Charlie Haden: Everything Man
Don Heckman profiles noted bassist and bandleader
From country music to free jazz to Sophisticated Ladies, his romantic new release featuring Quartet West and a host of vocal greats, there isn’t much Charlie Haden hasn’t done musically in his 73 years. Here, the historic bassist, composer and bandleader details recent projects, takes stock and hints at the possibility of a new recorded collaboration with
Charlie Haden has a lot on his mind. His new record is about to drop, bookings to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his Quartet West are lining up, and in just a couple days he’ll be performing in Singapore.
But at the moment, seated in an Italian restaurant near his home in a northwest suburb of Los Angeles, it’s the coffee he’s drinking that’s bothering him. He’s been coughing since he took the first sip. “Coffee!” he mutters. “I keep drinking it and I keep coughing.” And then, in his typically whimsical fashion, he laughs at the inadvertent pun.
Fortunately, the last cough plays itself out, and Haden can finally continue our conversation about his eternally busy musical life. “Renaissance man” is a term that’s often bandied about too freely, but in Haden’s case it seems completely appropriate.
Take the new Quartet West album, Sophisticated Ladies (Emarcy), for example. Like previous recordings by the band, whose current lineup is bassist Haden, pianist/arranger Alan Broadbent, saxophonist Ernie Watts and new drummer Rodney Green, it springs from an intriguing concept. In this case that means American standards and obscurities, illuminated via the voices of some of Haden’s favorite singers in romantic, string-laden settings. “I want to tell you about all of it, man,” he says, leaning back in his chair. “It’s one of the best things I’ve done.” Which is high praise indeed, because Haden’s done a lot. At 73, he still has a strikingly youthful demeanor, and his enthusiasm is palpable.
Still, Broadbent, who describes himself as the “official film-noir arranger for the quartet,” had doubts when Haden first described the project. “About six months ago Charlie approached me with the idea of getting these singers together to do something with us,” he recalls. “And I said, ‘What singers are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘Diana [Krall], Norah Jones.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ And then he rattled off the other names. I said, ‘That’s wonderful, Charlie, but no way—no way you’re going to get all these divas together.’ But he did, and before I knew it, I was writing these arrangements and he was making it happen. That’s Charlie.”
Krall, who studied with Broadbent when she first moved to Los Angeles, was an immediate choice. “Diana and I have been friends for many years,” says Haden, “going back to when she was in L.A. and she was studying a little bit with Alan and Jimmy Rowles. Alan was actually on tour with her when we started to put this together.”
Krall’s song selection was the Gordon Jenkins classic “Goodbye,” once the theme for the Benny Goodman Orchestra. The poignant composition, written by Jenkins after his wife died in childbirth, was also included in last year’s Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden release, Jasmine (ECM). “After Diana,” says Haden, “I called Melody Gardot and Norah Jones, and they said they were just honored to be asked to do it. Cassandra Wilson and Renée Fleming had the same reactions, and I was honored to have them, too, because they’re all very important singers, as well as being very gracious.”
Like the other singers, Jones accepted the invitation because, as she says, “I’ve always been a Charlie fan. One of my favorite records is the one he did with Hank Jones called Steal Away. Also, since we have similar loves for both jazz and country and folk music, I thought it would be fun to get together.”
Her feelings about Haden were confirmed at the recording. “He’s a good hang,” she says.
Despite the enthusiasm, scheduling was a problem. “It was rough getting them together,” says Haden, “because they all had their own tour commitments. I actually got three of them in the studio with the strings, but two of them—Cassandra Wilson and Renée Fleming—had to wear headphones. All of them kind of told me, ‘I want to sing with the strings, I don’t want to sing with headphones.’ But I had to tell them, ‘Well, we’re going to have to do headphones, because we can only afford the orchestra for one day, and we can’t schedule everyone for that one day.’”
In addition to “Goodbye,” the program for Sophisticated Ladies sparkles. “If I’m Lucky” had a special impact on Gardot, who wasn’t familiar with the song. According to Haden, she called him in tears, saying, “Oh my God, Charlie. I just Googled the song. Perry Como used to do it, and my father just loved Perry Como.” Jones came up with her own pick. “I love this song called ‘Ill Wind,’” she told Haden. “I’ve never sung it, but I love it.”
“My Love and I,” sung by Wilson, traces to the mid-’50s Burt Lancaster Western Apache. “We really had to work to track that one down,” says Haden. “It was originally part of the score by David Raksin. But it took us a while to discover that lyrics were added later by Johnny Mercer, who’d also written lyrics for Raksin’s ‘Laura.’”
