Remembering Charlie Haden—In His Own Words - The Culture Files Blog - Los Angeles magazine

Remembering Charlie Haden—In His Own Words

From pint-sized performer to free jazz pioneer, the groundbreaking bassist, who recently passed away, recounts the early days of his brilliant career

It's difficult to think of another jazz bassist who became his instrument like Charles Edward Haden. From his earliest days scuffling in the Los Angeles jazz clubs of the late 1950s to his final live performance at REDCAT last Christmas, Haden took his sweet time priming and tuning his gleaming Vuillaume bass to his liking and then melding with it. He would close his eyes, lower his head, and rest his cheek almost against its bridge, molding his body around its contours like a child in his mother's embrace. And when he played, he went deep, digging in with his thumb and forefinger to forge quivering, Zen-like moans. Watching him play was almost too personal. We were lucky enough that he allowed us to witness and hear these liberations almost until the end, which came last Friday morning in Los Angeles, the city where he made his bones. He was 76 years old.

It's remarkable that there hasn't been a comprehensive biography written about Haden, the most influential, most copied, and most universally admired jazz bassist of the last half-century. His work with the groundbreaking Ornette Coleman Quartet put him on the radar. The group, which debuted in 1959 at New York's Five Spot Cafe, played so free and loose, its challenge to the established order occasionally inspired violence. But the music had been forged in virtual isolation in Los Angeles.

At the time the band was, in the words of critic Robert Palmer, Coleman's "unemployed repertory company." Its music was largely shunned by audiences and fellow musicians. The players met in homes and garages while West Coast "cool" jazz, hard bop, and Latin jazz were the reigning fare in established jazz clubs.

Here is the story of Charlie Haden's evolution from hillbilly yodeler to fresh-faced jazz upstart, told in his own words.

"My family influenced me very deeply because my dad came from a musical background, from the hillbilly music part of it, and all that music came over from Scotland and Ireland and England in to the Appalachian Mountains and Ozark Mountains, where I was raised. I was very lucky to be born into that because it’s a big part of the creative culture that this country had, especially in the South and in the Midwest, where jazz comes from, and also where blues comes from... two art forms that are indigenous to this country that couldn’t have been born anywhere else."
Interview with Jon Liebman, For Bass Players Only, 9/5/11 

"My dad, Carl Haden, started out in radio work in 1932 on station KGBX in Springfield, Missouri, and he was a member of a musical team known as Carl and Ernest the Missouri Hillbillies... In 1935 at WLBF in Kansas City, Kansas, my mother [Virginia] joined him and they started their radio career together as Uncle Carl and Mary Jane, which turned into Uncle Carl Haden and the Haden Family."
Interview with Stuart Nicholson,, Sept/October 2008 

“As each child was born, we were added onto the Haden Family group.”
Interview with Jeff Kaliss, San Francisco Classical Voice, 5/31/13 

"Bluegrass is in my blood and in my ears. My Dad was friends with Hank Williams, the Carter Family, the Delmore Brothers, and all these early country people who were on the Grand Old Opry in Nashville and on the radio stations… Mother Maybelle Carter used to come over and visit us at our house, and she would sing songs all day with her guitar . . . [My mother and her] were good friends and I knew all of her children."
Interview with Stuart Nicholson,, Sept/October 2008 

"I was being rocked to sleep by my mother, humming folksongs to me, and all of a sudden I started humming the harmony. I was 22 months old. And she said, 'Charlie, when you started humming the harmony with me, I knew you were ready for the show.'"
Interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, 9/1/06

The Hadens were soon recording a twice-daily radio show that broadcast from the 50,000-watt KWTO station on their farm in Springfield. Two-year-old Haden made his live-radio debut as "Little Cowboy Charlie" singing "Little Sir Echo," a children's song made popular by Bing Crosby. His mother had to hold him up to the microphone; later he graduated to standing on a chair. 

