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“Charlie Haden has a large, warm tone, the subtle vibrato, richness, and manipulations of which are central elements in his improvisational vocabulary."
- Mark Gridley, The New Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz
“Charlie Haden once said “One of the prerequisites in musical improvisation is ‘knowing how to listen.’
I first heard Charlie Haden when he was playing with Ornette Coleman in 1959. Playing with Ornette required extraordinary resourcefulness, resilience and a quality of inner musicianship that could not be thrown off balance. Since then, Haden has worked with a wide range of challenging leaders and has headed his own distinctively original ensembles - notably his Liberation Music Orchestra.
He is an accompanist who truly supports - rather than trying to dominate - the soloist. And as a soloist, he too "sings." His solos tell a story rather than show how many notes he can play.
In a music that is composed of individualists, Charlie Haden has always been unafraid to listen ahead - and to listen as deeply as he can, to himself. And that is why - to use a phrase of Duke Ellington’s - Charlie Haden is ‘Beyond category.’”
- Nat Hentoff, Jazz author and critic
Musician Magazine was in circulation from about 1976 to 1999 and, given the time frame, it published fewer features on Jazz relative to the musical interest of the general public.
It’s a shame, because judging from the following conversation between Charlie Haden and Rafi Zabor, the quality of the articles and interviews they did issue about Jazz were first rate.
Charlie Haden died on July 11, 2014. He was seventy-six years old .
For the quiet man he was and the quiet instrument he played, Charlie Haden left a huge and lasting sonic imprint on the landscape of Jazz for over fifty years.
He seemingly worked with everyone, because every Jazz musician who heard his playing wanted to work with him. He left behind an incredible legacy of recorded music as a testimony to how much he and his playing were universally adored.
Charlie Haden inspired legions of musicians who were fortunate enough to work with him, as well as those who received his encouragement: His colleagues attest to his quiet leadership, determination and love of a strong melody.
Charlie’s name became almost synonymous with the natural beauty of the Jazz bass. Mention Charlie Haden’s name to a Jazz musician anywhere in the world and a smiling look of recognition would immediately form on the face of that person. No words, just a smile - and sometimes a nod.
Warning - this is not an easy piece to read. For one thing, it’s very long, but that’s the point of a profile, to provide something with a depth and breadth of perspective.
It’s also difficult at times because the interviewer interjects some of his own philosophical comments that change the dynamic of the piece and move it away from Charlie’s thoughts. And yet, it is Rafi's piece and he is free to structure it as he sees fit.
But if you do stay with it you’ll find it to be one of the most profound interviews you’ve ever read or are ever likely to read by a Jazz musician. Rafi certainly did his homework and really drew out some powerful thoughts and feelings from Charlie.
The following mid-career interview was conducted in April, 1984.
"The radio crackles in 1939___KMA, 50,000 watts out of Shenandoah, Iowa:
Keep on the sunny side of life
Keep on the sunny side of life
Keep on the sunny side
Always on the sunny side
Keep on the sunny side of life
"All right, kiddies; thanks, friends; it's the Haden children, Carl Junior, Mary Elizabeth, little Jimmy, and little two-year-old Charlie, entertaining on the regular nine-thirty program this morning. Now then, I want to say thanks to each and every one of you good friends who have sent in orders for the youngsters' pictures, who have written in those fine cards and letters, we do appreciate the nice things you have to say about our kiddies. I also want to thank you men who have written in to 'Opportunity' and let me say to more of you, if you men are looking for bigger and better-paying jobs, here's one business, friends, that needs more men and they need 'em now. It's the air-conditioning and refrigeration industry. In every community there is a growing demand for men trained in the planning, installation, and servicing of refrigeration and air-conditioning equipment. Now to train your men, mechanically minded between eighteen and fifty ..."
Is that your father?
That's him. Let me move the tape ahead.
"Now, on with the program. More dedications this morning. We're gonna have little two-year old Charlie up here now, to sing a song for you and to yodel for you this morning, and Charlie's got numbers picked out that he's been request, and we want to do these numbers for Mr. and Mrs. Leon Paber of Kellogg, Iowa, for their little son Delvin's second birthday, for Mrs. Jake Gardner of Omaha, Nebraska, for grandson Charles Edward Branson's second birthday, for Bobby Taylor, Evelyn Ingram, Darlene Ingram and Kenneth Dobbs, and Mrs. W. W. Kibbler, this is the Golden Rule Sunday School class who are listening in this morning, what do you think of that?
That's fine and dandy, we're mighty happy to hear from all you good friends, and now then little two-year-old Charles Edward, we believe to be the youngest cowboy singer and yodeler on the air, is gonna sing a verse of the song 'The Birmingham Jail.' All right, honey."
