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Farewell: Charlie Haden

8.6.37–7.11.14

Charlie Haden
Charlie Haden and Jim Hall
Charlie Haden in Germany in 1972

My early bass influences were guys like Ray Brown, Ron Carter and Paul Chambers, but after high school I simultaneously got into Charlie and Dave Holland. They played quite differently from each other, but I was amazed by the sound, the concepts, the depth of their focus and the depth of their interpretation of the music that each was involved in. They both had instantly identifiable sounds, but they were quite opposite in the way they touched the bass. Charlie played light but got this big sound. Both were very valid and incredibly interesting, and I wanted to incorporate their approaches into what would one day become my sound.

With Charlie, what blew me away was how he remained a folk musician. In the way that blues musicians are folk musicians, Charlie maintained a deep folkloric element in his playing, and when he played those slow-moving solos, they were almost like beautiful nursery rhymes-just gorgeous melodies that were so clear. There was no posturing or trying to impress people. He was very concise, and he was very mature in the way he expressed himself. Each note was crafted and delivered with a lot of emotion. It was straight-up soul.

When he would get ready to solo, he would often have everyone in the band sit out and he’d be alone, working his spell on the audience. Even though I knew it was coming, it’d still make me cry. It was like, “I know what he’s going to do, but he’s still going to get me, I know it.” [laughs]

This is someone who had such a long and prolific career and had his own voice, so there’s so much to talk about: the Ornette records, his work with Keith Jarrett, his work with Michael Brecker, Steal Away with Hank Jones, Beyond the Missouri Sky with Pat Metheny, also 80/81. In the early ’80s, I remember going to see Old and New Dreams with Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie and Ed Blackwell. It was an amazing concert at Royce Hall at UCLA. I talked about that concert recently with Scott Colley, who flourished under Charlie’s teaching. He’s a great bass player, very creative, very sensitive, with a beautiful sound.

Charlie could be a traditionalist in the way he fulfilled the foundational role of the bass player, but he was also very wide open and free in his playing, and used the bass in coloristic ways. Of course the Ornette Coleman Quartet was a revolutionary band. Here was a bass player in a saxophone-led group who was encouraged to wear many hats and fulfill different voices within the ensemble. And that’s certainly what I’ve experienced over the years with Wayne Shorter. He knew that Danilo Pérez and Brian Blade and I wanted to be very sensitive about how to make the whole orchestration fly. Wayne realized we weren’t going to throw our traditional roles out the window, so he encouraged us to stretch and break free and take on different sounds. Because of Ornette’s open approach, I imagine he was encouraging that sort of thing as well. There is a common thread there, with the compositional freedom we were given.

I got to know Charlie personally a bit because I had this big Vuillaume bass, which was made not long after the famous Vuillaume that he had. So we talked about our basses, and he was always really funny about it: “Mine’s better!” [laughs] At one point both of our Vuillaumes were at David Gage’s shop in New York, and he would sort of want people to play his bass but not really; he really wanted them to say how great it was-and it was great, it is great. I have a picture of me at Gage’s with both instruments side by side. When they were both there being worked on, Charlie would call David and say, “Yeah, so John’s bass is there too. … Sounds good, yeah. … But mine’s better, right?” [As told to Evan Haga]

Originally Published