CARL HADEN: Little Charlie has had so many many requests to sing that dandy little song, "Row Us Over the Tide," and then Momma's going to take him out and get his big bottle of soda pop. So you sing real loud and nice here and a nice yodel. Allright.
LITTLE COWBOY CHARLIE: (Singing) 'Row us over the tide. Row us over the tide. Row us over the tide.'
CARL HADEN: Yodel round.
LITTLE COWBOY CHARLIE: (Yodeling) 'Olay-yeee-ooo, olay-yeee-ooo-eee.'
From 1939 Haden Family radio broadcast 

"Every day my family would choose the songs we'd sing for this radio show, they had files and files of songs and every day they would go through the files and decide what we would sing. I could sing every harmony part by ear. None of us were trained in music as far as reading music was concerned."
Interview with Stuart Nicholson,, Sept/October 2008 

“We broadcast from our farmhouse living room. We had cows and chickens and horses and crops, and everybody did chores before we did our radio show, which opened with a theme song, ‘Keep On the Sunny Side’,” a hit for the Carters, whose daughter June would end up marrying Johnny Cash."
Interview with Terry Gross, NPR, 8/20/10 

Like the Carters and the Cashes, Haden also begat his own musical family. His son Josh, leads the moody indie pop outfit Spain. His daughters—triplets Tanya, Rachel and Petra—recently released an album of country and bluegrass standards, singing songs taught to them by their father.

Radio didn't just prompt Haden into a musical career, it educated him in the connections between various kinds of music. His ear tuned itself on big band jazz and country music, but he found inspiration in classical composers like Bach, Bartok, Ravel and Shostakovich. 

“Hillbilly music is really close to jazz, because there’s lots of improvisation. And country music was an asset to me [in jazz]...My family really stressed having perfect ears, and if anyone was flat or sharp, they heard about it.”
Interview with Jeff Kaliss, San Francisco Classical Voice, 5/31/13 

"I got my good time from hillbilly music. I didn't play a lot of bass as a kid, but I sang it. Hillbilly musicians have great time."
Interview with Ethan Iverson, Do the Math, March 2008 

"I was surrounded by music every day. We had radio shows every day, in the morning and then in the evening, and we did that up until I was 15. I got bulbar polio when I was 15. At the time, we had a TV show in Omaha, Nebraska. The polio paralyzed my vocal chords and my throat and I wasn’t able to sing.  So I started concentrating on playing the bass."
Interview with Jon Liebman, For Bass Players Only, 9/5/11 

"I started becoming interested in the sounds of jazz. And I went to a concert of Jazz at the Philharmonic when we lived in Omaha, Nebraska, and I saw Charlie Parker play and Billie Holiday sing and Lester Young play, and that did it. I said, 'That’s what I want to do.'"
Interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, 9/1/06 

"Hoover's Music Store in Springfield, Missouri. I would listen to records there for hours. They even had Paul Bley's first record with Charlie Mingus and Art Blakey, and some Hampton Hawes records with Red Mitchell. I would play with both of those pianists when I got to L.A. All I cared about was having good, swinging time."
Interview with Ethan Iverson, Do the Math, March 2008 

"I played bass for maybe a year on The Ozark Jubilee, which was a television show that originated in Springfield. Eddy Arnold was [the host] and so was Red Foley. Eddy Arnold’s guitar player was Hank Garland, who was a jazz player and Red Foley’s guitar player was Grady Martin. All those guys were jazz fans and they kept telling me to get out of Springfield because they knew I wanted to play jazz. I was listening a lot to Hampton Hawes, who was my favorite pianist, and I was bound and determined to play with him. So I applied and got a scholarship to Westlake [College of Modern Music] and got on a Greyhound bus and went to L.A. I had my bass with me...They tied it up on the top of the bus."
Interview with Jon Liebman, For Bass Players Only, 9/5/11 

Haden turned down a scholarship from Oberlin College because it didn't offer a jazz-studies program. When he got to Westlake, however, he discovered a stultifying atmosphere that seemed designed more to produce legions of faceless studio musicians than free thinkers. 

"I was doing my homework... at 3:00 in the morning at Tiny Naylor’s on La Brea and Sunset Boulevard with carhops and everything, and a guy walked in that I knew to be Red Mitchell, the bass player with Hampton Hawes. So I got to know him. I went up to him, and he said, 'Come over to my house, and let’s hang out.'"
Interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, 9/1/06 

"I started going over to [Mitchell's] house and he’d play piano and I’d play bass. And one day he called me and said, 'I’ve got this gig in East LA at a club called the Diggers Club with Art Pepper and I can’t make it the rest of the weekend ’cause I’ve got a record date. Come on and sit in with us. I know when Art hears you he’ll ask you to play.' So I went and I played and, sure enough, [Art] said, 'Come out and play the rest of the week.' That night when I was there, Sonny Clark was playing piano. When I showed up the next night, Hampton Hawes was playing piano. That’s how I met him."
Interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, 9/1/06 

Soon, Haden dropped out of Westlake and fell in with a cabal of young players who were beginning to experiment with freer forms of jazz expression. On one gig at a club on Central Avenue, he encountered included two tough boys from Watts: trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins.