Down in the valley, valley so low
Hang your head over, hear the wind blow....
Were you under any pressure to join the show?
Oh, no. When my mother used to rock me to sleep, she would sing—she had a fantastic voice, like Joan Baez— and I would hum along with her. She saw that I liked it and I got older she started teaching me the words to songs and I was there, in her arms, when they did the shows. She was a great singer, and still is. She sang all the great folk songs—"Barbara Allen," "Mansion on the Hill," "Wildwood Flower"—and my father was one of the greatest harmonica players I ever heard. We could improvise and all my brothers and sisters were good musicians and they sang really true.
"And now for a song and a yodel. He's gonna sing a song about his old dog, Shep. 'Old Shep,' a song and a yodel. All right, Charlie...."
When I was a lad and old Shep was a pup----
The house was full of sponsors' products. Sparkalite Cereal. Cocoa-Wheats with vitamin G. Green Mountain Cough Syrup. We had crates of the stuff. When I was five, my father bought a farm outside of Springfield, Missouri — I was raised in Springfield mostly. The radio studio was right in the house. I'd wake up, watch my family go out to milk the cows, watch them come back in. We'd eat breakfast and then do the radio show, every day but Sunday, fifteen minutes to half an hour. This was during the war. Later my father tired of the farm and bought a restaurant. That time the studio was upstairs.
All those songs we used to sing were very beautiful, and they've stayed with me. Some of them come back to me even now. I started improvising folk songs when I did the 8O/81 album with Pat Metheny and recently when I was playing with Denny Zeitlin in San Francisco we played something that made me remember all these things. What I want to do now is stop in Missouri on my way back to Los Angeles and spend some time with my mom and this time get some songs from her. I want to relearn them. Because it's really important music. It comes through this country from Europe but most people, when they think of the only art form in American music, think of jazz. I grew up knowing Mother Maybelle Carter. Some of the best music I've ever heard was Maybelle Carter playing guitar and singing, and A. P. Carter and her sister, and the Delmore Brothers singing.-... Oh, man, they were fantastic. I saw a special view of country America that you don't get in the city. I used to go to houses in rural Missouri and people would be on their porches singing and playing fiddles and blowing into moonshine jugs, playing washboards and spoons. My grandpa used to play the fiddle held under his chest instead of his chin, and he used to tell me stories about Frank and Jesse James, the Younger brothers and the Daltons. My grandma told me about Wild Bill Hickock in Springfield, Missouri.
We used to play a lot of revival meetings and tent meetings and county fairs on truck beds — we'd be standing on flatbed trucks at fairgrounds, and at racetracks we'd be on the grandstand performing. We traveled all over the Midwest doing that when I was a kid. I was very small the first time my parents took me to a black church to hear the music, I couldn't believe it, I just sat there and listened. I couldn't believe how beautiful it was and I didn't want to leave. I just wanted to stay.
I was raised in a place that forced you into political awareness early, seeing racism all around you. In the county where I graduated high school, blacks weren't allowed to remain in the county after dark — this was 1955. There was only one movie theater they could go to, and they had to sit in the third balcony.
I sang with the family until I was fifteen, when I had bulbar polio. I caught it when we were doing a television show in Omaha during an epidemic. The doctor said I was lucky — it hit the nerve to my face and throat and vocal cords, and it usually hits the legs and lungs. It took about a year for the effects to go away and after that I couldn't really sing, couldn't control the note and hold vibrato.
I started playing bass when I was fourteen. I've always felt the bass was beautiful. I loved the sound of it. When I sang, I always wanted to sing the bass part even though my voice wasn't low enough. I was attracted to it more than to any other instrument. When I was in grade school, my brother Jim, who was the bass player on our show, was interested in jazz. Jim started bringing home Jazz at the Philharmonic records and Lionel Hampton, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Stan Kenton. I didn't know what it was, didn't know what improvising meant, I just knew that I loved the way it sounded. And the more I heard it the more I loved it — the harmonies, the voicings, the textures and the chords, and the first chance I got, I went to a concert. I was fourteen and we were in Omaha. My family was up there doing a television show every week and Jazz at the Philharmonic came through and I went with some friends. Charlie Parker was playing, and Lester Young and Flip Philips, Willie the Lion Smith, Roy Kldridge, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, and it was really something.
