Home Imperatives Charlie Haden: The Musical Intellectual

Charlie Haden: The Musical Intellectual

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Charlie Haden
When my father died, I mourned him greatly. We had a rocky relationship. He abused alcohol for most of his life and smoked heavily. Then, one day, he gave up liquor and cigarettes altogether and he became a changed man. So I missed him for his great baritone voice—and he sang mightily. He was also a genius, who finished his engineering studies before he was even twenty. It was a joy to talk to him; about music, mathematics. He taught me to visualize things in space. I became rather good in spatial geometry as a result. Our conversations got more mature and became joyous as the years rolled by. One day he built me a tea-chest bass. All it took was an empty tea-crate a thick cat-gut strung through a stout wooden pole. The other end of the gut string was fixed stoutly inside the tea-chest. I remember standing on the sofa in our living room and trying to imitate bass of Wellman Braud, the great Creole bassist from the Duke Ellington Orchestra; then a failed attempt at Jimmy Blanton and a bigger disaster at attempts to play like Charles Mingus.

Then one day I heard Charlie Haden playing with Ornette Coleman. I was transfixed. I knew immediately that I liked him and his musicianship. I also fantasised why Ornette Coleman might have liked him too: he played rock-steady rhythm and melodically as well. His mode was also played deceptively simple. I thought I could imitate him, but it was hard. So I listened to him like a maniac. All day I played his LPs on our little Dual record player, listening for his chord changes and just when I thought I had figured them out the rich tonal values of his notes became a new fascination. And then the texture of them was so voluptuous I thought of Joanne, the girl who was five years older than me and who had the most molten, sexy curves and who I desired immensely. But then I always went back to Mr. Mingus and Charlie Haden. I had imaginary conversations with him just like I did with my father and I admired him in the same way that I did my father. He had great musicianship, and as advanced in years I also realised that this was accompanied by a sparkling intellect. So our conversations—imaginary, of course—began to take place many times a day. My family thought I had gone completely mad. But I was asking him questions about music and listening for answers when I played his records.

I loved Charlie Haden’s music with Mr. Coleman, but then as the years went by I discovered other music by him. He turned me on to film music with his ensemble, Quartet West; some of the records featured song by older, almost forgotten movie writers and the stars in the movies came alive as he mixed in movie vocal tracks with his band that featured Ernie Watts and Laurence Marable. The elegy that he wrote for his Ellen David, “Song for Ellen David” on an album entitled “Closeness” Duets (A&M) was breathtaking, as was music he wrote for Ruth Cameron, his wife of 30 years. When he turned 60 years old, his wife gave him a surprise. She organised a birthday bash where he played with and recorded the brilliant songs on a two CDs entitled Private Collection (Naim). In 2008 the music was rereleased as a 3-LP limited audiophile edition by Naim and it is a brilliant production. But my absolute favourite collection is the Montreal Tapes, a series of duets played with likes of Geri Allen, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Egberto Gismonti, Paul Bley and several others. The most challenging work in this series was a set he recorded with his famous big band, the Liberation Music Orchestra and on that was the brilliant “This is not America,” a protest song written in the George W. Bush era of war and near totalitarian America.

Mr. Haden was a committed artist. He was political. Once, protesting through music in Portugal, he was arrested for playing a protest song with an early incarnation of the Liberation Music Orchestra. I talked to Mr. Haden about this and the politics of music (imaginary conversation, of course) and he said that life without the music of rebellion was no good. Mr. Haden also talked of the intensity of his playing, saying that he could not think of “anything but risking (my) life for every note.” I borrow that phrase from time to time when I come across musicians who play with the soulful intensity that he did. Music was his life and probably one of the only things he knew. The Haden’s (Sr.) were a family that grew up with country music in Shenandoah. Charlie Haden passed on this love for music and the ability to play with finesse to his children as well. He also passed on his commitment to social causes and his daughters have turned out just like he did: committed artists. I too wrote poetry inspired by Mr. Haden’s politics and the music he created as a result. “Song for Che” opened up Che Guevara’s world to me. And my poetry became more political as a result.

And now he’s gone. I have fewer people like him to “talk to,” to work things about music and writing and the politics of both out. On the other hand, because I also live in a spectral dimension, Mr. Haden will always exist. And just as I continue to talk to my father there, I will do the same with Charlie Haden.

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