Minutes into Tuesday night’s memorial concert for Charlie Haden at Manhattan’s Town Hall, on a screen above the stage, came the first of several excerpts from a documentary, “Rambling Boy,” that punctuated three-plus hours of music and testimonials. Here was Haden as a boy, no more than two or three, singing and yodeling with confident joy.
Long before Haden helped ignite a jazz revolution while in his early twenties, as bassist in saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s quartet; before he spent a decade in another landmark band led by pianist Keith Jarrett; before he formed his Liberation Music Orchestra, blending avant-garde, big-band jazz and Latin American folk traditions with bold political statements; before his Quartet West, which played noir ballads inspired by Raymond Chandler novels and movie themes; before memorable duet recordings of spirituals and hymns, and decades of collaborations with musicians that spanned three generations of jazz’s finest players and nearly all its idioms, Haden was “Cowboy Charlie,” a precocious toddler singing his way into listeners hearts on his parents’ radio show.
Haden, who died in July 2014, at the age of 76, was born into musical family that performed what he liked to call “hillbilly music.” Haden’s love for sturdy, heartfelt melody and folk traditions were touchstones through his career, evident even within complex improvised settings. He fathered a musical brood, too. His four children — Petra, Rachel, Tanya and Josh, all accomplished musicians — harmonized beautifully Tuesday night on a version of Bill Monroe’s “Voice From on High,” accompanied by guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Mark Fain. Petra then sang the folk song “Oh, Shenandoah” in honor of Haden’s birthplace, Shenandoah, Iowa. (He grew up in Springfield, Mo.)
Haden was a family man, in a sense that implies the empathy and love, the tenderness and care that gives such designation meaning. Beyond technical skills and talent, he earned distinction in music by giving what was needed to fellow players to achieve communion that feels like a blood bond; in jazz, this means unspoken understandings and honest communication offered without hesitation or judgment. It’s customary to speak of great jazz bassists in terms of advancing or redefining the instrument’s role. Yet here’s how bassist Putter Smith expressed Haden’s contribution: “He gave us bassists permission to play with the kind of intimacy a mother has with a baby.”
The evening’s performances, mostly of Haden’s compositions, made a case for his body of work as one that will endure and deserves further interpretation. The spoken testimonials, along with the documentary clips, more or less traced the path and framed the influence of one remarkable musician. Yet what came across most powerfully was how Haden, through his music, presence, and personality, built bonds that seemed familial and coursed through actual families. And we received one after another example, through music and words, of how Haden led others to reveal themselves in moving and even brave ways.
The serene intimacy of “For Turiya,” as played by tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Geri Allen, and harpist Brandee Younger, had a relevant backstory: Haden composed it in 1976, to play in duet with Alice Coltrane, Ravi’s mother, after hearing her play harp, and to honor her devotion to Hindu Vedantic practice.
Ornette Coleman, now 84, didn’t feel well enough to attend the Town Hall event. His son Denardo testified, first about Haden’s relationship with his father. “It takes a special person to be willing to go on that journey,” he said of Haden’s commitment to Coleman’s demanding music, in the face of early and stinging criticisms. “They were stubborn, together.” When Ornette appointed Denardo, then age ten, as drummer for the album “The Empty Foxhole,” it was Haden who “made me feel like a musician,” Denardo said. “He was always on a mission to lift you up.”
A quartet of tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, pianist Kenny Barron, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and bassist Scott Colley played a particularly hard-hitting version of Haden’s “Blues for Pat.” Moments later, Redman’s words hit yet harder. His father, the late saxophonist Dewey Redman, had played with Haden in many distinguished contexts. Redman didn’t know his father well, he explained, but he knew his father’s records; the ones he liked best always turned out to be the ones with Haden. “Charlie brought out the love in my father’s playing — a warmth, tenderness, and honesty that few others brought out to the same degree,” he said. “In a strange way, Charlie helped me love my father.”
Guitarist Pat Metheny, who grew up in Lee’s Summit, Mo., recalled feeling an instant kinship based on geography upon meeting Haden 40 years ago. (They were duet partners for the Grammy-winning 1997 recording, “Beyond the Missouri Sky.”) At Town Hall, Metheny played a medley of three Haden songs on acoustic guitar — “Our Spanish Love Song,” “Waltz for Ruth,” and “First Song.” Through decades of work together, in wildly varying contexts, Metheny said, he felt a special, almost secret sense of communication with Haden. “We always played our little things,” he said. “I’ve never had that feeling again with anyone else.”
Metheny was 19 when he first met Haden, who was 17 years his elder. “But he wasn’t a father figure,” he said. “Because I felt like the older and more responsible one.”
“Charlie wasn’t a perfect person,” said Ruth Cameron Haden, his wife of 30 years, who organized the event and served as its host. He’d battled with polio as a teenager, which robbed him of his singing voice, and then, in his final years, was ravaged by post-polio syndrome. He’d struggled with drug addiction during one long stretch of his life, a fight he considered ongoing in some ways, she said. (“When I put my bass down,” she quoted him as saying, “I’m in trouble.”) But he was forever bent on improving, she said, and always fixed on a desire to “bring beauty to the world.”