“A Love Like This,” Fleming’s offering, can be heard in another film, For Whom the Bell Tolls. “I played the song for her,” Haden recalls, “and she really loved it. It’s almost like a classical kind of art song, played throughout the movie as a love theme.”
The song “Let’s Call It a Day” nearly generated dissension within the Haden family. Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, a fine singer in her own right and co-producer of Sophisticated Ladies, had been planning to record it for her own project but hadn’t yet committed it to tape.
Haden approached the matter gently. “When the opportunity came up to do this album, I asked Ruth, ‘Can I talk you into not doing it on your record, and doing it on my record?’ And then, after a moment of silence, she said, ‘Oh, I guess so.’”
Haden laughs at the memory before covering himself. “Of course, we actually have some great songs for her record, too, man. Really!”
Cameron is more than pleased with how the album turned out, and praises Haden’s quiet yet controlled production work. “Charlie is the best,” she says. “He never interferes with your interpretation and always knows instinctively what you need musically.”
The six instrumental tracks on Sophisticated Ladies cover a similar range, and showcase the group’s instantly identifiable aesthetic: classic and cool and somewhat mysterious. Some are clearly present for their romantic aspects— “Sophisticated Lady,” of course, as well as the lyrical theme from the TV series Markham, Hank Jones’ lovely “Angel Face” and the standard “My Old Flame.” Together with Steve Kuhn’s “Today I Am a Man” and Benny Harris’ bop classic “Wahoo,” the record’s wordless portion defines the versatility and musical empathy that have kept Quartet West together for so many years.
Although the group is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, some of its relationships reach back even further. Watts and Broadbent attended the Berklee School of Music together in the mid-’60s, and both received DownBeat scholarships. Watts has high praise for the scoring his old friend has done over the years. “Alan’s writing is so voluptuous,” he says. “It’s so nice to play that music—everything he writes.”
He goes on to describe the importance of the quartet’s professional and personal empathy. “We’ve played a lot of different kinds of music in a lot of different environments and had many, many experiences. Everybody just loves the music and everybody loves each other. It’s a very, very comfortable playing environment—a very open and free kind of playing environment, so it feels really good to be there. Bottom line: It’s like a family.”
“Charlie’s one of those guys like Woody Herman,” adds Broadbent. “He puts bands together. He gets people together to realize a musical vision he has, although within that vision there’s always room for our own personalities.”
For many—probably most—jazz artists, an album like Sophisticated Ladies would be a rare offshoot. But not for Haden, whose credits reach from Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett to Dizzy Gillespie, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, Yoko Ono and Ringo Starr, also hitting such global jazz figures as Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti, Enrico Pieranunzi and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. (And don’t forget Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.)
But when I mention this wide-ranging resume, Haden smiles and says, “Hey, you forgot my career as a country singer.”
He’s right. Especially since it was Haden’s first musical experience, beginning, he swears, when he was 22 months old, in his hometown of Shenandoah, Iowa. “It’s true,” he enthuses. “My mom said she was rocking me to sleep one day, singing this song, and I started humming the harmony with her. She said, ‘That’s when I found out you were ready for the show.’”
“The show” was The Haden Family radio show featuring the future jazz icon, his parents and his three older siblings. “This was in the late ’40s,” he recalls. “They used to get the Carters and Roy Acuff and everybody from Nashville to come up and guest on the show. When they’d come to Springfield, Mother Maybelle Carter would come and stay with us. She was good friends with my mother, and she used to sing me to sleep.”
Haden’s previous album, 2008’s Rambling Boy, recalls those youthful years with country tunes performed by Haden’s family—wife Ruth and their four children, Josh, Petra, Tanya and Rachel—and an impressive stable of guests. On one track, the leader’s youthful precocity is affirmed by a recording from a radio broadcast in which the 2-year-old Charles Edward Haden sings and yodels.
But it was jazz that soon exerted a powerful attraction for Haden as a teenager. By the time he was ready for college in the mid-’50s, he moved to Los Angeles to study at the Westlake College of Music, turning down a scholarship to Oberlin because it did not, at the time, have much of a jazz program. Gigs came quickly with the likes of Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Paul Bley and others. “It was cool, man,” he says. “But what I really wanted was to be back there earlier, like a decade earlier, playing with Bird and Fats and those guys.”
“But if you had been able to do that,” I ask, “wouldn’t it have led to a very different life?”
“Maybe not,” Haden replies, reflective. “I mean, I had the same affliction Bird did, so probably I wouldn’t even have had a life.”
“In which case you wouldn’t have played with Ornette Coleman.”
