Charlie Haden: Wayfaring Stranger - BassPlayer.com

Charlie Haden: Wayfaring Stranger

The sound of a string orchestra blossoms, ascending to a melody that floats, suspended in time. The wayfarer’s path starts on a poignant Bb major sound.
Publish date:

The sound of a string orchestra blossoms, ascending to a melody that floats, suspended in time. The wayfarer’s path starts on a poignant Bb major sound. Strings begin a slow, aching journey, wandering through harmony that becomes progressively darker. The orchestra settles on an ominous D minor. Charlie Haden sings,

I am a poor wayfaring stranger . . .”

A low pedal tone broods like the dark thoughts of a wayfarer, lost in an unending valley.

“. . . a-wanderin’ through this world of woe . . .”

The low D pedal remains while strings sway through searing recollections of things the wayfarer has witnessed on his journey.

And there’s no sickness, toil, or danger / In that bright world to which I go . . .”

The strings swell out of the shadows. The wayfaring stranger steps into the light.

“I’m going home to see my father . . .”

On the word “home,” a single, beautifully placed pizzicato bass note—a Bb on the G string—rings out, changing the wayfarer’s world to a place of promise.

“I’m going there no more to roam / I’m only going over Jordan / I’m only going over home.”

A solo cello punctuates the story, climbing from the depths toward a beacon in the sky. Haden sings about life—and death. His path had taken him around the world, through bright moments and gloomy times.

Charles Edward “Charlie” Haden passed away on July 11, 2014, at the age of 76. He will be remembered as a singular, defining voice in the world of modern bass playing.

The Style

“He’s a musician you can identify within a couple of notes. I think that’s Charlie singing through his instrument,” says pianist Alan Broadbent, who played with Haden in Quartet West. The scope of Haden’s discography—including Art of the Song [Polygram, 1999], with “Wayfaring Stranger”—runs from legendary free-jazz sessions to straightahead jazz, with stops in the world of country and folk music. His playing complemented every ensemble, ensuring his legacy as one of the most recognizable-sounding double bassists in jazz history.

Bassist Scott Colley says, “The primary aspect of Charlie’s music has always centered on his sound and how that sound relates to the musical context. His fundamental sound is rooted in the folk and gospel beginnings that he grew up with in Missouri. That sound and musical upbringing is the common thread that connects his entire life, and I can hear it in every musical context he chose.”

Ozark Jubilee

In the early ’40s, Charlie’s parents, Carl and Mary Jane Haden, had a radio show at KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa. The show featured all members of their family, singing and playing folk and country music. After they moved to a farm in Springfield in 1942, the Haden family began recording two shows a day from their living room for the radio station KWTO. Carl would welcome listeners, saying “Howdy, howdy everybody everywhere.” Then he’d introduce the “two-year-old yodelin’ cowboy, Charles Edward—Little Charlie.” Haden began as a singer, but was drawn to the double bass at an early age. His singing abilities were compromised after he contracted polio at age 14, so he focused on the double bass.

Charlie Haden learned about the bass through his brother Jimmy, who played in the family band. Jimmy was five years older, and had a collection of jazz records. The complex harmonies of modern jazz were a stark contrast to the folk music his family played, and Charlie loved to listen to his brother’s jazz sides. His inquisitiveness grew into a quest to find a way out of rural Missouri, into the jazz world. The turning point in Haden’s life came when he heard Charlie Parker in person. Haden told Bass Player [June 2006], “I went to a concert in Omaha, Nebraska—Jazz at the Philharmonic with Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, and Oscar Peterson—and when I heard Bird play, that was it. It was unbelievable. He had beautiful harmonies and beautiful melodies. You hear the gamut of beauty in his playing.”

Haden became enamored with the playing of pianist Hampton Hawes, an L.A. bopper who often worked with bassist Red Mitchell. When he saw an ad for the Westlake College of Music in L.A., Haden decided to apply and make his move to the West Coast. He wanted to meet Hawes and break into the jazz scene. In 1956, Haden took a Greyhound bus from Springfield to L.A. in search of his piano hero.

