Charlie Haden interview, 1991

LA Weekly
by Greg Burk

CHARLlE HADEN IS ALWAYS LOOKING for something you can’t see with your eyes, which may be why he closes ’em so much when he plays his upright bass. Meanwhile, his fingers, down there on the strings, are pulling up other kinds of memories, the kind you might call "primal" because they stir things inside you. He’s not so much communicating — more like both you and he have focused on the same essential image. It’s hard to say how Haden creates this atmosphere out of his full-spectrum, room-filling tone, pushing/retarding rhythms, and back-and-forth note choices, and he doesn’t like to talk about technique, but it just seems that he has access to something . . . deep.

The bathysphere has been submerged quite a while: Haden first got recognition beside Ornette Coleman in the post-bop musical revolution of the late ’50s, and went from there to record on his own, including three Liberation Music projects, the most recent of which, the stirring Dream Keeper, was recently released. He has also performed with most of jazz’s major figures and an unpredictable selection of other musicians from around the world — good examples are his upcoming duo recording with Portuguese guitarist Carlos Paredes, and a series of four trio releases over the past couple of years with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Paul Motian. Haden has also been nominated for jazz Artist of the Year by the Danish jazz Center’s Jazzpar Committee — it’s the only worldwide award given for the music. And "deep" is a word that comes up a lot when he talks.

"I’ve always been an idealist, and I believe that inside of every human that’s born on this planet is the capacity for deep feelings," says Haden, who once again calls himself an LA. resident, even though he tours much of the year. "I think that these feelings are stifled or taken away by the environment, by the system that we live in. And I really believe that every human being has the universe inside of them from the beginning of time."

Spoken like the alienated kid he was back in ’40s Missouri, alone with his thoughts, unattracted by what passes for regular-guyness and aware of unexplainable forces. Somehow you’d guess from listening to this guy play, that that’s what he thinks. Really it’s no heavy thing, no Sermon on the Mount, no Parmenides, but that "universal" stuff is what his music sounds like. So where does it come from?

"I tell young musicians that everyone has their own musical voice inside of them, just like everyone has their own voice as far as their vocal cords are concerned, and it’s just a matter of discovering that voice. Charlie Parker sounded the way he did no matter whose alto saxophone he picked up, and any jazz musician who has made any kind of positive impact on the art form, they all have these distinctive sounds, because that’s the way they heard — they were able to transform how they heard into their instrument.

"The first thing you have to do is start with complete silence, and be able to listen to the most minute fraction, particle of your voice. Whether you’re a reed player, or a trumpet player, or a chordal-instrument player, you have to be able to hear the deepness of what you’re hearing, and you also have to be able to hear every nuance, every texture, every breath, every timbre, every pitch. In order to hear all those things, you have to really start out with reverence, as if you’re walking into a holy place. You have to implement what you’ve learned about humility."

Haden is his own best example. You can hear sharply what he means on the soon-to-be-released Dialogue, a duo with Carlos Paredes.

Paredes is the unchallenged master of the Portuguese guitar, a 14-stringed instrument that sounds like a combination of a guitar, a mandolin and a harpsichord. With his multilayered compositions, his fiercely snorting attack, his digit-boggling dexterity and his intense vibrato, Paredes is nothing if not a strong partner. Even intimidating, you might say. Haden just gets down and applies his theory.

In a format like this, the players can do what both enjoy and what Haden does particularly well: suspend notions of time. "Canto de Trabalho" and "Verdes Años" are Paredes’ musical territory, and Haden foJlows like a clairvoyant lamb, just behind the beat, expanding the fullness of the phrases and the pauses and adding weight with his resinous, fibrous bass tone. When he’s waiting for a change, he holds on a stuttering high-low octave jump, then, when a melodic turn grabs him, spirals into a challenging countermelody that surprises Paredes, drawing him out of his preconception into a rising union.

Haden’s own "Song for Che" is the prototypical example of his musical affinity for things Iberian. As Haden solos, the descending minor-key riff compresses and inflates; he deletes rests where you expect them and elaborates where you expect a chord change. The metronomic anchor isn’t missed; in fact, you tend to wonder why all music isn’t like this — it reflects the workings of our unmechanical minds. Paredes drops in with a solo passage that bears only a slight relation to the melody, as if to say, "This is what you made me create." Haden returns the favor on ‘Verdes Años." The greatest accomplishment is that you inspire others to make something new.


SOME OF THE THINGS HADEN SAYS MIGHT LEAD YOU TO BELIEVE that the inspiration is divine, but he disclaims the inference: "It’s important for me to be my own guru." Still, he did get his start in music singing the Lord’s praises in country/folk hymns, as part of a family act that performed regularly on radio. He still has tapes of the 2-year-old Charlie yodeling with hillbilly brio and ringing out clear sopranissimo harmonies alongside his kin, delivering lyrics like "This world is not my home, I’m just passing through." The act is also where he learned to pluck the bass.

That particular world indeed did not turn out to be Charlie’s chosen home. He grew up feeling little in common with his classmates, whose often racist attitudes mystified him and whose musical tastes, if any, were limited.