When we moved back to Springfield, Stan Kenton's band came through. Don Bagley was playing bass and Stan Levey drums. I went backstage and talked to them. They invited me up to their hotel. They were impressed that I was so young, in such a small town in the Midwest, and wanted to play jazz. I asked them where I should go, New York or Los Angeles, and most of them, their advice was: Don't play music, don't play jazz, it's a rough life; you have to go on the road and you can't have a family. But I kept after them and Don Bagley told me who he was studying with in L.A. When Kenton came back next time, Max Bennett was on bass, Mel Lewis played drums and Charlie Mariano was in the band. After the concert, I went to a jam session in somebody's house and I got to play. Before that, I had just been playing with records.
Then there was a TV show that came to Springfield from Nashville called "The Ozark Jubilee." Red Foley was the star, and Eddie Arnold used to come up and he brought Hank Garland with him — he was a great jazz guitar player — and i played in that show with Grady Martin, a guitarist with Red Foley, and the pianist with Grady was a jazz player. I found out from him that a lot of players from Nashville really love jazz. Sometimes we would jam. Grady Martin played Bob Wills-style, Western swing, sort of, but what I tried to get them to do was play Bird tunes and bebop. That was mostly my experience in Springfield. In high school, I didn't have many close friends. Most of the guys in my class were involved in Future Farmers of America. I used to bring them to my house to listen to Bird and they'd look at me like I was some kind of...
I was playing completely by ear, which is one thing I think that caused me to be introverted, shy, and soft-spoken. I felt that I didn't know enough about music, that I was inferior to the musicians I was playing with, though on the radio, we had to be perfect, you know, you couldn't be sharp or flat. I applied to Oberlin and got a full scholarship even though I was completely self-taught, but then I heard about Westlake College of Modern Music, which was like Berklee and had a good reputation for jazz studies. I turned down the scholarship, sold shoes until I made seven hundred and fifty dollars, said good-bye to my parents, got on a Greyhound with a suitcase and my plywood Kay bass, and went straight through to L.A. The people from Westlake met me at the bus station. I lived in a dorm off Sunset and though Westlake had a few good teachers I became disenchanted with the place. I met a lot of musicians right away and started working. I met Red Mitchell in a coffee shop at three in the morning — I had listened to him and Hampton Hawes on records — and we played together at his house. One day he had a record date and couldn't make a gig with Art Pepper. I covered for him and Art hired me for the rest of the gig.
The reason I'm talking about my past is to convey my need to know how people who dedicate their lives to an art form grow up, what happens to them. I would like to know what happened to Django. I'd like to know about Bach's childhood.
My father lived until 1974. He was sixty-four. We were really close. In the late sixties when I was about thirty, I had a dream that I was on an old-fashioned train. It was 1939 in the dream but I was still thirty years old — and 1939 was the year my father was thirty. The conductor came through and said, "Shenandoah, next stop." I got off the train and there was an old train-depot newsstand. Everything cost a nickel or three pennies. I went into a phone booth and looked up our name, and there was my father's name and the street we lived on. I wanted to call him, but I was afraid, so I walked out onto the street. Old cars were going by, and our car passed, our old Oldsmobile. My father was driving, and my mother was holding me, and I was asleep, a two-year-old boy. My brothers and sisters were playing in the backseat. I went into a restaurant feeling like the wind was knocked out of me, and I asked the guy behind the counter if he knew Carl Haden. He said, "Everybody knows Carl Haden. The Hadens are on the radio here every morning." I told the guy I wanted to talk to Carl and he said, "if you want to see him come down here, I know a good way. He's a harmonica fanatic, so tell him you got some new harps for sale and he'll come."
I went to the phone, put a nickel in and dialed the number. My father answered, I said hello and he said, "Who's this?" I said, "Well, I'm in town and I've got some harmonicas for sale and I heard you might be interested."
He said, "I'll be right down."
I waited. I didn't know what to do. And in a few minutes, he came in. And, man, that was worth the whole dream, just to see him. He had all his hair and he wasn't gray. He was young. He had a pin-striped suit with a tie and one of those round collars. It was just unbelievable to see him. I was his age. We just stood and looked at each other. I wanted to say, "I'm your son!" But I didn't. We shook hands, and went to sit down in one of the booths. I stared at him. He stared at me and said, "Haven't I seen you somewhere before?" Then I woke up. That dream came out a real yearning. I had always wanted to be able to talk to my father and be the same age as he was. I had the dream while he was still alive, and I always wanted to tell him about it, but I never had the chance. Maybe I was afraid to tell him — now this is really strange — because he would have remembered the day that somebody called him down to the depot.
How did you meet Ornette Coleman?
I was playing with a lot of people in L.A., and the more I played standards the more dissatisfied I became. Especially when I played solos. Even lines behind a musician — I wasn't satisfied with the normal, traditional way of playing chord changes. Little by little I started trying to play what I was hearing. Say I would be soloing on "All the Things You Are," and maybe there was a group of notes I wanted to play off of, or a phrase from somebody's solo, or I wanted to play on the melody instead of the changes. And I tried but it was hard, because I had never tried to express it before. Musicians would get upset because they wouldn't know where I was in the song or when to come back in.
