WHEN BASSIST CHARLIE HADEN PASSED AWAY IN THE SUMMER OF 2014, HE LEFT A VOID IN THE ARTISTIC FIRMAMENT WHICH IS UNLIKELY TO BE FILLED ANY TIME SOON.
NOR DID HE CONFINE THESE PRINCIPLES TO JAZZ IMPROVISATION ALONE.
AT MOST EVERY OPPORTUNITY HE ASPIRED TO EMBODY THE SPIRIT OF MAN AS HE FELT IT IN TERMS OF LIBERATION AND JUSTICE AND BROTHERHOOD.
WHEN HADEN FIRST CAME TO NEW YORK CITY IN 1959 FOR A LEGENDARY SIX-MONTH ENGAGEMENT AT THE FIVE SPOT, IT WAS AS AN INTEGRAL PART OF ORNETTE COLEMAN’S CONTROVERSIAL ENSEMBLE WITH THEIR ADVENTUROUS, FREELY INFLECTED POST-MODERN APPROACH TO COLLECTIVE IMPROVISATION.
WHAT WAS THEN CHARACTERIZED AS REVOLUTIONARY AND DECONSTRUCTIVE, WAS IN NO WAY A BREAK WITH THE PAST, BUT AN ATTEMPT TO FASHION A RHYTHMICALLY COMBUSTIBLE KIND OF COLLECTIVE CONVERSATION THAT BLURRED THE DISTINCTIONS BETWEEN FRONT LINE AND BACK LINE, SOLOIST AND ACCOMPANIST, FREEDOM AND FORM–EVOLUTIONARY IN THE BEST SENSE OF THAT WORD…DEEPLY ROOTED AS IT WAS IN JAZZ AND BLUES TRADITIONS.
HADEN’S ABILITY TO MAINTAIN ONE BEAR OF A RHYTHMIC PULSE, WHILE MODULATING MELODICALLY AS IF THROUGH ALL 24 MAJOR AND MINOR KEYS SIMULTANEOUSLY, SUGGESTED A RESTLESSLY SHIFTING, ABSTRACT HARMONIC CANVAS, EVEN AS IT EVOKED THE RUSTIC, FOLKISH QUALITIES OF THE SUNDAY MORNING HYMNAL, THE AMEN CHORUS AND THE GRAND OL’ OPRY.
WHEN THE YOUNG BASSIST FROM THE OZARKS LOOKED ACROSS THE JAM-PACKED ROOM AND DOWN THE BAR FROM HIS PERCH ON THE BANDSTAND, STARING AT HIM INTENTLY–SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT, KID, WRIT LARGE UPON THEIR FURROWED BROWS–WERE THE MOST PROMINENT FACES OF THE MODERN BASS–CHARLES MINGUS, PAUL CHAMBERS, WILBUR WARE, PERCY HEATH.
YEARS LATER WHEN PEOPLE INQUIRED AS TO WHY HE PLAYED WITH HIS EYES CLOSED, CHARLIE WOULD CHUCKLE, AND REFERENCE THAT BAPTISM OF FIRE.
STILL, WHILE HIS EYES MIGHT HAVE REMAINED CLOSED, HIS EARS WERE ALWAYS WIDE OPEN, AS HE ENDEAVORED, FOR ALL HIS CONSIDERABLE TECHNIQUE, NOT TO PLAY THE MOST NOTES, BUT TO PLAY THE PRETTIEST, THE MOST MEANINGFUL–WHERE YOU ONLY NEEDED TWO PEOPLE TO FORM A CONGREGATION, AND THE SOUND ITSELF CONVEYED SOME SUGGESTION OF A DEEPER REALITY
Otherness if you like.
SEEING HADEN FOR THE FIRST TIME AT THE NYC PREMIER OF ORNETTE COLEMAN’S SYMPHONIC WORK, SKIES OF AMERICA HALF A LIFETIME AGO, IMPLANTED A DRAMATIC IMAGE OF HADEN AS A PERFORMER IN MY MIND’S EYE, EVEN AS HIS SOUND WAS FOREVER EMBEDDED IN MY RECOMBINANT DNA.