"In my graduating senior class in Forsythe, Missouri, there were 30 students, and most of them were in the Future Farmers of America. Whenever I took kids over to my house to play some music for them, instead of playing Elvis Presley or whatever was popular at the time, I would play Bird, or Duke Ellington."

Haden was hearing that deep voice in his head, and he couldn’t do a thing about it where he was. "In 1956, I got on a bus in Springfield, Missouri, with my bass and my suitcase, and came to Los Angeles. I was going to play. There was nothing that could’ve stopped me."

LA. in ’56 was a wild playground for a musician with the ears Haden had. The fabulous Central Avenue club scene was starting to become de-Centralized, but there were places all over town that were steaming with life and electricity and the smell of change. Haden played straight chord progressions behind country singers, R&B for the dance crowd, bebop and the new West Coast cool sound in the player-intensive jazz clubs and jam sessions. He had come with the idea of knuckling down to music school, but late-late hours on the circuit had him snoring his curriculum away.

"I had started hearing other ways of improvising on chord structures, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about that. I heard this other way of improvising and creating another chord structure instantaneously, based on the inspiration that you receive from the composition, and not only wanting to make another melody on the composition, but to make another chord structure. And whenever I did this, it didn’t make very many people happy. I would play the changes behind the soloist, but when it came time for me to solo, I would go out."

Things started to crystallize in 1958, when Haden landed a gig with the Canadian pianist Paul Bley, who was on an extended stand at the Club Hillcrest. Bley was a melodic jazz player with a growing jones for freer improvisation, and Haden sensed he was finally getting into a bath that suited his body temperature. Then something happened that changed everything. It’s an old story, but Haden doesn’t mind telling it again.

"I went to hear a band at the Haig. During the night, this alto player got up on the stage and asked the leader if he could sit in. So he took his alto out and started playing, and the whole room lit up. I’d never heard anybody play like this before. And as quickly as I could go backstage to find him, he left, because they asked him to stop playing.

"The next night I went to work and hold [drummer] Lenny Brown about it, and I said, ‘Man, I heard an alto player play last night that was unreal, almost like human sound.’ And he said, ‘Did he have a white plastic alto?’ And I said yeah. And he said, ‘That was Ornette Coleman.’ And I said, ‘Do you know him?’ And he said yeah, and I said, ‘Would you introduce me to him?’ So he brought [Ornette] to the Hillcrest, and I told him that I’d heard him and I thought he’d played great, and he said, ‘Thanks, man, nobody usually tells me that. You want to play some after this?’

"So we went over to his apartment and played all day. I was real scared, because I was finally going to be able to do the thing that I’d wanted. All of a sudden, when I played with Ornette he was doing the thing that I was trying to do, and he had it all worked out — he knew exactly what he was doing.

"I had already met [trumpeter] Don Cherry and [drummer] Billy Higgins before that, because we played some gigs together when Cherry was playing piano, and we started going over to Cherry’s house and rehearsing the quartet, with Billy and Cherry and Ornette. We did this every day for a long time, and then Paul Bley asked us to come to the Hillcrest Club. The place had been packed every night, and we stayed there for along time. But when Ornette and Don and Billy came on the gig, business started dropping off, and the only people coming to hear us play were musicians."

Nothing like driving customers out the door to let you know you’re on the right track. And Coleman, the stubbornest prophet jazz ever had, was entertaining no doubts. The quartet’s first album for Atlantic was called The Shape of Jazz. To Come, and the second was Change of the Century. Short of titling them Forget Everything You Know and Listen Up, Dickheads, that was about as much of a challenge as you could imagine. Bird had been dead for four years, true, and people were looking for Something Else! (the more modest title of Coleman’s very first recording, which lacked Haden), but most thought Coleman’s "harmolodic" thing wasn’t it. In fact, in spite of its unthreatening energy — spontaneous, good-natured and just plain fun — they hated it.

Though they continued to perform intermittently with Ornette, the individual members of the quartet (which often included the rolling New Orleans drums of Ed Blackwell) had their own freedom to think of. In 1970 Haden recorded his inaugural Liberation Music Orchestra album for Impulse Records.

Haden corralled a dozen spearheads of the avant-garde (Cherry, Dewey Redman, Andrew Cyrille, Roswell Rudd and more) to perform songs of the Spanish Civil War as well as compositions by Haden, Carla Bley and Ornette, with arrangements by Bley (whom he’d met with her then-husband, Paul, back in ’58). The mixture of a big band, Spanish folk songs and free improvisation seems improbable, but it’s classic. And it also gave Haden a forum for combining music with his personal/societal convictions, in the context of the times: the ’68 Chicago Democratic Convention, Nixon, Kent State, Vietnam.

THE ’70s AND ’80s DID NOT FIND Haden hibernating. He continued his worldwide collaborations, including ongoing alliances with Keith Jarrett and Egberto Gismonti; made a string of Old and New Dreams albums for ECM with Cherry, Blackwell and Redman; put together a second Liberation Music Orchestra recording, Ballad of the Fallen; and founded Quartet West (which now features drummer Larance Marable, pianist Alan Broadbent and saxist Ernie Watts) as a personal expression for his love of L.A. and its past. And he found a second career: as an educator.