The Westlake College of Music was one of the first schools in the nation to teach jazz, and Haden soon got gigs while attending school. One night, as he was doing his homework at Tiny Naylor’s 24-hour diner, he ran into Red Mitchell, who invited Haden to his house to jam. Mitchell eventually sent Haden to sub for him on a gig with alto saxophonist Art Pepper. The pianist on the gig turned out to be Hampton Hawes. Haden was on the scene now, and his career-defining moment was just around the corner.

The Shape Of Jazz To Come

Ornette Coleman was also breaking into the L.A. scene in the late ’50s, but he would not find his musical path until he hooked up with Haden in 1959. Without Coleman, there would have been no Charlie Haden. Without Haden, there would have been no Ornette Coleman.

Speaking about Coleman with Alyn Shipton in A New History of Jazz [Continuum, 2010], Haden said, “It was my night off from my regular gig, and I went to an after-hours jam session based around Gerry Mulligan’s band at a place called the Haig. The room was packed and you couldn’t even walk in there, but a man came up onstage, took out a plastic alto sax, and began to play. And the room lit up for me. I had never heard anything so brilliant, because I had gone to a lot of jam sessions and been hearing a way in which I could play without using chord structures, but staying on a certain part of the tune, or staying in a mode, or creating an entirely new structure.”

Every time Haden and Coleman played together, they strived to innovate. Jazz improvisation up until then was always based on the structure of a song form, but Haden and Coleman changed the established procedure. Their music was precise in ensemble sections, yet free and malleable in improvised parts. The chemistry of Haden and Coleman influenced the direction of jazz from that point on. Coleman’s albums The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, and This Is Our Music [all on Atlantic] are genre-defining works in the canon of modern music. Scott Colley, who later studied with Haden at CalArts, says, “It was immediately apparent to me that this was important and groundbreaking. In one year, 1959, they changed the course of music. They created an entirely new language at an important time in America. It was a strong statement—a declaration.”

Huge events happened in the jazz world in 1959: Kind of Blue [Miles Davis, Columbia], Time Out [Dave Brubeck, Columbia], Giant Steps [John Coltrane, Atlantic], and Mingus Ah Um [Charles Mingus, Columbia] were just a few of the top albums. Haden and Coleman, along with drummer Billy Higgins and trumpeter Don Cherry, played with their own set of rules. Says Colley, “They were creating music that no one had heard before. They knew they were creating something totally different—a new language for a new time.”

The L.A. jazz scene overflowed with bass talent in the ’50s. In addition to established players like Red Mitchell, there was one particular young bassist with whom Haden struck up a friendship. Haden told Bass Player, “I recorded with Eric Dolphy on this album called Free Jazz with Ornette and Don Cherry, Freddy Hubbard, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, and my closest friend in life, Scott LaFaro, who used to share an apartment with me in L.A. before I moved to New York.” LaFaro’s playing style—fast, high, and technically daring—stood in contrast to Haden’s low, slow, earthy tones. The two friends were the ying and yang of the bass world.

In November 1959, the Ornette Coleman Quartet challenged the jazz establishment when they left the insulated L.A. scene and took up residency at the Five Spot in New York City—the proving ground for everything that was mainstream. In a 1972 issue of The Atlantic, critic Robert Palmer wrote, “The Ornette Coleman Quartet that debuted in New York at the old Five Spot, in the fall of 1959, approached the void and, at times, tumbled into it. The listeners that first night included Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller, Nesuhi and Ahmet Ertegun, John Hammond, and almost every musician in town. Some heard formlessness and chaos, others a sound that would radically alter the course of jazz and inform the work of a generation of musicians to come.”

