A short obituary of the seminal jazz bassist and anti-war activist Charlie Haden, who died last week.
The hugely influential jazz bassist and political activist Charlie Haden died on the 11th July. His death was caused by complications arising from the polio he had contracted during his youth. Born in Iowa on Aug. 6, 1937, he was born into a Midwestern clan of musicians who made their name touring the Country and Western circuit in the run up to WWII.
While his career spanned nearly 70 years he may be most fondly (and widely) remembered as a member of Ornette Coleman’s Quartet (alongside Don Cherry and Billy Higgins). Haden’s style could swing between instinctual rhythmic fundamentals and wilder, freer soirees all within the same movement and his contributions anchor the Quartets absolutely epochal “The Shape Of Jazz To Come” (Atlantic, 1959). Its pointless even bothering to try and convey quite how much of a profound fork in the road this was for experimental music, especially while writing this obituary at work when I’m supposed to be doing other things entirely.
But, in brief: they did away with jazz based around a chordal approach (the group didn't even contain instruments that are used to produce conventional chords anyhow) and after an abbreviated intro sequence centred on a wisp of melody, there followed lengthy improvisatory sections that bled into each other, back and forth into abstraction until finally falling back into the initial main theme. A simple description of this doesn't really do it justice. If anything it probably makes those extraordinary sounds come across as somewhat academic, that or just a minor advancement on the prevailing bebop sound of the era. But without “The Shape…” the free jazz movement that fostered some of the most sonically and politically radical music of the twentieth century would have been very different indeed. While succeeding generations ramped up the deliriously primal aspects of the “new thing”* with often harrowing results, “The Shape…” remains a free jazz Rosetta Stone.
It’s incredible to think that Haden was in his early twenties when he played on that record. But maybe that’s the kind of shit you can only really pull off when you are still convinced that you are invincible. I dunno. If I did I’d not be sat here right now worrying about whether or not my boss is going to walk past and grill me on my call handling time. Haden’s interplay with Don Cherry’s cornet adds a wee bit of ballast upon which Coleman can spin off his languid but occasionally austere polytonal alto-sax runs. He established one of the core free jazz principles: there’s a kind of elemental order amidst that chaos, because life isn't simple, it’s about contradictions, it certainly makes no sense to attempt to centralize it, and sound doesn't work that way either. He stayed on board for a run of records through the 1960’s that are astounding in their breadth and the constant forward motion of their ideas, from the sublime “This Is Our Music” (1961, Atlantic) to “Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation” (also 1961, Atlantic). The latter formalized the term most often used to refer to this breakthrough in expressionistic jazz and pointed towards similarly large scale improvisations such as John Coltranes “Ascencion” (1965, Impulse!).
Politics were never far from the surface in free jazz, with many musicians using the new medium as a form of protest against the racial oppression of the state, and in 1969 Haden started a new group with Carla Bley, the Liberation Music Orchestra. Founded during the height of the Vietnam war, their first record was credited to Haden as bandleader. The albums gestation can be traced back to various group members’ interest in songs from the Spanish Revolution. A handful appears on that first record: "El Quinto Regimiento", "Los Cuatro Generales", and "Viva la Quince Brigada”.
Bley’s influence is a big one throughout proceedings, acting as arranger on a number of tracks and contributing as much as anyone else to the manner in which things swing woozily from clipped snippets of folk melody towards more churning, deconstructed breakdowns. The decision to include a brief refrain of “We Shall Overcome” as the albums final piece was motivated by the group’s distress at the inadequacy of the Democratic Party to oppose American involvement in Vietnam during their National Convention of 1968. Haden detailed this in his liner notes:
"After the minority plank on Vietnam was defeated in a vote taken on the convention floor, the California and New York delegations spontaneously began to sing 'We Shall Overcome' in protest. Unable to gain control of the floor, the rostrum instructed the convention orchestra to drown out the singing. 'You're a Grand Old Flag' and 'Happy Days Are Here Again' could then be heard trying to stifle 'We Shall Overcome'. To me this told the story, in music, of what was happening in our country politically."
To further demonstrate this political and generational disunity, the closer is preceded by "Circus '68 '69", in which Bley and Haden divided the group into two sections paired off against each other, attempting to drown the other out so as to further the themes of liberation and oppression.
Liberation Music Orchestra would periodically reassemble throughout the years, usually amidst the toxicity of another Republican administration. Most recently they put out “Not In Our Name”, a response to western involvement in Iraq. In 1971 Haden was even briefly incarcerated for dedicating his “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola.
In light of his passing, Charlie Haden has been widely quoted as saying his main inspiration was “the struggle of poor people”. His music reflected that. It was angry, determined, singular but also playful, hedonistic and far more experimental and innovative than trad-jazz bores are ever likely to give it credit for.
But fuck them.
*See Val Wilmer's "As Serious as Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz" (London: Allison & Busby, 1977) if you fancy a good overview of the period in book form.