Courtesy of Charlie Haden



Courtesy of Charlie Haden


Having been the bassist for Ornette Coleman's monumental quartet with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins and its reincarnate, Old and New Dreams, I have been concerned of late as to why Haden's adventuresome alter ego had been dormant for so long. Haden, these days, has his hands full with his duo collaborations with Hank Jones, Kenny Barron, or Pat Metheny and working with his Quartet West. Haden spoke with me from his home about his days with Ornette, the roots behind his Liberation Music Orchestra, and the passing of Billy Higgins, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

CHARLIE HADEN: I was in music from the time I was two years old. My family was, my mother and father were on the Grand Ole Opry before I was born and when I was born, I was added to the family band. We played on radio stations all over the Mid-West and the South until I was fifteen. I did a radio show every day of my life so I was exposed to a lot of great country musicians and knew The Carter Family and Roy Acuff and the Delmore Brothers and my father knew Hank Williams and Jimmy Rogers and all these great musicians. So that was my early childhood learning experience as far as music was concerned.

FJ: How do you go from country to jazz?

CHARLIE HADEN: Well, when I was in high school, I heard jazz and really loved it and I went to the Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Omaha, Nebraska when I was fourteen and I heard Charlie Parker. And that kind of did it for me. That's what I wanted to do and that's what I thought about from that time on. I just thought about playing this music. I still do.

FJ: What was it about Bird?

CHARLIE HADEN: The way he played beautiful notes. He had beautiful harmonies and beautiful melodies. He played these great intervals that opened up a whole harmonic world for me. That's why I loved his music.

FJ: Oddly, you gravitated towards a saxophone player and you're a bassist.

CHARLIE HADEN: Yes, because the bass always, one of my brothers, who was five years older than I, played bass on our show and when he stopped playing, everything kind of fell out like it made everything deeper. It made everything more full and I just loved the sound of the instrument and I was really drawn toward the instrument. I was mostly listening to horn players and piano players. I loved Bud Powell and Art Tatum. I loved Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton. There was one pianist that I loved. His name was Hampton Hawes. I used to listen to his records when I was in high school and one of the reasons why I turned down a scholarship to Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio and didn't go to New York. I went instead to L.A., was to find Hampton Hawes because he was a hero and I found him and played music with him.

FJ: And you are still a resident of Los Angeles.

CHARLIE HADEN: Yeah, I was in L.A. from 1956 to 1959 and I went to New York with Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry and Billy Higgins and I lived after that in New York for twenty years and I loved back to L.A. in '79.

FJ: What was your initial impression of Ornette?

CHARLIE HADEN: I met Ornette, one night I had a night off. I was working at a club called the Hillcrest with Paul Bley and we had Monday nights off and I went to a club in L.A. called the Haig and Gerry Mulligan was playing there with Chet Baker. The place was filled with people and there was a musician who came up on stage and asked them if he could play, could sit in and they said, "Yes," and he took out a plastic alto and started playing. The whole room lit up for me because I had never heard any kind of improvising like that before. I had always heard a different way of improvising when I would be at jam sessions. I was improvising on creating a new chord structure when you play instead of improvising on the chord structure of the song. I wasn't able to do that very much because other musicians didn't like it, but Ornette, when he started to play, that's what he did. As soon as he started to play, they asked him to stop playing. He put his horn away and started out the back door and I ran to try and catch him, but there were so many people at this club that I couldn't get there. And I found out who he was because the drummer on my gig knew him and he said that he would invite him to the Hillcrest and he invited him there and we were introduced and I told him how much I loved his playing and he thanked me and said that he didn't hear that very often and he said if I would like to come over to his house and play after I got off work. We went to his apartment and we played all night and all day and the next day. I could finally feel that I had permission to be playing what I was hearing and then the next thing that happened was that we started rehearsing over at Don Cherry's with Billy Higgins and Don Cherry and then we made the first two albums, The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century and then we went to New York.

FJ: Outside of yourself, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins, what was the reception to Ornette?

