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Music Charlie Haden, Bass

Illustration by Loren Long

No other instrument in jazz is more essential than the bass, both backbone and heartbeat, and Haden is its master

by Francis Davis

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

A 1999 issue of the magazine Jazziz featured on its cover a photograph of Charlie Haden, cropped so that the fingerboard and tuning pegs and scroll of his string bass occupied center page, and only the left side of Haden's face, the fingers of his left hand, and his left shoulder were visible. Haden was one of the sidemen with whom the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman turned jazz upside down at the end of the 1950s. He was a member of the Coleman-alumni band Old and New Dreams from its formation, in 1976 (by which point Coleman himself was playing an idiosyncratic brand of funk, in an amplified setting), until its demise, a few years ago. Whenever Coleman returns to an acoustic context, Haden is still the bass player he is likely to call.

Discuss this article in the Arts & Culture conference of Post & Riposte.

More on arts and culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Ornette's Permanent Revolution," by Francis Davis (September 1985)
"All hell broke loose when the alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman made his East Coast nightclub debut, at the Five Spot Cafe, in Greenwich Village, on November 17, 1959."

"Ornette Coleman and the Circle with a Hole in the Middle," by Robert Palmer (December 1972)
"Ornette's sparkling green tunic creases and his brow knits as he arches over the pool table. He lives in a world of clear, endlessly permutating images, of global musics, folk and classical and jazz, that interpenetrate."

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "Jazz in the '90s -- BeBop and Beyond?" (July 1996)
Francis Davis, who has been writing on jazz for The Atlantic Monthly since 1984, looks around at the much-touted jazz revival of the 1990s, with its crop of fresh young faces, and wonders what went wrong.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Charlie Haden Homepage
Charlie Haden's Web site, offering a discography, information about Haden's current projects, a biography, lists of awards and achievements, a performance schedule, and booking information. Posted at InterJazz, a site that hosts pages for musicians.

Charlie Haden
A biography of the artist with links to biographies of his contemporaries.

Charlie Haden Audio Clips
Audio samples from each of Haden's albums from 1969 to 1999. Posted by SonicNet.

Liberation Music Orchestra
The album's liner notes, written by Charlie Haden in May, 1969.

But Haden also enjoys a sovereign identity as the leader of two ensembles as different from each other as they are from Coleman's or anyone else's: the Liberation Music Orchestra, for which Haden and the arranger Carla Bley have written music in solidarity with revolutionary movements, often using actual field recordings as a springboard; and the in-search-of-lost-time Quartet West, whose evocations of film noir and the detective fiction and torch songs of the 1940s and early 1950s heighten nostalgia into the most powerful of emotions.

Haden might have taken offense at being crowded off the magazine's cover. Yet the unusual angle actually captured him better than a smiling head shot would have. No other bass player since Charles Mingus has seemed so thoroughly joined to the instrument. Mingus, who had a beat like a wrecking ball and a temperament to match, bent the bass to his will, but Haden has bent his will to the instrument's. (Mingus, who was bad with names, used to call him "Bass," which Haden took as an honorific.)

Like the saxophone, though older by some 300 years (a prototype has been traced to the mid sixteenth century), the double bass -- or contrabass, or bass violin -- has become more closely identified with jazz than with the symphonic literature for which it was intended. In classical music the string bass is usually limited to shadowing the cellos at the bottom of the octave or to delivering, in more recent compositions, a series of arrhythmic pizzicato thumps to signal that a piece is atonal or otherwise "modern."

In jazz no other instrument is more essential. A common misconception about jazz is that drummers keep time, like conductors with two sticks instead of one. Drummers do control tempo, which is quite a different matter from time, and they supply color and momentum with their accents and punctuations. But the job of actually keeping a beat (or implying one, as the case may be) ordinarily falls to a group's string-bass player, and the group isn't going to swing unless his notes suggest a heartbeat rather than a metronome. The "walking" bass line -- four equal beats to the measure in steplike motion, as perfected by Walter Page, with the Count Basie Orchestra, in the late 1930s -- has become a trademark of modern jazz, what people tap a foot to when they think they're tapping to the drums.

A bass line of whatever sort -- walking in time or running free of it -- serves a second vital purpose in jazz. Since the 1930s, and especially since bebop in the late 1940s, much jazz improvisation has been guided, though not necessarily dictated, by harmonic progressions or chord changes. Spelling out the chords is the bass player's other responsibility, and his choice of notes and accuracy of pitch are thus as important to a band's well-being as his ability to lay down a flowing beat. The bass line is the thread that connects improvised solos to an underlying harmonic framework -- a backbone as well as a heartbeat.