A SOUND THAT NEVER LEFT ME, OVER THE COURSE OF MANY AN INTIMATE COLLABORATION WITH THE LIKES OF KEITH JARRETT, HAMPTON HAWES, ALICE COLTRANE, PAT METHENY, PAUL MOTIAN, PAUL BLEY, HANK JONES AND JIM HALL–NOT TO MENTION A SPONTANEOUS COLLABORATION OVER THE COURSE OF FOUR DAYS AT OCEAN WAY STUDIOS IN LOS ANGELES THAT I PRODUCED FOR DRUMMER GINGER BAKER BACK IN 1994, WITH CHARLIE AND GUITARIST BILL FRISELL–GOING BACK HOME (ATLANTIC).
A FEW YEARS BEFORE THAT SUMMIT SESSION, I WAS RUNNING THE JAZZ DEPARTMENT AT THE HMV RECORD STORE ON 86TH STREET AND LEXINGTON AVENUE IN MANHATTAN, WHEN CHARLIE CAME BY THE SHOP TO PROMOTE HIS CURRENT RELEASE, AN INTIMATE AND CURIOUSLY OVERLOOKED RECITAL OF DUETS WITH PORTUGUESE GUITARIST CARLOS PAREDES–DIALOGUES.
(THE SINGULAR TIMBRE AND FOLKISH OVERTONES OF PAREDES’ 12-STRINGED INSTRUMENT, FRAMED AS THEY ARE AGAINST THE CAVERNOUS DEPTH OF HADEN’S MOANIN’ BASS FIDDLE, UPON FIRST BLUSH REMINDED ME FOR ALL THE WORLD OF ZITHER MASTER ANTON KARAS’ FAMOUS MUSICAL SCORE FOR CAROL REED’S FILM NOIRE CLASSIC, THE THIRD MAN.)
CHARLIE TOOK ME TO LUNCH, WHERE I HAVE AN ENDURING MEMORY OF HIM ORDERING A LARGE CAPPUCCINO WITH A TRIPLE-ESPRESSO SIDECAR–WHICH HE THEN PROCEEDED TO POUR DIRECTLY INTO HIS CAPPUCCINO, KNOCKING IT ALL DOWN IN A FEW SWIFT GULPS–FOR A BRACING CAFFEINE DEPTH CHARGE.
IN CONVEYING HIS ENDURING PASSION FOR THE SPIRIT OF THE BASS, OUR CONVERSATIONS THAT AFTERNOON FORMED THE BASIS FOR A PORTRAIT OF A CREATIVE ARTIST STILL VERY MUCH AT THE PEAK OF HIS POWERS, AND WHOSE ARTISTRY CONTINUES TO CAST A LONG SHADOW UPON ALL THOSE WHO LOVE JAZZ AND WERE TOUCHED BY HIS DEEP SENSE OF COMMITMENT TO THE MUSIC.
IN THAT SPIRIT, AND BY WAY OF A CONCLUSIVE SEND-OFF AND PERSONALIZED LOVE-IN, EVEN AS JAZZ MUSICIANS AND EDUCATORS GATHER IN NEW YORK FOR THE JAZZ CONNECT CONFERENCE + WINTERFEST FESTIVAL, FAMILY AND FRIENDS WILL BE HONORING THE BASSIST WITH A FREE MEMORIAL CONCERT TO BE HELD IN MANHATTAN’S TOWN HALL (CELEBRATING CHARLIE HADEN) AT 7:00PM ON TUESDAY, JANUARY 13, 2015.
I MEAN, IT’S NOT LIKE CHARLIE’S GONE.
Some notes just linger longer than others.
The face of the bass is an illusion.
Most see it as a specific instrument, the lowest note, the deepest sound.
But in truth it is the first note, the last note, the one note without which none of the other notes or rhythms would make any sense. The bass note acts as a fulcrum, a pivot point, translating the rhythms of the drums to the melody instruments, grounding the harmony of a song in time and space.
The face of the bass is the center of life.
Since first bursting on the jazz scene as Ornette Coleman’s prodigiously swinging teenage bass man, Charlie Haden has portrayed the face of the bass like a great romantic poet, imbuing each note with its own special glow. Eyes closed in a deep rapture, head thrust back as if hanging for dear life upon the forecastle to some lofty oaken mast as we sailed directly into the gusting fury of an ocean gale.