CHARLIE HADEN: It was negative. The first club that we played was the Hillcrest in L.A. and the club owner saw business falling off and we were fired. There were a few musicians that liked what we were doing, but mostly people didn't understand. They were letting their preconceived concept of what improvised music is supposed to be get in their way of really listening to the music with an open mind and appreciating it for what it was. And then when we went to New York, we had the same problem except that the club in New York that we played out was the Five Spot on 3rd Avenue and 4th Street in the Bowery and the place was packed every night. I think we were there several months. It was packed every night with lines around the corner. It created quite a, our music created quite a controversy in the musical world in New York and it was filled with musicians and painters and poets and writers and classical people and critics. All the critics were putting us down. Now, they see that the music that we were playing was very, very accessible and very melodic and very beautiful. I think some of the people that put us down regret having had done that.

FJ: With the recent passing of Billy Higgins, jazz has lost a venerable voice and beloved spirit.

CHARLIE HADEN: It was hard. He was a very close friend. Ruth and I, my wife, went to his funeral. It was very hard for me and he was a wonderful human being and he loved everybody and he played like no other person that I've ever played with. He played with the musical ears, listening to everything that was going on and he made everything sound better and I'm really going to miss him.

FJ: What will you miss most?

CHARLIE HADEN: Well, I will miss his musicianship and his musical contribution, but even along with that, I will miss his positive attitude and his happy go lucky attitude. He really enjoyed playing. He really had fun in an art form that can sometimes be very difficult because it's very complex and he just made everybody feel good around him wherever he went. And the same holds true when he was performing. Everybody on the stage took on his happiness, which is really good.

FJ: What was the impetus behind the Liberation Music Orchestra?

CHARLIE HADEN: I just wanted to voice my concerns about what was going on in Vietnam. I called Carla Bley and told her and I had some music from the Spanish Civil War and we both composed some music and made the first album and every album since then has been recorded under a Republican administration. The first one under Nixon, the next one under Reagan and the next one under Bush and now that Bush's son has been elected, I will probably have to do another one.

FJ: What were your objections to the Vietnam War?

CHARLIE HADEN: That the United States was involved at all. They shouldn't have been involved. They should have allowed Vietnam to settle its own problems and there were a lot of lives, American soldiers killed in that war. A lot of people in the United States were very upset about the United States' involvement in that war and there were demonstrations all over the country and a lot of people were arrested because of the way they felt about the war. It became almost like if you were against the war in Vietnam, you were labeled a left wing and it really wasn't about politics at all. It was about humanity as far as I was concerned and aggression. That's why I wanted to try and just voice my concerns about what was going on. I'm not a politician, but I can communicate in my music, which I'm very happy about and that's what I tried to do.

FJ: I had a conversation with Sonny Rollins and he had commented on the backlash he thought he would receive from the public for communicating political trepidations via music as he had done on The Freedom Suite. Were you concerned that the public may perceive the Liberation Music Orchestra as being smug?

CHARLIE HADEN: No, I wasn't really telling anybody what to think. I was just playing what I thought and if people wanted to hear it, great. If they didn't, they didn't have to listen to it.

FJ: As you alluded to the initial stimulus behind the origins of the Liberation Music Orchestra was your objection to the Vietnam War, what would be your concern to do another edition behind George W.'s administration?

CHARLIE HADEN: Well, he's completely reversing almost everything that Clinton, the good things that Clinton did. I really have a great fear of the direction that he's going, which I knew is what he was going to do and all the people who were advising him were in his father's administration. I don't really think he won the election anyway. I don't think he should be president. But since he kind of forced his way into the thing with the help of the CIA and his father and the Supreme Court, we're stuck with him. It's very frightening what he's doing. He's going to be putting really conservative right wing judges on the Supreme Court that are going to contribute to what the Supreme Court does in the years ahead, which is very frightening. He's trying to put prayer back into the schools. He's trying to overturn Roe vs. Wade. He's trying to do everything he can to mess the environment up. He's overturned all of the environmental policies that the Clinton administration had in place, which is going to increase the possibility of global warming. It's all about money with Republicans, Fred. It's all about power and money and oil and making a lot of money. Chaney's worth probably a billion dollars and all the people in Bush's cabinet and his advisors are very treacherous people. I'm very disappointed that Democrats aren't speaking out more about what he's doing.