"Billy always told me later, 'When you walked in the door, Charlie, I thought they had sent me a science teacher, not a bass player!'"
Interview with Ethan Iverson, Do the Math, March 2008 

Haden also found work with a group led by the progressive Canadian pianist Paul Bley at a rundown little club on Washington Boulevard called the Hillcrest. In Hollywood, Haden roomed with the mercurial young bassist Scott La Faro and the two became close friends.

"When I was in L.A., Scotty LaFaro and I roomed together. He would practice for hours: he had all these Sonny Rollins solos he had written out in bass clef! When Scotty was killed at age 25 (I was 24), I was devastated—I couldn't play for months. I never knew how Scotty felt about my playing until Paul [Bley] told me later that the first time Paul heard me it was because Scotty had dragged him out in a snowstorm, 'You've got to hear this great bass player with Ornette!'"
Interview with Ethan Iverson, Do the Math, March 2008 

"I was playing in L.A. with Paul Bley and he got a call to play at this club in Denver. It was the first time I had ever gone out of town to play anywhere...And when I got to Denver, started playing, you know, every night in this club, I met this local musician, an older guy who was a pianist [who] really loved the way I played...He said, 'What are you doing tomorrow?' I said, 'I’m practicing.' He said, 'Well, would you like to go to the mountains?' 'The mountains?' He said, 'Yeah, there’s some beautiful mountains around Denver, they’re real high...I’d like to take you up there so you can get a different perspective of where you are.'...So we got in his jalopy and we drove to this mountain, I can’t even remember the name of it, it was 14,000 some-odd feet. You could drive up a certain part of the way and then you had to stop and climb the rest of the way. So we drove as far as we could drive and he said, I said, 'Wow. This is great, let’s go.' He said, 'Don’t you want to go to the top?' And I looked up and I said, 'You’re putting me on.' He said, 'You can do it, do it.' I said, 'Okay.' So I tried. And I started climbing and I climbed and I climbed and I got to the top and all of a sudden I heard the planet. I heard the universe. I heard the mountain. I heard the clouds. I heard the sky. I heard the wind. In a way that I’d had never ever heard anything. It was almost like the true definition of silence. And in that moment, I saw how small I was and that I was really living on a planet. And I realized that I was, I was hearing a sound that no human had anything to do with. It was just coming from where we come from and it was really moving to me. And after that experience, I really placed a lot of importance on the spirituality of music."
Interview for Ken Burns' Jazz, 12/12/1996 

When he returned to L.A., Haden found that his personal discovery had altered his concept of music.

"I was playing with different jazz groups in Los Angeles, playing at jam sessions and jazz clubs... mostly bebop, and when it came time for the bass to solo, sometimes I felt that I didn't want to play on the regular chord structure or the chord changes of the particular piece that we were playing...Sometimes I wanted to play on the feeling, or on the inspiration of the piece rather than the chord structure."
Interview with Greg Burk, LA Weekly, 1991 

"I had Monday nights off from the Hillcrest every week and one Monday night, I went to a club over by MacArthur Park called the Haig. And Gerry Mulligans’ band was playing [with Chet Baker] and the place was jammed. Could hardly move. I’m there by myself, I’m standing in the crowd..."
Interview for Ken Burns' Jazz, 12/12/1996 

"And while they were playing, a man came in the back door, African-American, with a horn, an alto case, and asked if he could play, and apparently they said 'yes' and he came up, took out a plastic horn and started to play, and the whole room lit up for me."
Interview on The Tavis Smiley Show, NPR, 11/11/04 

"[His] sound...It was like a human voice. He improvised with a desperate urgency to create something that had never been before.”
Interview with Jeff Kaliss, San Francisco Classical Voice, 5/31/13 

"And almost as soon as he started to play, someone on the bandstand asked him to stop. So he stopped, put his horn in the case, put the case back, started off. And I’m trying to get to him. I’m running through the crowd, stepping on toes, you know, trying to make my way through. I finally get to the back of the bandstand where the, you know, the door that goes to the alley, and he’s gone."
Interview for Ken Burns' Jazz, 12/12/1996 

"I found out the next night at the Hillcrest from Paul Bley’s drummer, Lennie McBrowne: 'That was Ornette Coleman. I’ll introduce you to him.'"
Interview with Jon Liebman, For Bass Players Only, 9/5/11 

At a Sunday after-hours jam session, McBrowne brought Coleman to the Hillcrest. 