Charlie Haden still appears in awe of music every time he plays–each silence as telling as the tones which preceded it.
“You see,” Haden explains, by way of defining his muse, “as a child growing up, whenever I heard music, whether it was country or classical or jazz, whether it was a band or a choir, the bass held everything together. It was the fullness that lifted everything up. My mom used to take me to the black churches in Springfield, Missouri when I was a kid, and I used to hear the choir singing, and I always loved the bass. And when I began listening to classical music, I always loved the sound of the bowed basses in the orchestra. When the basses stopped, it kind of got empty for me. They just filled up the room for me, and made everything really warm.”
And for all of Charlie Haden’s prodigious drive and freedom, it is precisely that sense of warmth, born of the high-lonely sound of Americana, which distinguishes his playing.
Over the last thirty years there have certainly been bassists with greater facility and flash, but while Charlie Haden doesn’t play the most notes, he’s made a career out of playing the prettiest. And therein lies Haden’s enduring gift to music, a gift which has lifted the ensembles of leaders like Ornette, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, and has animated his own work, from intimate encounters with the likes of Hampton Hawes, Gerri Allen, Carlos Puedes and long time rhythm mate Paul Motian, to large scale, consciousness raising works with his own Liberation Music Orchestra, most tellingly on his award winning Blue Note release Dream Keeper–a magnificent marriage of folk, classical, jazz and spiritual values.
“Playing a lot of notes doesn’t mean anything,” Haden insists. “I place importance on every note that I play. It’s as if I may never play again. And I approach each performance as if it were an offering. It’s like when you walk into a beautiful cathedral, you have to raise yourself to the level of awe you feel. And that’s the way I try to prepare myself for a concert. You’re in a very intimate relationship with the audience, and you want to convey the preciousness of life to them in a succinct way get right to the point without any wasted notes.
“And I really don’t have any time for waste or tolerance for shallowness. So I look for the notes that are going to make the greatest impact on everyone, and the notes that are going to make something the most beautiful it can be. Whether or not I succeed is another story. I’m never happy with the way I play. I always think there’s so much more in the notes that I heard and couldn’t play. But I make sure that the notes I do play are played with great care and intention, great respect and reverence. And hopefully, it’ll give someone a good feeling when they hear it.
“I really see things as being alive: I see my instrument as being alive, I see the notes as being alive, I see music as being alive–music as being a close friend to you. When you touch music, and you’re in the act of improvisation, it teaches you humility, the importance of being a giving human being–to have respect and reverence for beauty. And before you can begin to grasp any of that, you have to start off with a reverent silence. From that silence you hear the textures of your soul. You see, there’s not just quiet, there’s reverence. And it’s like preparing yourself to be close to music. You have to have great respect for music.”
Which, for Charlie Haden, literally began at his parent’s feet. “I’m from Shenandoah, Iowa. My dad was from Missouri, and my mother was from Baxter Spring, Kansas, and they met and went to Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry. And as each one of my brothers and sisters were born, they were added to the group: Uncle Carl Haden & The Haden Family. It was similar to the Carter Family. I mean, my dad was friends with Jimmie Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers, Woody Guthrie, A.P Carter and all those people.
“I was born August 6, 1937, and I started singing earlier than any of my brothers and sisters. I sang my first song on the radio when I was 22 months old: `Little Sir Echo.’ Some of our sponsors were Waits’ Green Mountain Cough Syrup, Cocoa Puffs, Sparkolite Cereal and Pillsbury, and my dad had one of those `golden throat’ voices that you identify with immediately. We used to get duffel bags full of mail, and we went out over these real powerful radio stations in Springfield, Missouri near the Ozarks that would broadcast all the way to Canada and Mexico and that’s where I grew up. Then when I was fourteen, we got an opportunity to do a TV show in Omaha, Nebraska. I began my freshman year of high school there, and began thinking about playing the bass.
“I’m basically self-taught. From the time when I was two years old, until I was fifteen years old, I sang twice a day on the radio. It was really disciplined in the harmonic sense, and my dad was very strict about intonation. If we got flat or sharp, we heard about it–believe me, man. So we developed these brilliant ears. And in my case, while I wasn’t playing an instrument, I was singing all these harmony parts.
