Charlie Haden, a Grammy-winning bassist who came to the attention of the jazz world in the 1950s with the revolutionary Ornette Coleman Quartet and pushed against the genre’s boundaries for more than five decades, died Friday in Los Angeles after a long illness. He was 76.
His death was announced by his wife, Ruth Cameron.
Described by Time magazine as “one of the most restless, gifted and intrepid players in all of jazz,” Haden was a member of the pioneering quartet led by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman. Haden recorded “The Shape of Jazz to Come” with Coleman in 1959. Later that year, his performance with the Coleman quartet at the Five Spot jazz club in New York City was viewed as the springboard for the transformative, avant-garde, free jazz developments of the ‘60s.
Haden, who received a lifetime achievement Grammy Award in 2013, remembered Coleman as one of the key creative connections in his long, far-reaching career.
“We were rehearsing in his place,” Haden recalled in the Chicago Tribune in 2002, “music scattered everywhere, and he was telling me to play ‘outside the chord changes,’ which was exactly what I had been wanting to do. Now I had permission.”
In the post-Coleman years, Haden was a primary participant in the imaginative new jazz ideas surfacing in the ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond, performing with the likes of John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Joe Henderson and others. His creative associations led to his founding the Liberation Music Orchestra, followed by the Charlie Haden Quartet West, and included partnerships with pianists such as Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Denny Zeitlin, Hank Jones and Gonzalo Rubalcaba.
Despite the revolutionary new aspects of moving beyond familiar jazz harmonies and rhythms, the challenge of providing a sturdy, rhythmic foundation within a wide-open improvisational environment was well within Haden’s range of skills. He had been playing bass in his family’s band since he was a teenager.
Charles Edward Haden was born Aug. 6, 1937, in Shenandoah, Iowa. His musical career could be traced to his early childhood, when he began to perform first as Little Cowboy Charlie and later as a bassist on the Haden Family country music radio show with his parents and three older siblings.
“My dad built this big farm house next to my grandparents’ with a studio in the farm house,” he told Jazz Times. “And when it came time for us to go on the air, my dad would crank this phone, they’d put us on the air and we’d start singing.”
In his mid-teens, Haden went with his father to Omaha for a Charlie Parker and Lester Young performance. He described the experience to Time magazine as a musical epiphany: “It was pretty much decided inside my soul that jazz was what I was going to do. It was like having the music born inside you.”
In the mid-'50s, his attraction to jazz led him to Los Angeles to attend the Westlake School of Music. By the end of the decade he was in the spotlight with Coleman.
Haden moved into new territory in 1969 when he founded the Liberation Music Orchestra, with music arranged by pianist and composer Carla Bley.
As Haden explained to Down Beat’s Josef Woodard, the formation of the group “was brought about by the Vietnam War, by the turmoil that was going on in the world caused by United States aggression. I felt I had to do something about it in my own way.”
Toward that end, but in a broader historical sense, the initial Liberation Music Orchestra albums were inspired by Haden’s fascination with the Spanish Civil War. The orchestra continued to perform and record for the next four decades, with occasional changes in personnel.
Haden’s strong interest in Raymond Chandler’s novels, film noir and the atmosphere of the ‘30s and ‘40s was the driving force behind the 1986 establishment of his musically adventurous Charlie Haden Quartet West. Working closely with pianist/arranger Alan Broadbent, he established the ensemble’s lush, harmonically rich sound, sometimes performing as a quartet, sometimes with the addition of strings.
Describing the Quartet West group on his website, Haden wrote, “We have developed an intuitive sense musically and spiritually. Just like the Modern Jazz Quartet, we’ve developed a sound that has come from playing together for a long time.”
Also in the 1980s, Haden played a major role in the founding of the jazz program at the California Institute of the Arts.
Haden recorded dozens of albums beyond those of his own groups. His musical associations included performances and/or recordings with major jazz artists of the second half of the 20th century: Stan Getz, Wayne Shorter, Brad Mehldau, John McLaughlin, Chet Baker, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Lee Konitz, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny and many others.
Haden was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and a Guggenheim fellow and won three Grammy Awards.
At the end of 2010, Haden, who lived in Agoura Hills, experienced the onset of post-polio syndrome, generated by a bout with polio when he was 15. Despite chronic fatigue and difficulty eating and speaking, he played privately with close friends such as Metheny and Broadbent. But his fervent wish was to perform in public again.
“It’s why I live,” he told the Chicago Tribune.
He got his wish at REDCAT at Disney Hall last December when he led an ensemble of CalArts musicians through pieces from his Liberation Music Orchestra. Although frail, he could not hide his passion. “What a band!” he cried between songs. He returned to his bass for a welcomed encore, a lush cover of the Bill Evans-Miles Davis standard “Blue in Green.”
Haden’s family members all followed in his musical path. His wife, Ruth Cameron, and triplet daughters Petra, Tanya and Rachel Haden are singers. Son Josh is a bassist.