FJ: Politicians, Democrat and Republican alike are attracted to speaking out as moths to flame, why are they keeping silent now?

CHARLIE HADEN: I think they're afraid you know and the only people that don't seem to be afraid as far as Democrats are concerned are African-American Democrats. They're all speaking out. But I hope that the American people see what he's doing and will go to the polls in 2002 and bring in some Senators and Representatives that are in the Democratic Party and get Congress the way it should be and that way, at least we'll have more of a chance and then when the next presidential election comes up maybe there will be a Democratic president. I hope.

FJ: Let's touch on the development of the Quartet West.

CHARLIE HADEN: Oh, yeah, that is my favorite band. Ernie Watts, Alan Broadbent, and Lawrence Marable are three of my favorite musicians and the more that we stay together, the better they play and there aren't very many bands that stay together for as long as we've been together with maybe a few exceptions like the Modern Jazz Quartet. It's really good to see a band stay together like that with the same personnel. Almost every band in jazz changes personnel every week. It is a very special band with a very special sound and we've made six or seven recordings and most of them have been nominated for Grammys. We've won all kinds of awards and I couldn't ever think of disbanding this quartet, no.

FJ: Does the Quartet West fulfill your lyrical needs?

CHARLIE HADEN: My lyrical side comes out in all the music that I play. Music is about beautiful melodies to me and I try to play the most beautiful melodies that I can play, every time I play it, whether it's with Ornette or whether it's with the Liberation Orchestra or whether it's with Quartet West.

FJ: On your last recording for Verve, The Art of Song, you featured vocalist Shirley Horn. It makes it easier to do what amounts to your first vocal recording when you have a Ms. Horn.

CHARLIE HADEN: Yeah, it was nice to have, I mean, I've always wanted to do something with Shirley Horn. I finally had a chance to do it and I've always wanted to do something with Bill Henderson. I had all these great songs that I wanted them to sing and Alan Broadbent wrote these beautiful arrangements and we did it.

FJ: Your latest, Nocturne, has you in the company of Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whom you have worked with before, but for this session, he has a more involved role, co-producing the album with you.

CHARLIE HADEN: Well, he also loves beautiful melodies and beautiful songs and chords and he is just a really great musician and composer and we've been close friends for many years and over the years, we've recorded with a lot of different people and I'm really happy that he was with me to play on my recording and he really devoted a lot of love and energy to this recording and there was a lot inspiration. One of my goals is to inspire musicians to play better than they've ever played. I try to find music that's going to make that happen.

FJ: Have you ever fallen short of that goal?

CHARLIE HADEN: No, well, there is a lot of things that I do that I wish I could do better, Fred. That's always in my mind.

FJ: Such as?

CHARLIE HADEN: Everything. I wish I could be a better person. I wish I could be a better musician. I wish I could be a better composer. Everything, but it is a lot of hard work.

FJ: A more immediate aspiration?

CHARLIE HADEN: Is to be close to spirituality and to be kind to everyone and to be giving to everyone and to try and strive to be on the level spiritually that when I'm in the other parts of my life that I'm on when I'm playing. That's the goal, that the level that you achieve when you're playing when you're creating music is another kind of level. It's a higher level and I always strive to be at that level when I'm not playing, which is very, very difficult.

FJ: You teach classes at Cal Arts. As a person who has come from such a diverse musical background, do you place limitations on your students?

CHARLIE HADEN: Well, I just tell them that when they come into my classroom, they are no longer jazz musicians. They're just musicians because if they have a mindset that they're a jazz musician, they start thinking about jazz, premeditated conditioning about what a jazz musician is and what they should play and I want them to be completely open-minded and not think in any categories.

FJ: Although I enjoy your work with Quartet West, I am always yearn for your return to the days of Ornette Coleman or Old and New Dreams.

CHARLIE HADEN: Well, the only people who are left in Old and New Dreams are me and Dewey Redman, but a lot of people come up to me and say that they really love Quartet West and to keep the band together and that they love the Liberation Music Orchestra. Some people come up to me and ask when I will do another album with Hank Jones or when I will do another duet with Kenny Barron. I think that requests are what keeps the music alive, people that care about the music and want to hear it in different contexts.

Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and can't believe people pay for water. Email Him.