Charles Mingus was the top badass, bass-playing, genre-stretching freewheeling- jazzer at that point, but the hierarchy of the jazz scene shifted with the Coleman Quartet gig at the Five Spot. Mingus was still on the cutting edge, but now there was a new game in town. Coleman, Cherry, Higgins, and Haden redefined the “modern” part of the phrase “modern jazz.”

Haden was forced to drop out of the music scene in 1960, plagued by drug addiction. Says Broadbent, “Charlie had a monkey on his back like nobody’s business. It was a terrible thing. It wasn’t his fault—it wasn’t anyone’s fault.” Haden eventually sought treatment at the Synanon House in California, and by 1964, he was clean. He worked through the mid ’60s with players like John Handy, Denny Zeitlin, and Archie Schepp, honing his playing skills and laying groundwork for new career paths. Haden was set to blossom as a bandleader, composer, and master collaborator.

Liberation Music Orchestra

The political landscape of the late ’60s greatly influenced Haden’s music. In 1969, Haden formed the Liberation Music Orchestra along with pianist Carla Bley. Their first album, Liberation Music Orchestra [Impulse, 1969], featured politically motivated songs, like “Song for Ché” and “We Shall Overcome.” The project announced the genesis of Haden-as-bandleader. “I was real concerned for a long time about what we were doing in Vietnam,” said Haden in Ashley Kahn’s The House That Trane Built [W.W. Norton & Co., 2013]. “That first album was conceived when Nixon bombed Cambodia. I called Carla Bley and said, ‘I want to do a record of political songs.’”

The Liberation Music Orchestra regrouped every decade or so, producing four classic albums in the small big-band format between ’69 and ’05. Each album highlighted spiritual and political undertones that painted Haden’s vision of social awareness. Says Broadbent, “One thing people overlook is that Charlie was one of the great bandleaders. He knew how to bring people together. All of these various outlets he had for different styles of music, but it takes an enormous amount of energy to be a leader like that.”

Death & The Flower

Haden had a deep, intense musical relationship with pianist Keith Jarrett. Their first collaboration on record was Life Between the Exit Signs [Vortex, 1968], with drummer Paul Motian, followed by The Mourning of a Star [Atlantic, 1971]. In the early ’70s, Jarrett added saxophonist Dewey Redman to the mix, and the group produced a stunning collection of albums, including Fort Yawuh, Treasure Island, and Death and the Flower [all on Impulse]. Jarrett and Haden shared a common affinity for folkloric melodies and harmonies, combined with the openness of freeform jazz. When playing together, both musicians were completely attuned to each other, moving in a heartbeat from simple melodic statements to wildly intense, coloristic soundscapes. In Reto Caduff’s 2009 Haden documentary film Rambling Boy [available on Vimeo], Jarrett says, “I would say instead of playing in the chords, he was playing aside the chords. He was playing scalar lines that had everything to do with the changes, but were not inside the changes.”

In 2007, Haden and Jarrett recorded Jasmine [ECM], their first album together in almost 30 years. In contrast to the heady, testosteronefilled music of the ’70s Jarrett Quartet, here the two old masters play beautiful standards in a duo format.

When Haden solos, Jarrett is fully concentrated, offering a bare minimum of cushion. “There was one thing Charlie liked from the piano player when he soloed,” says Broadbent. “He wanted chords every two beats, whenever the chord changed, just in the middle register.” When Jarrett solos, Haden performs as the ultimate bass player, laying down roots, but also sparring and offering comments with his accompaniment.

Haunted Heart

In 1976, Haden organized Old And New Dreams, a collective with like-minded improvisers who could play both straightahead and free jazz. The group recorded four albums between ’76 and ’87. Don Cherry, saxophonist Dewey Redman, and drummer Ed Blackwell all had close ties to the music of Ornette Coleman. Quartet West proved to be Haden’s most regular project with a working band in the past 25 years. Alan Broadbent, along with drummer Laurence Marable and saxophonist Ernie Watts, formed the core of the group, which focused primarily on straightahead jazz standards. Says Broadbent, “Around 1986, he had just moved back to L.A. and was looking to get a West Coast group together. I had known Ernie Watts for many years, because we went to Berklee together. Charlie’s relationship with Laurence Marable went way back to New York.”