“Yeah, man. Exactly. I would have missed Ornette. And that was just as important—that renaissance or revolution, whatever. But I’ll tell you something about Ornette that most people don’t realize. There’s a record we made with Paul Bley called The Fabulous Paul Bley Quintet at the Hillcrest. And we’re playing tunes like “Klactoveesedstene,” and all those songs with chord changes. And Ornette is playing all the changes. You can hear them. And, man, he used to play chord changes with us all the time.”
When Haden, Coleman, trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins arrived in New York City for a seminal gig at the Five Spot Café in November 1959, the music had moved beyond bebop tunes and chord changes. The Coleman Quartet’s six-week run triggered the arrival of what would be called free jazz, avant-garde jazz and the New Thing. Much of the jazz that followed in the ’60s and beyond, however it evolved, seemed inextricably linked to the startling music that flowed from the Coleman Quartet.
For the players, however, it was something that, according to Haden, they “worked out as we went along. We did it all by ear. At first when we were playing and improvising, we kind of followed the pattern of the song, sometimes. Then, when we got to New York, Ornette wasn’t playing on the song patterns, like the bridge and the interlude and stuff like that. He would just play. And that’s when I started just following him and playing the chord changes that he was playing: on-the-spot new chord structures made up according to how he felt at any given moment. And Cherry was kind of playing like that, too, so Billy and I kind of followed it.
“The truth is,” he continues, “that when we had first met, we were kind of all hearing that way already. We just happened to be at the right place at the right time, all together, to make this thing happen. And it just kept getting better and better.”
Despite all Haden has accomplished since his years with Coleman, he continues to look back at that period with a deep affection. And, as eager as he is to continue assembling projects like Sophisticated Ladies, he would love to have a Coleman/Haden reunion recording on his agenda. “I’m trying to get him to record again, man,” he says. “’Cause we’re the only ones left from the quartet. I played with Ornette at the North Sea festival on July 8, 2010, and it was something else. Just me and him and his son Denardo. I keep talking to Denardo about getting back together, recording the tunes again from that  record The Empty Foxhole—a revolutionary record right there. [Ed. Note: Coleman famously and controversially chose a 10-year-old Denardo to play drums on that trio date.]
“[Those tunes] haven’t been recorded since,” he goes on. “So my idea is to do an Empty Foxhole tour, or something like that. But you know Ornette; he’s the one who has to instigate the idea.”
Haden no doubt has in mind the process that brought about the recording of Jasmine, last year’s highly praised collection of duet performances with Keith Jarrett. Like the proposed Coleman/Haden recording, the Jarrett/Haden teaming is a revival of an extended musical relationship, dating back to his numerous recordings with Jarrett in the ’60s and ’70s—including those by the pianist’s revered “American” Quartet.
It apparently came about spontaneously, although Haden suspects that his wife, Ruth, who manages all of the details of his career, may have had something to do with it. In 2007, the couple was planning to visit Jarrett at his home and studio in New Jersey, to record an interview with him for Rambling Boy, the excellent documentary by Zurich-born filmmaker Reto Caduff. As they were getting ready to leave, Ruth asked him to put his bass in the car.
Haden recalled the exchange with a sardonic smile. “I looked at her and said, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Just put your bass in the car.’ And I said, ‘OK…’ So we got there, they were interviewing Keith, and then afterwards he said, ‘So you have your bass in the car?’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Who told you that?’ But he ignored that and just said, ‘Bring it in.’ So I did, and we started playing. It was like magic. He jumped up, hugged me and said, ‘Man, this is so great!’ He said, ‘Charlie, we’ve got to record.’”
Fans will be happy to hear that there wasn’t enough room to put all the music on a single CD. “I don’t know,” says Haden, “if it’s going to come out as a second CD, or if we’ll do another one or what. Because you never know what Keith’s going to do. But there’s enough for another album.”
Haden’s relentless schedule will continue through this year with the release of an album with Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau and Paul Motian marking the 60th anniversary of Birdland, as well as another duo album with Hank Jones, reportedly the pianist’s last recording before his death in May 2010. Haden is also hoping for another get together with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and guitarist Egberto Gismonti for a CD following in the path of their Magico and Folk Songs albums. In between, he’ll be celebrating Quartet West’s quarter century with appearances in the U.S. and abroad.
Haden’s coffee safely finished, his assistant reminds him that Singapore beckons, and that they’d better get moving. But I manage to squeeze in one more question, asking him what it is that has driven him toward so many different creative goals. Are Renaissance men born or are they made?
He pauses for a moment, then answers, quietly, thoughtfully.
“Well, my parents were like that, too, and I’ve always, from the beginning, wanted to play different music from different parts of the world. And then, as I was exposed to the problems of society as I was growing up—racism, Vietnam—that affected me, too. But I think the simple answer is this: Who you are and what you do comes from what’s inside you.”
Originally published in May 2011