Charlie Haden, 1937-2014

July 11, 2014
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Charlie Haden (August 6, 1937 — July 11, 2014) holds a special place in the pantheon of jazz bassists. Early in his career, he pioneered a new style of jazz, playing alongside alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Anchored by Haden’s folk-influenced, melodic bass lines The Shape of Jazz to Come [Ornette Coleman, Atlantic, 1959] defined the modern jazz sound of the day.   

Charles Edward Haden hailed from Shenandoah, Iowa. Born into a family of musicians, Haden made regular appearances on a popular radio show as a child singing sensation with the family band. Cowboy Charlie, as he was called, was known for his country-tinged yodeling.

After taking up the bass, Haden played on a network TV show called Ozark Jubilee. He often sang and played bass until he contracted polio at age 15, at which point he lost his ability to sing. Haden attributes his move into the jazz world to Charlie Parker, whom he heard in 1951.

Haden’s initial success with Coleman was interrupted in the early ‘60s due to narcotics addiction. After undergoing treatment, he freelanced in Los Angeles from the mid-‘60s through the early ‘70s with top names like John Handy, Tony Scott, and Denny Zeitlin. He joined forces with Keith Jarrett from ’67-’76, performing on genre-defining albums like Somewhere Before [Atlantic, 1968], Fort Yawuh [Impulse!, 1973], and Death and the Flower [Impulse!, 1974].

In 1969, Haden formed his own band, The Liberation Music Orchestra. The large-group format suited Haden’s concept of a democratic musical experience. Haden’s strong political and philosophical ideals were central to the band’s music. Haden described jazz as “the music of rebellion,” and The Liberation Orchestra delivered its political message by using the language of music.

Haden led or co-led several small groups, including Old and New Dreams [Old and New Dreams, ECM, 1979] and Quartet West [In Angel City, Verve, 1988]. Two of this writer’s favorite Haden sides are unusual groupings. PopPop [Geffen, 1991] with singer Rickie Lee Jones is a beautiful lesson in accompaniment, restraint, and the power of a bass line to frame a song. “The Ballad Of The Sad Young Men” still gives me chills every time I listen. Alone Together [Blue Note, 1996], with saxophonist Lee Konitz and pianist Brad Mehldau is a sublimely sophisticated grouping of three master musicians.

Haden’s most recent recording pairs him in a duo setting with Jarrett [Last Dance, ECM, 2014]. A posthumous release is scheduled with guitarist Jim Hall, who passed away last year.

Over the course of his career, Haden received many honors, including three Grammy Awards, a Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award, an NEA Jazz Master Award, the International Society of Bassists Special Recognition Award, and a Bass Player  Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1982, he founded the CalArts jazz program, and touched countless students with his wisdom and passion. Haden is loved for his warm tone and simple, lyrical style. He will always be remembered as a giant among bassists.

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