"I went up to his table and I said, 'Man, I heard you play. It was so beautiful,' and Ornette said, 'People don't usually say that to me. Thank you.' He said: 'You wanna play?' and I said 'Yeah!' And we got in Ornette's little Studebaker and went to his house."
Interview on The Tavis Smiley Show, NPR, 11/11/04

"We arrived, he opened the door, music was everywhere on the rug, on the bed, on the tables. I uncovered my bass, he reached down and he picked up a manuscript and he said, 'Let’s play this.' I said, 'Okay.' I was real scared, you know. He says, 'Now, I’ve written the melody here. Underneath it are the chord changes. Those are the chord changes I heard when I wrote this melody. But when we start to play, after I play the melody and I start to improvise, you play the changes, you make up new changes that you’re hearing from what I’m playing and from the tune.' And I thought to myself, 'Somebody’s finally giving me permission to do something that I’ve been, what I’ve been hearing all this time.' And we started to play and a whole new world opened up for me. It was like being born again. And I was hearing music so much more deeply than I had ever heard… We took a break to go get some food, and we played for about two days."
Interview for Ken Burns' Jazz, 12/12/1996 

“It was the first time ever I felt like the handcuffs were taken off. He would play a note that was the tone center of a certain phrase, and I would go to that tone center and make it a change. And from the different intervals that we were playing together, we created our own journey. What a journey!”
Interview with Jeff Kaliss, San Francisco Classical Voice, 5/31/13 

It wasn't easy. Coleman had to tutor the young Missourian in the precepts of a genre that didn't yet have a name. 

"We would stop in the middle of a piece and he would say, 'What were you doing right there?' and I would say, 'I was just listening to you and playing.' He'd say, 'No, but you have to really know what you're doing. You have to think about what you're doing, and know about how it works, what makes it work'... So I thought about that afterwards. He was really right, because improvisation is very complex, it's very difficult and emotionally draining."
Interview with Greg Burk, LA Weekly, 1991 

"With Ornette, there was no piano, but I became the piano...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."
Francis Davis, "Charlie Haden, Bass," The Atlantic, 8/01 

"Then we started rehearsing with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. And then a guy from Atlantic Records came to one of the rehearsals, Nesuhi Ertegun, and wanted us to make a record. And we made two albums [in Hollywood in 1959]: The Shape of Jazz to Come and Change of the Century."
Interview with Jon Liebman, For Bass Players Only, 9/5/11 

On these early records, Haden's melodic, free-floating bass playing was a revelation. Coleman's democratic emphasis on collective free improvisation had allowed him to add from his own arsenal.

"Sometimes I would play what I was hearing instead of what he had written, and he usually accepted it...I added double-stops, drones, and melodies that weren't always 'in time'...I would just grab the most important note I could hear from Ornette's phrases."
Interview with Ethan Iverson, Do the Math, March 2008 

Haden drew on his interest and knowledge of folk forms, something that would inform his music for the rest of his life. Later in their careers, Haden, Coleman, and Cherry would pioneer what we know now as "world music." 

"We recorded two records before we went to New York, one of them was called The Shape of Jazz to Come, the other one was called The Change of the Century, and on one of my bass solos [Coleman's "Ramblin'"] I played a series of folk songs that I learned with my family… When Ian Drury of the Blockheads heard my bass solo on Ornette's record using 'Old Joe Clark' and he wrote a song called 'Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll' from my bass solo! I didn't get any royalties from that, but when he played it with the Blockheads he always announced my name:"Charlie Haden! That's 'Sex, Drugs and Rock n' Roll!'"
Interview with Stuart Nicholson,, Sept/October 2008 

"Nesuhi Ertegun asked Ornette, “Would you guys like to go to New York?” I had always wanted to go to New York. I originally came out to LA to go to school and to see if I could play with [Hampton Hawes], but this was an opportunity to go and nobody was playing or approaching music the way that we did."
Interview with Jon Liebman, For Bass Players Only, 9/5/11 

"When we all met, Ornette and I and Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, we were in the right place at the right time... We all were feeling the same way about music, probably similar to the way that Bird and Diz and the bebop guys felt when they revolutionized jazz… I was ready to go to New York and I went. We turned it upside down!"
Interview with Jon Liebman, For Bass Players Only, 9/5/11

Watch Charlie Haden's acceptance speech for his 2013 Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

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