Then one night I was at a club called the Hague —I think I was listening to Gerry Mulligan's group — and all of a sudden this guy gets up on stage with a plastic alto and starts playing, and the creative energy level changed completely — it was going through the ceiling, it was the most brilliant sound I'd ever heard and I said, "Who is that? Who is that man?" Someone said, "That's Ornette Coleman." I wanted to meet him. By the time I got behind the bandstand to meet him they had already asked him to stop playing and he had disappeared out the back door. But -drummer] Lenny McBrowne told me how to find him.
I went to Ornette's house and told him I'd heard him play the other night and that it was beautiful, and he said thanks, because he wasn't used to hearing someone say that to him, and the first time we played, I found myself able to play what I'd been hearing, though I did do some struggling. It was like jumping into a pool or a creek you've never been in before — there were growing pains, trying to find which notes sounded good against what he was playing. Experiencing a fear of something different than any other experience I'd ever had, and he had that clear, natural, beautiful sound. It was like no other music in the world. This was in 1957.
I'd actually met Don Cherry and Billy Higgins before Ornette. We got together and started playing at Don Cherry's house. We would play every day and stop and talk about what we were doing and then we would play the tune over again. It was really something.
Coming to New York in 1959 was really exciting. I'd never been there before, and after checking into the hotel we went down to the Five Spot for a rehearsal and I had never seen anything like that before, derelicts lying there on the street. I started to bend down to help one guy and one of the other musicians who was playing the Five Spot said, "What are you doing?" The guy's lying on the sidewalk! "Hey man, you're in New York City! You can't help that, man!" When we started playing every night, the place was packed with people not just from the music world but from the art world, from everywhere. There were famous painters, poets. One night I was playing — you know, I usually play with my eyes closed — and I happened to open my eyes and looked down and there was Leonard Bernstein with his ear next to my bass, right on the bandstand. He asked me where I'd studied and I told him I was self-taught and he couldn't believe that. He invited me to come up to the Philharmonic, and years later, when I was sure he had forgotten me, he was of tremendous help to me with the Guggenheim Foundation, when I applied for a fellowship in composition.
One night we were playing, Cherry was taking a solo and all of a sudden I heard the solo change direction and I opened my eyes and it was Miles. He had gotten up on the stand, taken Cherry's horn and started playing. And there wasn't a night when I didn't open my eyes, look out at the audience or the bar and see some great bass player checking me out. Paul Chambers, Percy Heath, Mingus. Those were exciting days. Then we went on the road and scared everybody to death in the towns we played — Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia. The musicians would come to hear us, word had come down the grapevine, people were expecting something new.
It made a lot of musicians angry, not so much angry as insecure. People had been conditioned to a certain way of hearing music, and if they had to stop and think, or use their senses in a new way they got insecure. You don't think about sensitive musicians doing it, but with our music it was like that. It was so different, a different way of approaching the language of jazz that it pressed a lot of people's buttons, and fights broke out, I mean real fistfights broke out in the Five Spot, people arguing about if we knew what we were doing — we did vs. we didn't — then all kinds of insults were shouted, then bam bam bam and cars were set on fire and someone came into the Five Spot one night and hit Ornette.... When we were interviewed, people asked us how all the controversy affected us. I answered that we didn't have time to be affected by it. We were thinking about playing, and trying to figure out other ways to play what we were hearing. Each time we played, the more sure we became what we were doing and the more we knew that it was important to play. Our way of improvising was unique — like another language. There aren't that many people who have experienced it; just a handful of them, and all of them come through Ornette's band — Dewey, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, Eddie Blackwell, Bobby Bradford.
Coltrane used to come in and listen, wait for us to finish and then go out with Ornette and talk for hours. He was looking for a way to play what he was hearing, looking for different kinds of solutions, remedies or methods. One of the things he wanted to find out was what it was like to play with our band, lie had this record date and he called Blackwell and Cherry and me to play with him. It was a great experience but I didn't know what he expected of us at first. Gradually I found out he wanted us to play as we did with Ornette. We recorded a lot that day, some of which isn't on the album (The Avant Garde).