“My brother played bass on the show, and he was a big jazz fan. Around 1949-50 he’d acquired some Dizzy Gillesipe, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington records. Now my brother would never allow me to pick up his instrument. So I’d wait for him to leave, then run into his room and play the bass along with his records, and play drums with cardboard hangers on the pillows. And that’s how I got close to the sound of the bass and the sound of jazz.
“The orchestra instructor in school taught me about reading music and bowing. Then I formed a group with a drummer at North High; we called ourselves The Cool Four, right, and we played several assemblies in the auditorium. Our big hit was `Ragg Mop.’ `I say R-, I say R A, R A G G…'” Haden chuckles at the memory of the big time. “And then Jazz At The Philharmonic came through Omaha with Ray Brown, Charlie Parker and Lester Young and Willie Smith. Oh, man.
“I can never ever remember questioning what I wanted to be when I grew up–I knew I wanted to play jazz. Then my dad just decided he wanted to retire and get out of show business, and we moved back to Springfield. He was a fisherman, so he built a fishing lodge down on Lake Bullsholes in the Ozarks, and I finished high school living there. I applied for a bunch of scholarships, and finally decided to go to this jazz school on the west coast, the Westlake College of Modern Music.
“So I was playing bass with the house band on this TV show called `The Ozark Jubilee,’ and lots of people passed through from Nashville, which is how I got to meet the great guitarist Hank Garland, who was with Eddie Arnold. Hank and I used to play between breaks, and go into `There Will Never Be Another You’ or a blues, and he really gave me lots of encouragement. `Keep playing man. Don’t let anything deter you. Don’t stay in this place–get out!’
“And as soon as I had enough money saved up, I hopped a Greyhound bus and started at Westlake, but I dropped out because I was playing with a lot of different musicians every night, and I kept waking up later and later, cutting classes, and finally realized I was wasting my tuition. Then I started meeting up with some of my heroes at varied sessions, and I began learning the language by playing with them.”
Yet even in this formative stage, in spite of his profound admiration for all the grand masters of the bass fiddle, Haden had already internalized a rich, resonant sound all his own.
“It was very important for me to get a really deep sound from the instrument. How do you do that? Well, when you telephone me I know who it is because I recognize your voice. Everyone has individual vocal cords. And I really believe that we’re all put together for a reason, and everything makes sense and our vocal cords go along with our structure and our metabolism and our genes.”
Well, if that’s the case you should sound like Eddie Gomez, I suggest hopefully.
“Oh no, no, no,” Haden laughs in horror. “No, I’m not talking about if your voice is deep then you’re going to be a deep bass player. No, that’s not what I mean at all.”
I was just checking.
“That’s great,” Haden says in his distinctive Midwestern twang. “What I mean, is that inside of every human being is their own unique musical voice. That’s why Bird could pick up anybody’s alto and sound like Bird. Why Art Tatum could play on any awful piano and sound like Art Tatum. It was always real important for me to get a deep sound, because I wanted everyone to feel like they were sitting around a fireplace or standing in the middle of a rain forest among these gigantic trees. I wanted a feeling of depth, and that’s what I strived for on the bass.
“I mean, when young players shop around for a better instrument, it’s not only important to find an instrument that sounds close to the way you’re hearing, but an instrument that feels good. Because if the fingerboard and the neck feel good to your left hand, that’s going to make the sound even warmer–because you’re going to almost feel your soul every time you press down on those strings, man. And I always try to play as if I could feel the depth of the instrument though my fingers, and through my ears, and hopefully it makes somebody else feel real cozy.
“And not only is the sound really important, but the harmonic structure inside of the human being is born through discovering one’s favorite notes on different chords. And I think that every musician has their own favorite notes. That’s what makes for a unique identity in music.”
Kind of like the way Ray Brown invariably begins each chorus down low on the tonic.
“There you go, there you go. I mean, Ray Brown playing on this album with Bird and Kenny Clarke called Sweedish Schnapps, has to be some of the most beautiful bass sounds I’ve ever heard; Jimmy Blanton playing duets with Duke Ellington; Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus, Wilbur Ware, Israel Crosby, Wellman Braud, Walter Page; to me, all those bassists had this respect for depth and beauty–having a beautiful sound. When I’m with students at Cal Arts, I tell them to make the sound as deep as they possibly can, because when the sound comes back to you, it inspires you even more.