Haden’s work with Quartet West moved away from the experimental and free-jazz directions that he had explored in the previous decades with Coleman, Jarrett, and the Liberation Music Orchestra. Known as one of the strongest working jazz groups in recent times, Quartet West recorded eight albums and played countless tours, festivals, and club gigs. Says Broadbent, “I remember we’d be jet-lagged and just glad to get to bed. Charlie would stay up, trying to organize the band’s next gig, always working to keep his bands afloat. The way he took care of the guys— he was a real leader. No matter what happened, Charlie was there. He was a private person, but when it came to taking care of the band, he was always there.”

As Long As There’s Music

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 lived for his music, bands, projects, and the vision that drove him to create. While it’s impossible to give a complete history of Haden’s activities, a few musical associations stand out. Haden’s career was dotted with projects with everyone from Geri Allen [In the Year of the Dragon, JMT, 1989], to Ginger Baker [Going Back Home, Atlantic, 1994], to Michael Brecker [Don’t Try This at Home, Impulse!, 1988], to John McLaughlin [My Goal’s Beyond, Douglas, 1970], Carla Bley [Escalator Over the Hill, JCOA, 1971], and Hampton Hawes [As Long as There’s Music, Artist House, 1978]. “I remember very well the first time I heard Charlie Haden,” says pianist Ethan Iverson, who worked with Haden in recent years. “It was on Michael Hanson’s jazz radio show. Hanson played a couple of tracks off As Long as There’s Music, the duo with Hampton Hawes. I was too young to make much sense of these traditional yet experimental sounds, but it was clear there was a message in these sounds for me.”

In the Rambling Boy film, guitarist Pat Metheny says, “If you have a bass player who has the expansive potential that Charlie brings to each situation, it inspires you to start thinking about and therefore talking about—through your instrument— things that you hadn’t really considered before.” Says Iverson, “Many of Haden’s records—with Ornette, Keith, Paul, Liberation Orchestra, Metheny, Old And New Dreams—will always among my very favorite jazz records. All of that music only exists with one bassist: Charlie Haden.”

Haden will be remembered as an individualist. His technical skills were not spectacular, but his bass playing spoke volumes. He played from his heart and with all of his soul. Says Colley, “Throughout all these incredibly diverse musical situations, the sound and feeling of his early life come through in every note. One thing I think about every time I play music is what Charlie taught me: Do not make a sound unless you feel that what you play can enhance the silence.”


5 Must-Have Charlie Haden Albums


Ornette Coleman, The Shape of Jazz to Come [Atlantic, 1959]

Keith Jarrett, Fort Yahwuh [Impulse!, 1973]

Liberation Music Orchestra, Ballad of the Fallen [ECM, 1982]

Quartet West, Haunted Heart [Verve, 1991]

Michael Brecker, The Nearness of You: The Ballad Book [Verve, 2000]


CHARLIE HADEN’S GORGEOUS tone sounded like a human voice. He played simple melodies and bass lines, yet he organized the rhythms and articulations so each phrase lived on its own, sounding like a complete musical thought. Let’s look at three key ingredients in Haden’s playing style: straightahead walking lines, solos with mixed rhythms, and pedal tones.

Example 1 shows Haden in a traditional walking style, playing in duo with Keith Jarrett on the blues standard “Dance of the Infidels” [Last Dance, ECM, 2014]. Haden frequently plays repeated notes in his walking lines, and usually puts the root of every chord on beat one. When the harmony moves two chords per bar, Haden often chooses simply to repeat roots.

