Giving the Bass a Voice
Charlie Haden, who died on Friday at age 76, was one of the most revered and influential acoustic jazz bassists of his generation, largely because he was incapable of being dull. Rooted in folk and country music, Haden combined earthy simplicity with an engaging storytelling style that inspired and propelled the music of dozens of artists, from saxophonist Ornette Coleman and pianist Keith Jarrett to drummer Ginger Baker and singer Norah Jones. His conversational approach to improvisation forged a new model for post-1960 jazz bassists, resulting in four Grammys.
The acoustic-jazz bassist in 2008 Getty Images
Haden's arrival on the jazz scene in the late 1950s came just as the music was shifting. The surging appeal of R&B and rock began to marginalize jazz's popularity while the simmering civil-rights movement motivated many jazz artists to use their art to express frustration with the slow pace of change. In the process, jazz became more spiritual and personal. In 1958, Haden teamed with Mr. Coleman, and the pair over the next two years recorded four landmark albums that codified free jazz, a movement based on brutish expressionism rather than formal music.
But Haden faced an uphill battle. To many longtime jazz fans, the acoustic bass was the art form's least charismatic instrument and the hardest to hear. Unlike a trumpet, saxophone or drums, the bass toiled in the background as a metronome, while most bass solos were ponderous and dreary. Haden—like Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers and Scott LaFaro—looked for a new way to reposition the bass's voice. Haden's unusual family background and earthy attack set him apart.
"There was a folklike simplicity, primeval directness and unabashed honesty about Charlie's playing," said pianist Denny Zeitlin by phone. Mr. Zeitlin's trio included Haden from 1964 to 1966. "He had an utter willingness to support anything I'd try, and his warm feel motivated me to experiment."
Haden knew what was expected in terms of setting a tempo, but he also was entrepreneurial, constantly thinking ahead to transition improvised music into fine art. "When you're a jazz pianist, you're often hoping the bassist lays down a luxurious rhythmic carpet that you can walk and ride on," said Mr. Zeitlin. "Charlie was a master of that. If I found an interesting new tangent while improvising, he'd be there with a countermelody. He was telepathic like that."
In the late 1980s, Haden formed a trio with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Paul Motian. "Charlie's sound was beautifully ancient and soulful," Ms. Allen recalled in a weekend phone conversation. "He was able to express freedom within the pulse, and this approach was thoroughly innovative."
Born in 1937 on his family's farm in Shenandoah, Iowa, Haden could sing before he could talk. His parents had been longtime country-music entertainers, and Haden first sang harmony to his mother's lullabies at 22 months. Weeks later, Haden began appearing on the family radio show as Cowboy Charlie, singing hymns and hillbilly music. His two older brothers and an older sister were already singing with the family, and later a younger brother and sister completed the group.
In 1951, the family moved to Omaha, Neb., where Haden's father took him to hear a jazz concert. There, he identified with the folk qualities in the blues of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Lester Young. But in 1952, when Haden was 15, he was diagnosed with bulbar polio—which affected the back of his neck and tongue—and was confined to his bed at home for nearly a year, spending his days hunting for jazz stations on the radio.
After Haden's polio went into remission in 1953, he no longer was able to sing as well as before and began studying the bass. Influenced by the recordings of bassist Chambers, Haden worked on creating a big, woody sound. Captivated by the rhythmic playing of West Coast jazz pianist Hampton Hawes, Haden turned down a scholarship to Ohio's Oberlin Conservatory in 1956 and instead attended the Westlake College of Modern Music in Los Angeles. While in Los Angeles, Haden met bassist Red Mitchell, who put him together with alto saxophonist Art Pepper and pianist Hawes.
Haden first heard Mr. Coleman in 1957, at The Haig in Los Angeles. As Haden told National Public Radio's Amy Goodman in 2006: "Gerry Mulligan was playing there with his band, and this guy comes up to the stage and asks to sit in. They tell him to come up, and he got his alto. It was plastic—a white plastic alto saxophone. And he starts to play, and the whole room lit up for me. It was so brilliant. And as soon as he started to play [free improvisation], they asked him to stop. So he put the horn back in the case and started out the back door."
Astonished by the freshness of Mr. Coleman's style, Haden soon managed an introduction. Mr. Coleman invited Haden to play with him at his house for three days before they rehearsed with cornetist Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins. When Atlantic Records' jazz chief Neshui Ertegun heard the quartet, he signed the group. Mr. Coleman and Haden made a series of groundbreaking albums for the label in 1959 and 1960—"The Shape of Jazz to Come," "Change of the Century," "This Is Our Music" and "Free Jazz." On these recordings, Haden's powerful sense of time, harmony and imagination are still evident, serving as a warm counterbalance to the surging urgency of the other instruments.
In the decades that followed, Haden played in dozens of free-jazz groups and traditional-jazz ensembles, including his Quartet West. He said he preferred working in duets so his bass could be heard. "When I play, it's important for me to bring out the wood—like the tree of the bass. I like to sound like a rain forest," he told a class of students in 2009.
"Whenever I played with Charlie, I always felt he was connected to a sacred source," said Ms. Allen. "I grew to comprehend artistry through that experience, and I'm grateful to Charlie for helping to shape my journey as an artist."
Mr. Myers, a frequent contributor to the Journal, writes daily about music atJazzWax.com.