Then Sonny Rollins hired Don and Billy, and I was supposed to be on that band, too, but I was incapacitated. I remember Cherry calling me up to go with them to Europe. Actually I left Ornette's band to go to Lexington Public Health Service Hospital — that was in 1960, and when I got back to New York we made the double-quartet record (Free Jazz)—I was uncomfortable on that because I had to play a borrowed bass and it wasn't that great an instrument— and then I got arrested in New York, lost my cabaret card, got put on probation, broke probation, left for Los Angeles. I rejoined Ornette in 1966 when I got my health baek. I had been to Synanon. From 1963 to 1973 I was clean. I don't like to talk about heroin addiction because that tends to romanticize the situation. One thing I do know, drugs will not help a mediocre musician sound better and the great musicians I've known who happened to be addicted played great in spite of their addition, not because of it. When I stopped using chemicals, my music became much stronger. It is important for me to stay healthy, not only for my sake, but for my children's. They ought to have someone to look up to, I'm not proud of any of this. If I hadn't kicked, I would have died, and that's that.
[The following are Zabor’s comments.] For a frightening picture of Haden as dying young junkie, see the cover of Ornette Coleman's This Is Our Music; for what he had accomplished so young (he has since accomplished a good deal more), try listening to the contents of same. What he worked out early on, in a band, remember, that revolutionized the art of jazz in our time, is a modal style sprung freely enough to accommodate Coleman's untempered sense of pitch and unorthodox departures from diatonic tonality, a beat wide enough to unlock the gates of the bar lines when necessary, and most of all a depth of feeling capable of real response to Coleman's unforgettable, mother-naked utterance; but when I think of Charlie Haden I don't call to mind his Contribution to the Art of Modern Bass, which is formidable, but (for example) the image of him standing onstage with Pat Metheny's 80/81 band two years back at the Joyous Lake in Woodstock, his bass accompaniment rising like sap through the tree of a Metheny solo and then opening nave, transepts, arches, galleries, towers, and aisles in chorus after chorus of Dewey Redman tenor while light fell in shafts from the windows and Metheny sat there on his stool in this sudden cathedral, shook his head and stared. It was a kind of playing, a kind of getting into the substance of someone else's music that goes well beyond "he's got great ears" to recall Rilke's notion of two solitudes growing so large and deep they can include each other, an encounter of whole and unfalsified individualities unhampered by the passing chords of space and time.
But then I could have called to mind other equally articulate moments, like Haden one night on a Boston stage with Old and New Dreams playing a solo in which he questioned his notes so deeply it seemed as if at any moment they might fess up and tell him the meaning of his life. The moment produced an inconceivable hush in the hall as Haden drew us so powerfully into his world it became identical to our own. We sat there, having paid seven-fifty for our tickets, at one of the limits of music, where sound was about to give out and a world of unmeasured Meaning, from which music derives and at which it is always pointing back, was about to burst through the stable look of things and, finally, speak.
Everyone knows there are two schools of bass playing, the Fast and the Slow (that's a joke, Charlie); Haden has taken the Slow and made it into an extraordinary instrument of self-exploration. I think of him as having made himself over the years, through a mix of inspiration and catastrophe, into the kind of musician whose work attracts to itself inevitable metaphysical weight: he has intuited something central to himself as man and musician and gone forward towards it by the stripping away of successive surfaces so that you hear, in addition to the human turnings of the music through the volutions of his identity, every vibration of string, every creak and strain of wood, the labor of brain, heart and fingers in a concentrated pursuit of final essences, a consciously impassioned hunt for the ultimately real. You might object that good jazz musicians do this all the time —it's certainly true that if you listen to Johnny Hodges right he'll peel you like a grape — but the process is made so plain in Haden that he becomes an object lesson in how such a quest might be carried out and what you are likely to find along the way. I think it's important that what Haden finds is not merely, as so many do these days at the played-out end of Western Sievelization [not a misspelling, but written as the author intended it to be], reality deconstructed into its unappetizing and useless components (which then are either left lying around or get hustled into forms as rigid as they are arbitrary) but Truth, Beauty, Dignity and all the fine old things, and the point about Haden is that he gets it all into the music with no tricky bits missing and no lies told along the way and you believe him. And to me, at any rate, that's important. Ideal though Haden was in the early days with the classic Coleman quartet — have you noticed how much more perfect the records have gotten over the years? — Haden didn't come into the full range of his voice until a few years later. Judging purely by the recorded evidence and my own awakening to him when he played in Berkeley, California, with Ornette, he certainly had it together by 1970. The bassist who plays on Ornette's Science Fiction, Broken Shadows and Friends and Neighbors, his own Liberation Music Orchestra, and the overture to Carla Bley's Escalator Over the Hill (a remarkable solo over unprecedented accompaniment) had evolved dramatically since the early sixties. His time, although it had strengthened audibly between 1959 and '60, had greater personal authority now, and he had developed a number of original devices for work in the rhythm section of which perhaps the most powerful was a multi stringed drone that he could pivot up or down as if on pedal point — the sound itself is enormous, like a choir of basses, and the effect behind a soloist is stunning, as if Haden were enlarging to the point of explosion the harmonic implications of the solo line while at the same time creating maximum tension between the drummer's timekeeping and his own. It's worth pointing out how technically similar to, but sonically different from, guitar and banjo picking patterns this is, because it shows to what personal uses the mature Haden could put his country heritage. Although a certain amount of guitaristic strumming was common to the bass playing of the period — Haden's own solo figure for Coleman's "Ramblin'" providing one example — Haden's later appropriation of fingerpicking patterns sound almost nothing like their source, the kind of appropriation only master musicians seem able to manage. Country music also shows up in the sometime surprisingly simple resolutions dramatically attenuated melodies in his bass solos will come to. Just the other day, I put on Liberation Music Orchestra and listened to Haden's accompaniment to Carla Bley's piano solo on "War Orphans." His probing triplet figures were so beautiful a way of playing a love duet with Carla, and so perfect an expression of the nature of the bass, it took me a while to realize that nobody had played the instrument like that until Haden came along and did it. He is by now so familiar a part of modern bass playing that you can paradoxically forget how original he is.