Bebop relieved drummers and pianists of regular timekeeping -- but only because bass players continued to tend the beat, their job becoming more demanding than ever because of bebop's great harmonic complexity. The first radical departure after bebop was free jazz, a movement that became recognizable in the late fall of 1959, with the arrival in New York of the Ornette Coleman Quartet for a highly publicized extended engagement at a club called the Five Spot. Coleman frequently dispensed with chord changes and regular meter. If this sounds like a ticket to the races for a bass player, quite the opposite was true: harmony still mattered in Coleman's music, and a good beat mattered more than ever, even though it might not always have been where the foot expected it to be. Fortunately for Coleman -- and for jazz as it has evolved in the forty years since -- he found in Haden a bass player who sensed that the only thing worse than falling back on the old rules would be to assume that all rules were out.

"With Ornette, there was no piano, but I became the piano," Haden told me last fall, over a leisurely breakfast in the dining room of his New York hotel. "I had to learn right away how to improvise behind Ornette, which not only meant following him from one key to another and recognizing the different keys, but modulating in a way that the keys flowed in and out of each other and the new harmonies sounded right. I really welcomed the challenge, because it meant using my ear, like when I was singing country music with my family on the radio as a child in the Midwest, and I had to know all the harmony parts -- mine and everybody else's -- if we were going to blend. There was no such thing as 'I don't know them.' You had to know them."

HADEN'S background is an unusual one for a jazz musician. In the late 1930s the Hadens were a country-music act like their friends the Carter Family, but famous only within reach of the 50,000-watt radio station in Shenandoah, Iowa, that carried their live broadcasts twice daily. The family made personal appearances at revival meetings and county fairs, but they were hardly in show business. "We'd wake up at four a.m., milk the cows, and then do the show," Haden recalled, describing the family's daily routine after starting a farm near Springfield, Missouri, and beginning a program for a station there. "The station put all the equipment we needed in our living room," he told me. "You'd ring the studio, they'd ring back, and we'd be on the air."

According to a family legend, Charlie, the youngest of the four Haden children, was musical practically from the cradle. He made his debut on the program in 1939, when he was twenty-two months old, after his mother heard him humming along with her lullabies and trying to harmonize with his sister and brothers as they practiced their hymns and folk songs for the radio.

Haden remained on the program until he was fifteen, when he contracted polio, which weakened nerves in his face and throat and put an end to his singing career. (Even today there are people who know nothing of his place in jazz but for whom his name as a child who once sang on the radio rings a bell.) By 1955 he was already the house bass player on Ozark Jubilee, a network television show produced in Springfield and hosted by the singer Red Foley. Musicians frequently choose instruments similar in character to their speaking voices, but Haden speaks in a light, melodic tenor with sudden increases in vibrato that one writer has attributed to the polio.

The bass violin comes in various sizes, the most common ones being three-quarters and seven-eighths (of full size); Haden has one of each, and the larger of the two -- one of a small number of basses made in the mid nineteenth century by a French luthier named Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume -- is his prize possession. He plays it only at recording sessions and jobs close to home, for fear of damaging it in transit. "Vuillaume was one of the only luthiers elsewhere in Europe to come close to the Italian varnish," he explained. "The varnish, that's the secret, along with the wood and the artistry of the instrument maker."

Bass players themselves tend to come in two sizes: tall and lean, with long arms that entwine the instrument; or built close to the ground, with enough heft in their sound to make up for what they might lack in reach. Haden is exceptional for being of average height and weight. (He lost twenty pounds following the removal of his gall bladder, in 1998.) Unassuming despite his designer eyeglasses and stylishly short hair and dark clothing, he has the look of an intense man whom middle age has gradually persuaded to relax.

Over breakfast Haden, who lives in Santa Monica, California, with his wife, the singer Ruth Cameron, talked about suffering from tinnitus (a persistent ringing in both ears, which he attributes to having played an especially tumultuous version of free jazz with the tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp and the trombonist Roswell Rudd in the late 1960s) and hyperacousis (extreme sensitivity to loud noises), a condition that obliges him to position himself behind Plexiglas baffles when playing with a drummer. He talked about starting the jazz studies program at the California Institute of the Arts in 1982, where his students have included such up-and-coming musicians as the tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, the trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and the bass player Scott Colley. He spoke with pride about his four children, three of whom have made a splash in pop music: his son, Josh, with the group Spain, and his daughters Rachel and Petra, with the group That Dog.

Our conversation kept returning to Haden's childhood. To hear Haden reminisce, one might think that his choice of instrument was determined by a boyhood crush on one of the Carter sisters and by a rivalry with his late brother, Jim, an avid bebop fan who also became a professional bass player. But what really seems to have drawn Haden to the instrument, to judge from what he told me, was his keen ear for harmony and his fascination with the bass voice. "I used to listen to a lot of Bach on the radio," he said, "and when the basses started to sing, it made everything complete -- it made it all make sense."