It was about more than beauty, as Haden made clear throughout his career. While on tour with Ornette Coleman’s group in Portugal, in 1971, Haden dedicated his composition “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, and was promptly jailed (and soon rescued by Bob Jones, a cultural attaché to then-president Richard Nixon). His Liberation Music Orchestra’s 2005 album, “Not in Our Name,” was released as a protest against the Iraq War.
At Town Hall, Maurice Jackson, a history professor at Georgetown University and chair of the District of Columbia Commission on African American Affairs, who wrote liner notes for Haden’s recordings of spirituals, called up the legacy of the French-born pioneering American abolitionist Anthony Benezet in describing Haden’s outlook on race relations, and explained that “Charlie helped me understand the role of jazz in American politics.”
Which isn’t to say that Tuesday night’s event was overly reverent or high-minded. Haden was a gentle soul ever in search of a good laugh. The jokes he shared through the years got retold a few times onstage. (It’s rare to hear a saxophonist telling an audience, as Ravi Coltrane did: “A duck walks into a bar…”) Yet, according to comedian Richard Lewis, who praised Haden as a friend and a cultural force via video, although the bassist’s timing and tone were definitive on the bandstand, when it came to comedy — not so much. “Play jazz in heaven,” Lewis said. “But don't tell God any jokes.”
Still, Haden’s timing seemed pretty good during one documentary excerpt, while reminiscing about a teenage moment when members of Stan Kenton’s band invited him up to their smoke-filled hotel room.
“Do you want to end up like this?” he recalled being asked.
He paused, smiled. “Well, yeah!”
Putter Smith called Haden a “charming rascal,” whose entreaties were always prefaced with the same greeting, delivered in an amiable whine — “Hey, man.” Haden’s longtime attorney, Fred Ansis, explained that, for him, it always went like this: “Hey, man: Any bread?” Ansis and Jean-Philippe Allard, Haden’s frequent producer and his stalwart advocate within the record industry, laughed about seemingly endless and often overlapping phone calls from an overly attentive Haden. “But this was all part of his laser-like focus,” said Allard, “on quality and elegance.”
Musically, Haden had an uncanny ability to find and hold deeply meditative moments, as did pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba during a riveting solo performance Tuesday night. Haden could summon sincere spiritual heft, as did Henry Butler, who played piano while singing “Deep River” in an operatic baritone. Haden regularly eased into grooves with willing partners, comfortably enough to invite unfettered expression; such was the case when pianist Brad Mehldau and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz played a freewheeling blues, during which Konitz moved seamlessly (and joyously) between playing his horn and wordless singing. Haden could craft convincing moods, as did the members of his Quartet West behind the urgent tone of tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts, with bassist Scott Colley taking Haden’s place.
The concert had begun with a spiritual, “Goin’ Home” (which Haden recorded on the second of two duet recordings with pianist Hank Jones), here played by a lone trumpeter, Michael Rodriguez. At its end, Rodriguez was back, standing among the dozen members of the Liberation Music Orchestra. Carla Bley, Haden’s partner in this endeavor since its start, directed mostly from her piano bench, rising only to finesse a segue or an ending with hand motions and body language.
Anywhere, the death of a great musician is cause for gathering, for shared mourning and celebration. This is especially true in New York and New Orleans, where there are always critical masses of masterful jazz players and ready means of ritual. Those who know, know enough to show up: It’s also the impetus for rare and stellar concerts.
On Tuesday, the audience packed into Town Hall reflected Haden’s impact and reach. In one single row sat the following: singer Sheila Jordan, who, like Haden, was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, and who smiled broadly when Konitz, another Jazz Master, scatted over those blues; Lorraine Gordon, who owns the Village Vanguard, the Greenwich Village jazz club that hosted Haden throughout his career, in many bands; Henry Grimes, a bassist who began making his own liberating impact in jazz circles around the same time as Haden; Amy Goodman, whose celebrated news program, “Democracy Now!” featured Haden as an interview guest, delving deeply into the connections between his music and his commitment to social justice; and the woman in the aisle seat who explained that she’d just moved from Thailand to the U.S., and had read somewhere that this might be the best jazz concert in decades.
The Liberation Music Orchestra’s brass players and saxophonists didn’t form a procession, as they would in a New Orleans jazz funeral, nor did they begin with a dirge and then switch to a loose-limbed parade-worthy rhythm. They stood in a semi-circle, starting “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome” in the solemn manner of a brass choir, and then sliding during the middle of each piece into modern-jazz swing. (Trombonist Curtis Fowlkes’ bristling, pleading solo on the former would have fit right in during a New Orleans jazz funeral, though).
This was functional music communicating both beauty and purpose, and meant to outlive the man who set it in motion. (In fact, the Liberation Music Orchestra headed into a Manhattan recording studio on Wednesday to complete its next release.)
Before the orchestra played “We Shall Overcome,” Bley stepped up to the microphone. She didn’t talk about Haden’s music or her shared history with him, which in that moment I regretted. “Charlie loved audiences,” she said. “He appreciated them as much as they appreciated him.” Then she stared for a moment at what probably looked a lot like the community jazz sometimes forgets it has, one that a rare musician like Haden binds together as family.