Missouri. As a member of the Haden Family Band, which had its own radio show, he sang and played Americana. At first he sang and played bass, but a bout with polio curtailed his singing career. Stylistically an extreme left turn came after hearing a recording by Charlie Parker, yet the heartland feeling never left him. You can hear it as early as “Ramblin’,” an ingenious Ornette Coleman composition that draws from roots music at the same time that it puts the harmolodic master’s own particular spin on it. During his solo Haden quotes from various Americana classics that he’d probably performed with the Haden Family Band.
After moving to Los Angeles Haden started playing with Paul Bley, Don Cherry, and the as-yet-unrecorded Ornette Coleman, who was about to blow the jazz world wide open. To accomplish this Ornette had to find just the right sidemen. They had to be fully developed musicians, but at the same time they had to be open to radical new ideas. On the first song on the first album Charlie Haden made with Ornette it was clear that he had found the right bassist. The droning, raga-like bass strumming during the opening of “Lonely Woman” is as boldly original as the song itself, which was inspired by a painting Ornette saw in a window as he was strolling down a street. Needless to say, the painting must have affected him very deeply.
Although Haden continued to reconnect with Ornette Coleman for decades to come, by the mid-60s he was involved in numerous other recording projects, some with the avant-garde (Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd) and others with more straight-ahead musicians (Henry “Red” Allen, Bobby Timmons). In the 70s he recorded extensively with Keith Jarrett in small groups that often included another Ornette disciple, Dewey Redman. The 70s is also the decade that inaugurated a long and fruitful association with the ECM label, including a trio with Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti. During the late 70s and early 80s Old and New Dreams recorded, toured extensively, and became one of the more visible bands on the scene. The splendid and diverse 80/81 marked the beginning of a long and fruitful association with Pat Metheny, who shared Haden’s heartland roots. The 90s were a busy period for Quartet West, whose deep sense of nostalgia for old jazz singers, film noir, and other things mid-century resonated with listeners. There was also a series of Blue Note releases with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba.
Highlights of the new millennium included the 2008 release Rambling Boy, whose focus on old Americana classics brought things full circle, with guest artists including Sam Bush and Béla Fleck. The 2011 Lee Konitz release Live at Birdland also included Paul Motian and Brad Mehldau. In 2007 Keith Jarrett and Haden recorded a series of duets in Jarrett’s home studio. The first release compiled from those recordings was 2010’s Jasmine. On June 17, 2014 the follow-up Last Dance (reviewed in Issue 245) was released. The record quickly rose to Number One on Billboard's Jazz Albums chart, and its success was a huge delight to Haden before he passed on July 11, 2014. The album’s title and the fact that the last two songs are “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and “Goodbye” suggest a farewell between old friends. The best song on the album, “Goodbye,” is a heart-wrenching ballad with spare yet hauntingly expressive playing from Jarrett. Then Haden launches into a solo. Rather than describe it, I’ll say that Charlie Haden often insisted that jazz musicians should play as if their life was on the line. If you’re wondering what he meant by that, this is as good a place to start as any.