Haden's grandmother used to tell him she saw Wild Bill Hickok shoot a man for stealing his watch. Though not nearly as colorful, Haden's own story of first laying eyes on Ornette Coleman, in a Los Angeles nightclub in 1957, also has the air of legend. "I think Gerry Mulligan was playing at the Haig, and it was my night off from my gig at the Hillcrest with Paul Bley, so I went over there," Haden told me. "The place was packed, and this guy with long hair like nobody wore it in those days asked if he could sit in. He took out this plastic alto saxophone and started playing, and the whole room lit up for me. But as soon as he started to play, they made him stop. He put his horn back in his case and left. I tried to run after him through the mob of people, but when I got to the door, he had disappeared."

Some musicians were leery of Coleman even before hearing him play that plastic saxophone, which must have looked like a toy compared with the metal ones they were used to. But Haden was from the Ozarks, where nobody thought it particularly odd for a left-hander like Haden's father to play guitar wrong side up, or for Haden's grandfather to play a fiddle while holding it against his chest.

Asking around, Haden learned Coleman's identity from the drummer Lennie McBrowne, a fellow member of Bley's band at the Hillcrest. McBrowne brought Coleman to the club. "Ornette was sitting at one of the tables, and I told him I had heard him the other night and how beautiful I thought he sounded. He thanked me and said that not many people told him that, and asked if I wanted to hang out and play. We went to this little room he had. He had just broken up with his wife, and there was music all over the place, all over the dressers and all over the floor. He picked some music off the floor and said, 'Let's play this.' He said, 'There are changes underneath the melody that I was hearing when I wrote this, but you should listen to what I'm doing and make up your own.' I was scared to death that I wouldn't play right, but he loved what I was doing and we played all day. Then we took a break for some hamburgers and went back to his place and played all night."

Coleman and an acolyte, Don Cherry, wound up joining Haden in Bley's band at the Hillcrest, which was a musician's hangout. Bley, a pianist whose approach was experimental to begin with, once joked that you could tell when the band was playing a set, because most of the audience would be standing around outside waiting for it to end. This negative response puzzled Haden: "Only the improvisations were new. Ornette's tunes, and our arrangements of them, were so precise they stopped on a dime. It was amazing to me that more musicians didn't respond to this immediately." Artists in other disciplines did, however. When Coleman opened at the Five Spot with Haden, Cherry, and the drummer Billy Higgins, "it was packed every night, not just with musicians trying to figure it out, like in L.A., but with painters and writers and poets." On any given night the audience might include Willem de Kooning or Larry Rivers.

Around this time Haden began playing with his eyes shut, a habit he says helps him to rid his mind of passing thoughts and concentrate on the music -- although his original reason was that he was intimidated by looking out and seeing "every great bass player in New York, including Mingus, Percy Heath, Wilbur Ware, Paul Chambers, and Henry Grimes, staring me right in the face." Once, he opened his eyes and there was Leonard Bernstein, practically on the bandstand, his ear an inch away from Haden's bass. Bernstein was astute: he sensed that contrary to what people were saying, Coleman's music was not atonal or even bitonal. He knew where to listen for its tonal center.

In New York in the late 1960s Haden was sometimes the only white musician on the bandstand, as the avant-garde movement that had been given impetus by Coleman at the Five Spot became increasingly identified with black separatism. Amid much militant rhetoric and posturing before sympathetic mixed audiences, Haden was practically alone in voicing his political beliefs within earshot of authorities who could punish him. During a tour of Europe with Coleman in 1971 he was detained by the police at the Lisbon airport and questioned for more than five hours about having dedicated -- before an audience of 10,000 people -- a performance of "Song for Ché" to independence movements in the Portuguese colonies of Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea. (Jazz critics in Portugal regard him as something of a folk hero to this day.) One suspects that Haden's politics are more intuitive than ideological, born out of an identification with the underdog that began when he saw the raw deal given tenant farmers -- black and white alike -- in the country near Springfield. He told me about the connection he sees between country music and jazz: "One is the music of poor whites, and the other grew out of black slaves' struggle for freedom." In addition to his song for Guevara, Haden's four Liberation Music Orchestra albums have included numbers written by him in tribute to, or adopted from folk songs associated with, the Chilean resistance, the Salvadoran rebels, the African National Congress, and the volunteers who fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

Yet the mood of these albums has been jubilant and lyrical rather than strident. The first LMO album was historically significant for bringing the most daring improvisational aspects of free jazz into an orchestral framework at a time when the new style was thought to be suitable only for small groups. Haden is fond of pointing out that each of the orchestra's albums was recorded during a Republican Administration. Owing to the staggering costs of maintaining a big band, the LMO has been on hold since 1992, and Haden doesn't know whether he will reconvene the band for another album anytime soon. "If Bush gets elected, I'll have to," he said, not wholly joking.


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

Francis Davis is a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is at work on a biography of John Coltrane.

Illustration by Loren Long.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; August 2000; Charlie Haden, Bass - 00.08; Volume 286, No. 2; page 78-83.