As a soloist the mature Haden evolved an eloquent solo style that ran counter to the practices of most of his contemporaries. While virtually everyone else sought to deemphasize the difficulty of the instrument and to demonstrate that the acoustic bass could be played as fluently, and in some hands as quickly, as a horn, Haden, in his note choices, minute variations of pitch, fingering and tone, seemed almost to go out of his way to encounter obstructions to a facile flowing solo line and the superficial resolutions of a conventionally masterful technique, as if to say, "There's a lot more to life than that." He arrives at an expression of beauty in which the distances traveled and the price paid are part of the statement.
Chronology, ontogeny, pharmacology. In the seventies he worked most famously with Keith Jarrett; with Ornette on the rare occasions the latter was willing to appear, with Ornette's alumni in Old and New Dreams (one of this period's classic bands); struggled to reunite the Liberation Music Orchestra. His wife Ellen gave birth to a son, Josh, in '68; triplets (Rachel, Pelra, Tanya) in '71; blessings which must somehow be paid for on a musician's income. Haden had been making major music for some time. Finally, in 1977 he released the breathtaking Closeness, the first of a series of albums of duets that should have accorded him career-making recognition at last. But a series of traumas started him using again and he entered the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco to kick, shaved his head, surrendered his bass, mopped floors, answered the switchboard, raised funds. Two years of his life ... some people have all the luck.
But let's talk about duets. "I could do duets for the next twenty years. When I think of all the great musicians I haven't played duets with, I could play duets for the rest of my life."
Well, yes. And it's even obvious why. For a bassist with fabulous ears and an eerie way of inhabiting other people's music—and think for a minute what it might be like to play with him as he articulates things in your music you yourself didn't know were there, as if he could find the universal hidden in any particular and bring it out to show — it must be quite a pleasure to intensify your listening one-on-one, unobscured by the racket of cymbals and drums; for Haden is obsessed with communication as only someone whose music speaks out of an extraordinary degree of solitude
can be, and his solitude is as pronounced, beautiful, and dangerous as any musician's, even unto Miles. When he speaks of things important to him (you should know before going on), Maden's voice takes on some of the pauses and the quavering intensity of his bass playing. It's the voice, perhaps, of someone who has been broken to pieces past all repair and then, unexpectedly reconstructed, became unable to take anything for granted again, though his polio-constricted throat keeps the pitch medium high. One of the most important parts of the creative process in improvised music is listening, and when just two people are playing you can listen so much more clearly. My focusing when I write or play is on the other people involved, not on myself, and that's in my mind the whole time I'm working, to make the musician feel so good in what he's doing that he's able to express himself to his very highest potential. I usually know the musicians well and am inspired by them, and that makes it easy. And if I'm writing something inspired by a particular person or place, that enters into it. And then I have the listener in mind. The only time I come into it is when I'm playing, but when you're in the midst of creating and are close to music, that goes, too.
Have you ever found yourself getting in the way because the music's going especially badly or especially well?
