Charlie Haden

[If] you strive to become a good person, maybe you might become a great jazz musician.

I don’t remember much about about my university days; there’s not much to remember. One of the few things that stuck, though, was this lecturer in the English department who, besides being one of the nicest academics I have had the pleasure to meet and study with, was also an uncanny clairvoyant. She would take a shot at guessing details about each one of us in the class: family, hobbies, likes, dislikes, and so on. For some reason, when my turn came, she said I played in a jazz band. Of course, she was wrong, but I pointed out she’s not too far off the mark. I love jazz, deeply.

So, having read the news that Charlie Haden had recently passed on, I naturally feel the need to take a moment. Although Haden got started in the 60s and 70s playing with Ornette Coleman and also formed the Liberation Music Orchestra, I got my first introduction to Haden’s consonant style of free jazz in the 1994 album Steal Away, a collaboration between Haden and pianist Hank Jones. Featuring interpretations of traditional hymns and folk songs, the duo drew sublime beauty from quiet turns in every song, and swung with joy and grace when the occasion called for it.

Even on more middle-of-the-road fare like Beyond the Missouri Sky (a collaboration with his long-time friend Pat Metheny), Haden’s playing is always majestic, assured, and penetrating. Regarded as one of the founders of free jazz, Charlie Haden’s approach to music transcended various styles and roles. In his youth, he sang country with his family on a radio show. When polio (it’s after-effects would afflict him for the rest of his life) took away his ability to sing, he took to playing bass and eventually started playing jazz in the late 50s. He was a solid sessionist and also played as part of duos and trios, and in many instances other more players would inevitably steal the limelight – Beyond the Missouri Sky is a great example – but a conscious listen would more often than not reveal Haden as the anchor of the performance.

Haden’s versatility and balance of soulfulness and technical excellence is carried on by his children, all of whom are artists in their in indie and alternative pop-rock acts (The Haden Triplets, Spain, The Decemberists).

Here’s a video of Haden with his band Quartet West, playing one of his own – and one of my favorite – compositions, “First Song.”

Also, here’s some Charlie Haden music you might want to check out at library@esplanade: