Charlie Haden

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Aug 4 12:45:18 MDT 2000

Charlie Haden, Bass
Atlantic Monthly, August 2000

by Francis Davis

Complete article at:

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

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. . .

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 . . ."

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 . . .

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

Louis Proyect

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