“See, nothing upsets me more then when I hear someone with a beautiful French, Italian or German instrument, that’s maybe 150 years old or more, and has this beautiful deep tone. Then they drop the action so low that the instrument doesn’t resonate, get a really bad pickup, plug into an amplifier with the treble and volume way up, and man, when you finger those G and D strings, they have a real metallic twang to them, and in essence you’ve taken a beautiful acoustic instrument and turned it into a bad electric bass. Go get a nice old Fender Precision or a Steinberger if that’s the sound you’re aiming for.
“And that’s why I’ve always played on gut strings from the very beginning. You see, on the low strings, the wood sound can already come out, but on the G and D strings which are the high vibrating strings, you’ve got to really have strings that lend themselves to the wood sound of the instrument, and metal strings won’t do that. It’s easier to bow a bass if you’re playing all metal strings, because the gut strings don’t accept the bow as readily as the metal strings do.
So the A and E strings that I use are Thomastik Spirocore, which are metal strings, but my G and D have a gut core and a Tynex nylon winding. They’re called Golden Spiral strings, and are distributed by D’Addario.”
Still, with the advent of rock music (and the ascension of gifted, assertive drummers), the volume levels grew to such a degree that these unamplified resonances of gut and wood became a thing of the past. “I used to just put a microphone in a towel and place it in the tailpiece of the bass, and that’s how we got heard,” Haden shrugs, “but soon everybody was so loud, I had to get myself a Barcus Berry pickup and an Ampeg amplifier just to hear myself. I’d turn the treble completely off, the bass completely up, and the volume very low to try and get a natural acoustic sound, but it was really difficult.
“Then about four years ago, this young bass player from St. Galens, Switzerland, Stefan Schertler, came to a Joe Henderson concert in Genoa with me and Al Foster, to give me the very first prototype of his new pickup design. He put it right on the bass, and I recorded with it and it really knocked me out. It was the only pickup I’d ever used that amplified the true sound of the instrument without having a personality of its own otherwise you’re amplifying the pickup instead of the instrument, you see.
“And amplifiers were a big hangup in that way, too, until I discovered this wonderful little Gallien-Kruger amp, the 200MB. They’re very light and compact with one little speaker and they also have an outlet in the back for a mic cable so you can go through the house, which is even better than a direct box. I record with it and do concerts with it without using a DI, although when I’m recording I usually go on three tracks, going direct along with two acoustic mics one up on the fingerboard and one down by the bridge and I mix them together, to get both the body sound and the action sound.”
Yet while Haden’s control of sound has become more acute, years of jive sound systems and intense volume levels have taken a toll on his hearing.
“It’s as if the volume keeps going up and up in my head. And I have really severe ringing in my ears–loud enharmonic clusters–all the time. And every time I play, if I don’t wear protection in my ears, the ringing keeps getting louder and louder and louder. I’ve been to several ear doctors and specialists, and they all tell me that there’s nothing that can be done about it. I even asked them if there were any way to make a hearing aid where I could turn down the volume of everything, and they cracked up.
“So as a result I have to carry ear plugs and stuff with me all the time, even if I’m out walking down the street. It’s a very frustrating thing, because if I think about how loud the ringing is in my head I could easily flip out. Sometimes I can’t even sleep because of it. But I’ve kind of gotten accustomed to it, and I’ve accepted it, and it’s pretty much a part of my everyday walking around life.”
But for Charlie Haden, acceptance is not a byword of his artistic credo. Ideals of struggle and resolution motivate him, because Haden sees and hears things not as they are, but as they should be–as they could be. So when Haden produces the brilliant young Cuban pianist Carlos Rubalcaba’s Discovery for Blue Note, or when he imparts the aura of the Spanish revolution on Carla Bley’s “Dream Keeper” suite, there is something more than music at play–it is, hopefully, an expression of truth and talent in pursuit of higher values.
“People have expressed their feelings about human rights and racial equality through many different art forms for hundreds and hundreds of years. I’d even go so far as to say that whether or not you know what your art is about, everyone that makes an impact in an art form has to be–or has to feel–a responsibility to improve the quality of life.
It’s like spreading deep values.
It’s like spreading creative values.
It’s like wanting to bring some depth back into the world.