When I have trouble with that, it means I'm not involved in my work. 1 want to be able to rise above my own self-needs more and more, to be able to give to others and have concern for others and to rise above that ego, and I hope that other people will be able to do that, too. Did you see the notes from Hamp's album, As Long as There's Music? One of the things I said in that, although it might seem idealistic, was that in every human being there is a godlike quality that is creative. Every human being, when they're born, when they're a child, has potentially endless possibilities inside themselves, and one of these is creative can be, and his solitude is as pronounced, beautiful, and dangerous as any musician's, even unto Miles. When he speaks of things important to him (you should know before going on), Haden's voice takes on some of the pauses and the quavering intensity of his bass playing. It's the voice, perhaps, of someone who has been broken to pieces past all repair and then, unexpectedly reconstructed, became unable to take anything for granted again, though his polio-constricted throat keeps the pitch medium high. One of the most important parts of the creative process in improvised music is listening, and when just two people are playing you can listen so much more clearly. My focusing when I write or play is on the other people involved, not on myself, and that's in my mind the whole time I'm working, to make the musician feel so good in what he's doing that he's able to express himself to his very highest potential. I usually know the musicians well and am inspired by them, and that makes it easy. And if I'm writing something inspired by a particular person or place, that enters into it. And then I have the listener in mind. The only time I come into it is when I'm playing, but when you're in the midst of creating and are close to music, that goes, too.
Have you ever found yourself getting in the way because the music's going especially badly or especially well?
When I have trouble with that, it means I'm not involved in my work. I want to be able to rise above my own self-needs more and more, to be able to give to others and have concern for others and to rise above that ego, and I hope that other people will be able to do that, too. Did you see the notes from Hamp's album, As Long as There's Music? One of the things I said in that, although it might seem idealistic, was that in every human being there is a godlike quality that is creative. Every human being, when they're born, when they're a child, has potentially endless possibilities inside themselves, and one of these is creative expression. With a lot of people, as they grow up, it gets stifled or taken away, and I want them to know that they have that inside them, and that they can discover it and nourish it and let it come out. And as long as there's music there will be a way for people to discover that quality inside them. When I'm making a record, when I know someone is going to listen to that record, I think about the reality of their lives and the reality of them listening to it, and I want to be able to capture them, even if it's only for a moment, and I want that moment to be as complete and honest as it possibly can. Because it's difficult for people, even when they're having conversations with each other, to listen to each other, but I've met some people in my life who really know how to listen and it's fantastic. When I write or play something and one of my children likes it, that's also very meaningful to me, because their response is genuine and immediate. The world may be lost as far as the adults are concerned. I think we have to teach children and surround them with creative thought and show them how precious life is and how we have to use intelligence to enhance it, not just for our own good. That's one of the responsibilities of an artist.
People ask me what I think about when I'm improvising, and I have to tell them there's no thought process. You have to get to know music as you would a person, and get close to music as you would to a friend, and the closer you get, the nearer you are to touching music, and when you're really playing, when you're really touching music, if you try to remember back you'll see that your ears become your mind, your feelings become your mind, and there is no thought process as far as the intellect is concerned. It's coming from the emotions and from whatever energy is passing from the music to you. The ego goes away. Or should I say, you reach a place where there is no ego, and in doing that you see yourself in relation to the rest of the universe, and you see your unimportance in relation to the rest of the universe, and in seeing your unimportance you begin to see your importance. You see that it's important to have respect and reverence for life and music, and in being able to do that you get close to being honest in your playing. When someone says, "He plays great," that's what you're doing, playing honestly. And striving for beauty. When you think about inspiration it's startling, because there really are no words there. And the communication shouldn't stop with music. You should go on from there.
Have you changed, then? Have you begun to see this in explicitly mystical terms?
I'm interested in reading and learning about different religions from different cultures, but for myself I feel a strong need for self-reliance and for believing in something I feel close to, which is Life. It's very difficult for me to use a word that's used by hypocrites, and that's why I don't use the word God very much. That's been misused in many languages by people who are not worthy of using the word, I don't like to think of myself as having to depend on anyone else or follow anyone else in order to discover the essence of life. That's a constant discovery that never ends, and I think a guru or someone like that can be very dangerous to rely on.
You do have a strong sense of the sacred, of the sacredness of things.
I believe that the sacred is in the ordinary. As Maslow said, people spend their whole lives in search for the exotic, the strange, the mystical, and in the end find that the sacred is in the ordinary: in one's backyard, family, friends. I believe that a great man is like that guy who saved that stewardess in that plane crash in Washington. He jumped into that icy water without even thinking about it, and the quality inside that man, that's godlike to me, that's greatness to me. He didn't want to be interviewed about it, he didn't want to talk about it, he just wanted to go back to work. That quality I can admire, giving in an unselfish way.
Let's talk about the Liberation Music Orchestra. Granted that the political state of the world is horrific at the moment, what can you hope to accomplish with the Orchestra?
