Jazz bass legend Charlie Haden yearns to perform again

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The revered jazz bassist Charlie Haden hopes he can give a brief speech when he picks up his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy the day before the Grammys are broadcast on Feb. 10.

But Haden sometimes has difficulty speaking, and his energy level isn't what it used to be. He hasn't eaten solid food in about two years, he says, and he has considerable difficulty swallowing.

These symptoms, and others, have been caused by the onset of post-polio syndrome at the end of 2010, and they have dramatically altered Haden's life – and denied the rest of us the pleasure of basking in the warm glow of his music live.

In fact, though Haden still plays his bass every day, very few people have heard him since his last public performance in September, 2011, at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood. When musician friends such as guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Alan Broadbent swing through the Los Angeles area, they stop by Haden's house and jam with him.

The rest of the time, Haden plays along with recordings in his living room, the sounds of J.S. Bach and Bill Evans echoing around him.

"It gives me a chance to exercise my imagination and my improvisation and my spontaneity and keep the ideas flowing," says Haden, of his mostly solitary musical life. "That's what it's all about."

Haden never imagined that polio could have stricken him twice.

The first time, he was a 15-year-old living in Omaha in the early 1950s, during the polio epidemic. He was out on the golf course with his father – a farmer who also played country music on the radio with the Haden family band – when Charlie collapsed with a 105 degree fever.

Because area hospitals were overrun with polio cases, Haden was treated at home for what was diagnosed as bulbar polio.

"The bulbar area is ... in the back of the neck (and) affects the nerves that go through the throat and facial muscles," says Ruth Cameron, Haden's partner "in love, life and music" since 1984 and his wife and co-producer since 1989.

"He didn't have polio that affected his lungs, so he didn't have an iron lung. It didn't affect his spinal cord or legs. He was put in quarantine at home and was in bed for pretty much a year. I think it must have been very traumatic."

The recovery indeed was slow and difficult, says Haden, but at least he recovered.

"The doctor told me that the kind (of polio) I had … was around the throat, would eventually go away, and I'd never have it again," says Haden.

When he was back on his feet, he couldn't sing well enough with the Haden family anymore, so he focused on playing the bass, an instrument that already had captivated him because it made music sound so "full and deep," he says. In a way, you could say the bass became a substitute for his voice.

Smitten with the music he heard at Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts, which brought the stars to audiences across America, Haden heard in jazz a natural kinship with the country-western songs of his youth. Like that music, jazz had folkloric roots, but it took its populist impulses to heightened levels of harmonic and rhythmic complexity.

Yet "when I played my Charlie Parker records for my school friends, most of whom were going to be the farmers of tomorrow, they looked at me like I was from Mars," Haden told me in 2002.

So he headed to Los Angeles in hopes of meeting the pianist Hampton Hawes (with whom he indeed soon was playing) and found his life and art dramatically changed when he encountered a musician as open-eared as he was: alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

"He played like some revolutionary angel," Haden said in the 2002 interview. "Soon we were rehearsing in his place, music scattered everywhere, and he was telling me to play 'outside the chord changes,' which was exactly what I had been wanted to do. Now I had permission."

The radical new music that Coleman, Haden, drummer Billy Higgins and trumpeter Don Cherry conceived in aptly named recordings such as "The Shape of Jazz to Come" (1959) and "Change of the Century" (1960) transcended long-venerated conventions regarding chord changes and song structures. These breakthroughs course through the music today, in the work of experimenters such as Ken Vandermark and the iconoclasts of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

But Haden's contributions have yielded other enticements, as well. Only a musician with as radiant a sound on bass and as inquisitive an approach to music-making could have contributed so meaningfully to so many far-flung projects. He played elegantly in Keith Jarrett's trio and quartet in the late 1960s and early '70s; expressed an unapologetically political message with his Liberation Music Orchestra starting in 1969; exploried world music with his "Folk Songs" album of the 1970s and in his collaborations with Brazilian guitarist-pianist Egbert Gismonti, Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Argentine bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi and others; and captured the dark romanticism of Hollywood film noir with his Quartet West in recordings such as "Haunted Heart" in the 1990s.

In recent years, too, Haden has been equally prolific, bringing that robust tone but softly cushioned touch of his to recordings such as "Jasmine" (2010), a series of ethereal duets with Jarrett; "Come Sunday" (2011), a sublime collection of spiritual music with pianist Hank Jones; and "Magico: Carta de Amor" (recorded in 1981 but released in 2012) a feast of melody with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and Gismonti. Haden's musical philosophies also unfold in the disarming 2009 documentary film "Rambling Boy."

These contributions have not been lost on younger generations of musicians, with the noted pianist Ethan Iverson, of the trio The Bad Plus, recently writing expansively about Haden's forthcoming award on Iverson's blog Do the Math (dothemath.typepad.com).

"The phrase 'revolutionized the harmonic concept of bass playing' is actually dead on," wrote Iverson, quoting the Recording Academy's press release. "Charlie is endlessly provocative in his choice of notes.

"The one thing that should always be said about Charlie, though, is that there is a whole genre of music with 'improvised harmony' that can't exist without him. It started with Ornette, then moved to Keith Jarrett, Dewey Redman and Paul Motian. … All of that canonical music requires Charlie Haden."

Haden says he draws comfort from words like these, and he hopes he can continue to prove worthy of them by eventually returning to the stage.

"I miss it very much," he says. "A lot of people call me to play. …

"Oh, man – one of the main things I want to do is play my bass again (publicly). It's why I live."

Though Haden still struggles daily with his illness, he sees reasons for optimism. This week, he will try to begin teaching again at the California Institute of the Arts, a particularly meaningful return because he founded its jazz program in 1982.

"Now that his pain level has been reduced by new treatments, that has improved his spirits," says Cameron. "But he's very challenged by the fact that he can't swallow the way he wants to. We never ate meat, but he'd give anything for a cheeseburger right now."

On the other hand, until last Thanksgiving, "he wasn't really listening to music – now he's listening," adds Cameron. Playing with his friends "is giving him a bit of a boost. … He sounds as beautiful as ever. That's the one thing. It's remarkable. … All great musicians, just their touch has a vibration, and he hasn't lost any of that vibration or sound."

Says pianist Broadbent in an email, "When we got together to jam, even though he hadn't played in awhile, it was 100 percent Charlie, with that big, round, warm sound that's so identifiably his and the youthful energy of his playing that belies his age. How he immediately taps into it is a mystery to me."

For the next several days, Haden will be rehearsing the text he hopes to deliver at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles, says Cameron, "so he can control his speech. He'll see if he needs to keep it short."

But even if he utters just a few words, says Haden, he'll do it.

"I've got my fingers crossed that I'll be OK to accept that award," says Haden, who was unable to travel to New York last year to receive the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award.

"If nothing else, I'll just get up on stage and say: 'Thank you, folks. My doctors said I shouldn't talk so long.'"

Considering all the indelible music Haden has given us, not much more is necessary.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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