Listening, as I do most nights, to Tim Tamashiro’s delightful two hours of jazz on CBC Radio 2, the distressing news came out of the blue that Charlie Haden had died. Mentioned almost casually by Tamashiro towards the end of his show, the sad news went straight to my heart. I spent the rest of the evening in mourning and re-living the wonderful music he left behind. He didn’t have the profile of all those headline musicians, but that was part of the appeal of this great, unassuming artist. if it’s possible to love someone I’d never met, I loved Charlie Haden.
He may have put out a mediocre album over his half century or so of recording, but if he did, I certainly never encountered it, and I have more Charlie Haden albums than those of any other jazz musician. How a guy in the relative background, playing an upright, acoustic bass, could be part of so much sublime music is one of those mysteries of creativity that perhaps only Charlie Haden could answer. And now he’s gone, dead at 76, struck down by post-polio syndrome he developed late in life.
Haden defined the word “eclectic”. He passed through the wild, frenetic, at times almost unbearable, “free jazz” of Ornette Coleman and Archie Shepp, to revolutionary ballads with his Music Liberation Orchestra, to the achingly beautiful albums on his Quartet West albums, to collaborations with uber-guitarist Pat Metheny and so many other pre-eminent musicians, to a lovely collection of country and folk tunes with his singing triplet daughters, and finally, to his last recording in 2012 –just Haden and pianist Hank Jones indulging themselves with spiritual tunes from their church gospel background. Like just about everything else touched by Charlie Haden, it is divine.
My first close encounter of the Charlie kind came during the summer of 1967, Expo summer. I was in Montreal. At that time, music of all genres, including jazz, was bursting out of their traditional strait-jackets. Who should come to town but tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp, one of the famous but controversial group of dissonant, avant-garde jazz musicians who attacked their music full bore, without much regard to tune or structure? Shepp was appearing at a subterranean coffee house on Mountain Street called The Barrel. Curious to see what all the fuss was about, I hooked up with a friend of a friend, and off we went, with no idea what to expect. The night remains one of my most unforgettable music experiences.
At some point, Shepp shambled onto the stage. He was joined by a local drummer, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and yes, Charlie Haden on stand-up bass. Without a word, they began to play. Dominated by Shepp’s screeching saxophone, it was loud, it was crazy, it was riveting, it was excruciating. He and his group played for one hour and 15 minutes straight through, without a pause. Half the time I was mesmerized, every discordant note seeming to flow right through me. The rest of the time, I thought: “I gotta get outta here.” It was incredible. Then, the musicians left the stage, without saying a word, and we staggered out into the molten Montreal night, our ears ringing. We were barely able to talk but totally energized by what we’d witnessed and heard. In the midst of all that cacophony was Haden, a musician new to me, with his acoustic, string bass, looking straight as an arrow – conservative glasses, short hair, shirt and tie. I remember thinking: “Now there’s an interesting cat.” I’ve been captivated ever since.
Twenty years later, I saw Charlie Haden again. It was Christmas time in Vancouver, and Haden was visiting with his wife Ruth Cameron, who hails from our fair city. While he was here, he agreed to take part in Vancouver’s very first, not very well organized, First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve. Accompanied by a group of fine local musicians, he played a quiet, soulful set under the glass at the courthouse. I was thrilled. Charlie Haden had come to me!
He stuck around for a few days after that, and I was lucky enough to take in an even more amazing gig at some forgotten club in Gastown with great Canadian saxophonist Phil Dwyer, then based in Vancouver. It was the first time I’d heard Dwyer, and he was terrific. As for Haden, despite his fame, he was his usual generous self, never seeking to dominate the music, content to be just another bass player, albeit one of the best in the world. It was a great night.
Dare I also mention, as this funny old world gets ever stranger, that we even exchanged a few tweets in the past year or two. Such is connection in this disconnected century.
But what really solidified my affection for Charlie Haden over time, besides his artistry, was how often we seemed to be on the same wave length, apart from his exalted status in the world of jazz was and my relatively lowly state as a scuffling Canadian journalist.
I am one of those haunted by the Spanish Civil War, the last great cause, and the heartbreaking loss of so many young idealists. From around the world, they journeyed to Spain to fight fascism, three years before Hitler invaded Poland. Imagine my surprise when Haden, the guy from the Archie Shepp concert, released his ground-breaking Music Liberation Orchestra album in 1969 that was full of revolutionary ballads from the Spanish Civil War (plus an ode to Ché, if you must know…).
Further, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been a huge fan of Raymond Chandler, the father of superbly-crafted crime fiction and the sardonic private eye Philip Marlowe. My favourite of all Chandler’s books is Farewell, My Lovely. So out comes Haden with the first of his entrancing Quartet West albums, inspired by none other than the moody world of Raymond Chandler. One song is dedicated to Chandler’s fictitious Bay City. And naturally, there’s a line from Farewell, My Lovely on the album cover.
I really like old time country music, too. So, not that long ago, Haden drifted from jazz to record a delightful album full of this music, a tribute to those long lost family days when, as a lad of three, he was part of his parents’ travelling country music show. Featuring his three daughters, the songs are lovely. lOn the last cut, Charlie Haden, himself, sings a soft, heartfelt version of Shenandoah.
Oh, Sheandoah, I long to see you,
And hear your rolling river.
Oh, Shenandoa, I long to see you,
Away, we’re bound away,
Across the wide Missouri.
Farewell, my lovely, Charlie Haden. Your beautiful music lives on.
If you’d like to read more, here is a very nice collection of tributes that go to the measure of a man who was special in so many ways.
And this Wikipedia contribution lists the dozens and dozens of recordings Charlie Haden was part of, including collaborations with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie to Diana Krall.
Finally his obituary in The Guardian.