I'm not a politician. I'm a human being trying to learn about this life, and I'm a musician. But I want to play this music, to find music from different parts of the world that has to do with people fighting for their right to live freely. The music that comes from that struggle should be heard by as many people as possible. That music also inspires people to play their best, and I want to be able to inform people in a real way about what's happening in the world, the struggle in El Salvador, in Chile, in Nicaragua. We sit here in the United States and watch it on television and lose touch with the reality and I feel a responsibility to communicate my feelings in an honest way to as many people as I can, and if I can change just one person's outlook, then I feel like I've accomplished something. We're in a dangerous situation. Nuclear war is a real possibility, and "The Day After," although good, was a lightweight Hollywood soap-opera version. You can see that Reagan's a figurehead, that he uses his ability as an actor to make everyone go for the invasion of Grenada, for the contras in Nicaragua, for the death squads in El Salvador.... And both Kennedys are gone, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Allende....
Do you think the left-wing revolutions have worked out all that well?
No. In most cases they haven't. I don't know what happened. If the leaders of the governments of the world were able to hear — I know this is very idealistic — if they were able to hear the beauty of the slow movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony, or Ravel, or Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs, or Canteloube's Songs of the Auvergne, or Billie Holiday, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman ... if they could really hear the beauty.... Sometimes I think about hearing music through someone else's ears and it frightens me — if someone wanted to torture me, they could force me to hear music through Ronald Reagan's ears. He must be tone-deaf. When you think about composers and painters who try to change the world with their art form, you wonder what it would be like if people like them governed the world. But, especially in America, intelligent people are not attracted to politics. When I hear great music I think that musician, that person, must have so much love inside. When I spoke earlier about improvisation, of seeing your own importance — when you're playing in the moment — experiencing the moment, it shows you the brilliance in the universe, and that brilliance is in every human being. If the people who run the governments of the world could touch that brilliance inside themselves, and know that it's in everyone else and everywhere else, the world just couldn't go on the same way, the way it's going now.
The week of this last recorded talk, I managed to hear Haden twice with the New York edition of the Liberation Music Orchestra — there's another one in Los Angeles — at Seventh Avenue South, a small room that the twelve-piece band filled with music of tremendous and audible humanity. As Haden said, the material from Spain and Latin America was so packed with its own meanings and passions that the soloists were inspired to surpass themselves. I heard particularly stunning work from Dewey Redman, Baikida Carroll, Amina Claudine Myers and Craig Harris; Carroll told me later that the simple music, full of unfakeable feeling, inspired him in one direction and the fast modernist company with its own unfakeabilities [unique abilities?] inspired him in another, which seems as good a definition of the band's working amplitude of expression as you're likely to get. The band's performance style was a lot closer to the epochal abandon of the 1970 unit than to the tidier and more stoical temper of the recent record, Ballad of the Fallen, on ECM, and if the LMO does succeed in getting its bulk out on the road as planned, I expect it to shake significant portions of the American superflux and establish itself as one of the indispensable bands of the period.
As for Haden, he sounded like a whole orchestra of basses, with the orchestra's repertoire of sonic resource: countermelodies over varying drones, pluckings and strummings, extended radical gambits, insupportable tensions, all four strings going at once — Haden's is nothing if not a virtuoso approach to the instrument, a high-wire act on four strings. It's paradoxical, though not really surprising if you take Haden's remarks on the evanescence of the self as prelude to the emergence of the real as seriously as I do, that a musician who habitually talks of his work in abnegatory terms — of others rather than himself, of listening instead of playing, effacement rather than expansion, even of drummers "so good they're bassists and I don't even have to play" — should, more than any other bassist playing today and probably more than any bassist since Mingus, determine the coloration of any band he plays with. Add him to or subtract him from any band you can convince to play in your mind: he has learned to make an unforgettable mark.
His plans for the future include Japanese and American tours for the New York edition of the Liberation Music Orchestra (Haden also intends to incorporate new material into its repertoire), tours and an album with Old and New Dreams, a solo bass album for ECM based on folk tunes collected by his mother, possibly another album for solo bass and string orchestra, a project with Herbie Hancock, a trio album with Pat Metheny and Billy Higgins already in the can at ECM, and something/anything with Ornette Coleman, with whom Haden plays when he's in New York and who tells Haden he's ready to do something any time. Currently Haden is living in Los Angeles to be near his kids and teaching jazz improvisation at Cal Arts [the California Institute of the Arts]. When his children are older, he expects to move back to New York to be closer to the music.
Whatever he does, I expect to be there listening, and I expect it to be as important to me as it's been until now. As usual, it's a damn shame that jazz is such a minority music, because what Haden's got to say is or use to anyone out there trying to learn what is to be human. He is one of those artists through whom the brilliance of the universe is made more articulate and manifest, and this is a liberation from which others necessarily follow.
Keep on the sunny side of life, Charlie. Keep on the sunny side of life.”