Example 2 shows Haden soloing on the ballad “My Old Flame,” also on Last Dance. When Haden steps into the solo spotlight, his rhythm floats and dances. Notice the triplets in bar 1, followed by a sextuplet in bar 2. Bar 3 shows Haden using five notes in the space of four (a quintuplet), followed by a triplet line. The pattern beginning on beat two of bar 4 is played in a double- time feel, using the notes of the F Mixolydian scale.

Example 3 shows Haden in freejazz mode with Don Cherry and John Coltrane [“The Blessing,” The Avant- Garde, Atlantic, 1960]. The groove anchored by Ed Blackwell is solid, but Haden uses double-stops to create counter-rhythms against the drummer’s 4/4 swing beat. Beginning on beat four of bar 1, Haden plays groups of three eighth-notes in a pattern that continues for five bars. The top note of the three-note phrases sounds like a melody, anchored by an open D pedal. The low D always lands on the second eighth-note of the three-note grouping, giving the line a forward motion and disguising the downbeat.


Charlie Haden played a ⅞-size bass made in the 1800s by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume, and in recent years, a ¾-size instrument made by Jean Auray in 1999. In the 19th century, Vuillaume was a top violin craftsmen in the fabled French town of Mirecourt. “It is interesting to me that Charlie played a Vuillaume,” says Auray. “It is a particularly beautiful instrument, in excellent condition. In his day, Vuillaume was considered not only an exceptional craftsman but also the most inventive maker.”

Haden wanted to travel less with the Vuillaume, so he commissioned Auray, who works near Lyon, France, to build a bass. Auray arranged to meet Haden and show him three different basses. “At first, Charlie was very distant. He played the three basses one after the other, for no longer than three minutes each, then looked up and said, ‘I want the sound of this bass with the shape of that bass.’” At that moment, a deep bond formed between the master player and master luthier.

Jean Auray “Charlie gave me no further instructions except that he wanted ivory tuners. The bass has a 41.3" string length; it’s smaller than his Vuillaume, and I think it offered greater ease of playing and a more dynamic response. When Charlie first met the bass, he said nothing. He played for 20 minutes nonstop and finally said, ‘Hey man, that’s not only my bass for Europe, that’s my bass!’ On the label, I wrote a special message for Charlie: ‘May this instrument be a friend to you and to music.’ I was deeply moved by his music, his commitment to different causes, his sensitivity, and his spirituality.”



Haden with his wife, Ruth Cameron, and children Charlie Haden had four children from his first marriage: triplet daughters Rachel, Petra, and Tanya, and son Josh. The siblings are featured with Charlie on the 2008 album Rambling Boy [Universal], playing a mix of traditional folk and country songs.

Josh Haden is known for his electric bass playing, and as founder of the group Spain. “You and I,” on Spain’s newest album, Sargent Place [Glitterhouse, 2014], features a bass–vocal duet between Josh and his father. When asked to offer a glimpse into one special element of his father’s legacy, Josh wrote:

“Aside from touring and recording, my father loved teaching. He founded the prestigious jazz studies program at CalArts in 1982, but the class he taught there was only peripherally concerned with reading and writing, arranging, or even composing. The class my dad taught was called ‘The Spirituality of Improvisation.”

“With regard to musicianship, he taught that it was much more important to be a great person first. He taught that if one strived to embody the qualities of human greatness in one’s personal life—humility, compassion, honesty, unconditional love for all life and for the universe—only then could one strive to be a great musician. Anyone could read or write music, or play music with the virtuosity that comes from years of practice. To learn how to match one’s listening to one’s playing, to discover how to perform or write music in one’s own voice—that was the goal. This knowledge was what he imparted to his students.” —Josh Haden



Charlie Haden, Rambling Boy [Universal, 2008]. Spain, Sargent Place [Glitterhouse Records, 2014].

Remembering Charlie Haden

As musicians, we learn from other players in different ways. When we figure out a bass line or solo that was played by another bassist, we learn on a practical, technical level. What notes did he or she play? How did they relate to the chord structure and rhythm? What fingerings? What righthand techniques?