"One day I was invited to come out to CalArts to do a duet concert with [cornetist] Bobby Bradford. After we finished, a lot of students started raising their hands and asking us questions, and we were there for another two hours. Nick England, who was the dean of music, left a note to invite me down to his office. He said, ‘I really like the things that you were talking about in there. I’d like it if you would come to CalArts and do that.’

"I founded the jazz department there in 1982, and started a class in improvisation. I focused on discovering your voice, your sound; spontaneity; talking about what happens when you improvise, and what you learn about the human condition from improvisation. Now, with the expert help of David Roitstein, Paul Novros, James Newton, Tootie Heath and Larry Koonse, we have classes in jazz history, keyboard theory, harmony, composition and ensemble playing, and private lessons. And you can obtain a B.A. or a master’s in jazz.

"Some of our graduates are working with groups in New York now. Ravi Coltrane [son of John] is playing saxophone with Elvin Jones. Mike Cain is playing piano with Jack DeJohnette. Nedra Wheeler is playing bass with the Harper Brothers, and Scott Colley is now working with John Scofield’s band."

The department regularly hauls in headline jazz names for seminars. They’ve included Cherry, Higgins, Redman, Motian, Steve Lacy, Pat Metheny and Branford Marsalis. Haden even harbors hopes of nailing Ornette down for a residency.

Right now, you can hear Haden in two settings: the new Liberation Music recording and his trio with drummer Motian and the young piano player Geri Allen, which has cut four excellent releases in the past two years.

The trio is a rare piece of chemistry. Allen is the most complex, thickly rooted young pianist working today, as she’s recently proved again and again on her own albums and on sessions with a diverse cross section of artists (Ralph Peterson, Betty Carter).

"She went to Cuba with my orchestra in ’86, and I just loved her playing from the beginning."

Segments is a follow-up to Downbeat’s 1990 record of the year, the trio’s Etudes. Allen’s keyboard touch is light, but carries a weight that centers in your chest. This gives everything she plays a meditative quality, whether it’s a quick Charlie Parker workout ("Marmaduke," "Segment"), one of her own ephemeral creations ("Rain"), a more angular, astringent Motian tune ("Cabala/Drum Music," "Home") or one of Haden’s minor-key Spanish ballads ("La Pasionara"). Harmonically and rhythmically, she evokes Monk on the bop cuts, elsewhere wandering off on her own space-minded excursions punctuated by moments of surprise and discovery. Motian is a wash of open potential, and Haden is The Ground, the almost invisible center. For all its subcutaneous excitement, this isn’t music to pump you up — it’s just whole, and in some way necessary.

Through the subtlety and craft of Carla Bley’s arrangements, that wholeness is made to happen with 15 instrumentalists and material from all over the world on the Liberation Music Orchestra’s Dream Keeper. Like a vet casino dealer, Bley shuffles together four songs in the 17-minute opening suite (inspired by a Langston Hughes poem), using her own theme as the catalyst. It rises and falls, swells and stirs organically, and, for all its length, ends before you want it to. Political/musical references range from El Salvador to South Mrica back to Nicaragua, with plenty of large rooms built in just for free improvisation. The players, who seem to be breathing a collective "Thank God somebody’s letting us do this!," include many of those from the 1970 recording; they’re augmented by welcome names like reedman Ken McIntyre and trombonist Ray Anderson. (As if to prove the strength of the compositions and his own ability as a teacher, Haden has recently conducted performances of this music at CalArts, played by the school’s students — a proficient and expressive ensemble. The results have been wildly moving.) This one’s a hit.

SPEAKING OF HITS. IT SEEMS THAT Charlie Haden has written a standard. If you only had time to listen to one Haden composition, it ought to be "First Song," a tune that’s been covered by Stan Getz, Abbey Lincoln and David Sanborn since it first appeared on Quartet West’s 1988 In Angel City. He’s also recorded a lyrical take with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba on Discovery (Blue Note). A special version, though, is on the 1990 AIlen/Haden/Motian release In the Year of theDragon. It was the first song Haden wrote for his present wife, Ruth Cameron, whom he married in 1989: "I wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for Ruth. She saved my life. She’s an inspiration." It sounds like something written by a saved man — a simple, inevitable melody, slowly moving through its changes with a feeling of wonder and peace, a mood that flows easily from Geri Allen’s fingers.

And Haden does seem happy right now.

He’s got enough new projects going to burn out a Filofax. He’s in close contact with his son and triplet daughters. (Josh plays bass in the SST band Treacherous Jaywalkers, Tanya is a cellist, Rachel plays piano, Petra plays violin.) Late last year he had a 30-year-delayed L.A. reunion with Ornette Coleman and Billy Higgins at downtown’s Orpheum Theater: "I didn’t want it to end."

Haden tries to focus his eyes and says, "I’m still in awe of everything."