We also learn on a deeper, emotional level just by listening and absorbing the feel of the music. Some players reach us more profoundly that way. There are bass players I admire on a purely technical level—they play things far beyond my abilities—but they don’t really inspire me. And then there are players whose touch and sound and musical intuition reach inside us in a way that goes far beyond technique. For me, the one bass player who did that the most consistently was Charlie Haden.

I first saw Charlie in person at a small club in Massachusetts, sometime in the 1980s, playing with a small group led by saxophonist Dewey Redman. I had heard him on records and admired his approach, but I didn’t really appreciate his entire concept until I saw him that night. Charlie got lost in the music—in the right way. He looked relaxed yet completely focused, with his head down and his eyes often closed. He absorbed what the other players were doing and found just the right notes and phrasing and sound to complement them. It was great bass playing—and great emotional communication.

In 1989, when I became the founding editor of Bass Player, Charlie was on my short list for interviews. I wanted to know more about his life and the roots of his style. Art Director Paul Haggard and I visited Charlie at his home in Malibu for a story that was published in the July/August 1991 issue. Paul snapped photos while Charlie and I talked. That day was—as I said in the “Groove Yard” column I later wrote about that issue—one of the high points of my time at BP. Charlie told me about his early life in the Ozarks, his family’s band, his discovery of jazz, and his move to L.A. He recounted a story about playing in Portugal with the Ornette Coleman Quartet, where he defied the fascist government by dedicating a song to the cause of freedom—which got him arrested and thrown out of the country.

It was typical Charlie; he always stood up for what he believed, quietly but firmly, whether it was in music or politics or the struggle for human rights. Or in bringing them together, as he did with the Liberation Music Orchestra.

I had the good fortune to speak with Charlie several more times. My August 1996 interview with him was my last BP cover story, and that was another unforgettable experience. Charlie had just finished recording Beyond the Missouri Sky with Pat Metheny, and he brought the raw tapes to the interview. “You’ve got to hear this, man,” he said. He turned on the music and sat there with his head down, eyes closed, in that same state of complete concentration that had struck me the first time I saw him play. I was transfixed, both by listening to the music and by watching Charlie listen to the music. It was hard to get back to the regular Q&A after sharing that with him, but somehow I managed. (And, by the way, I would add that album to John Goldsby’s list of must-have Charlie Haden recordings.)

I left the company that owned Bass Player in 1999 to take a job at Cornell University, which is where I saw Charlie for the last time. In September 2008, he came to the campus to participate in a panel discussion about tlhe artistic renaissance that transformed New York City’s SoHo neighborhood in the 1970s. In his usual soft-spoken, self-effacing way, he offered some great insights into that period and the creative interactions of the resident musicians, dancers, visual artists, and writers. After the event, I had a chance to chat with Charlie for a few minutes, and that turned out to be my last conversation with him.

Charlie is gone now, and I will never again be able to feel the inspiration from being in the same room with him, hearing him play or just listening to him talk about his life and the issues that matter to him. But I’ve still got his recordings, and I know that they will continue to remind me what a wonderful musician— what a wonderful humanbeing—Charlie Haden was. And they will always inspire me. —Jim Roberts


Charlie Haden: Grand Ole Opry Redux

ON MARCH 5, LEGENDARY JAZZ bassist Charlie Haden had a long awaited homecoming at Nashville’s legendary Grand Ole Opry, some 60 years after his family band last performed on the Ryman stage. As a child growing up in Missouri, many famous Nashville musicians would stop by and visit the Haden home while on tour, including Chet Atkins, Grady Martin, and Hank Garland, who advised Charlie to “head west and study jazz”. By his late teens, Haden was quickly becoming one of the preeminent bassists in jazz, establishing himself with free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman and going on to collaborate with a innumerable pillars of the art form. He’s also made his own compositional statements with groups like the Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West.