Charlie Haden was born on August 6, 1937. Haden was a jazz bass player, composer, and educator whose career spanned more than 50 years. He was one of the major figures in the transition of the bass from being purely an accompanying instrument to being a full participant in the melodic and harmonic improvisation of a jazz ensemble.
Haden was born in Iowa, and grew up in a musical family. The family had its own local radio show, performing country and folk music, and Haden made his debut as a singer on the show when he was only 2 years old. He continued singing with his family until he was 15, when he contracted polio; his throat and facial muscles were affected most strongly.
After recovering from polio, Haden began to study the bass. He had developed an interest in the instrument before his illness, and wanted to go to Los Angeles after high school, hoping for a career in jazz. To raise money to pay for that trip, he took a job as the house bass player for the ABC country music show Ozark Jubilee.
Haden moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and began studying at the Westlake College of Music. He made his first recordings that year, appearing on pianist Paul Bley’s album Solemn Meditation.
Haden joined Ornette Coleman’s quintet in 1959—he can be heard on Coleman’s classic The Shape of Jazz to Come—but left the group after about a year because of his addiction to narcotics. After going through rehab, Haden returned to Coleman’s quintet in 1967, and played with him for several years. Haden and Coleman found that their improvisational styles were very similar, and they often wound up improvising entirely new harmonic progressions, rather than simply doing melodic improvisations over the existing harmonic structure of a song.
During his years with Coleman, Haden began developing other professional relationships. He began performing and recording with pianist Keith Jarrett, usually as part of Jarrett’s “American Quartet” (Jarrett performed with two different quartets in the 1970s, one of American musicians and one of European musicians, in somewhat different styles). That quartet can be heard on several albums, including Birth and Back Hand.
In 1969, Haden founded the Liberation Music Orchestra with pianist/composer Carla Bley (the ex-wife of Haden’s early recording partner Paul Bley). She was the primary arranger and composer for the LMO, whose music was more experimental and political. Haden and Bley assembled a new group of musicians for each LMO project, and the group recorded only occasionally, releasing four albums between 1969 and 2005, with a fifth album in 2016 after Haden’s death. Each of the LMO’s albums was devoted to a specific political theme. Their self-titled first album was a response to the Vietnam War; 1982’s The Ballad of the Fallen protested US involvement in Latin America; 2005’s Not in Our Name was a response to the US invasion of Iraq.
By the mid-1970s, Haden had begun recording his own albums, usually in duets or trios. Over the next thirty years, he paired up with some of the major jazz musicians of the era, including Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti (Magico), Kenny Barron (Night and the City), Pat Metheny (Beyond the Missouri Sky), and Brad Mehldau (Long Ago and Far Away).
In 1982, Haden founded the Jazz Studies Program at the California Institute of the Arts. As an educator, he emphasized small group performance and the importance of each musician finding their own distinctive style.
Haden became a bandleader in 1986, creating Quartet West with pianist Alan Broadbent, saxophonist Ernie Watts, and several different drummers over the years. Haden and Broadbent were the group’s primary composers, and their repertoire also featured lots of jazz standards from the 1940s. Quartet West released its first album in 1987, and a new album every two or three years for the next decade.
Haden made his last new recordings in 2010. Come Sunday, released in 2010, was a collection of hymns and spirituals recorded with pianist Hank Jones; on Sophisticated Ladies, Quartet West reunited for the first time since the late 1990s, joined by a string orchestra and several of jazz’s best female singers.
In the last few years of his life, Haden received several awards for his distinguished career. He was named an NEA Jazz Master is 2012; received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013; and in 2014, was awarded the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Ministry of Culture.
Haden died on July 11, 2014, of complications from post-polio syndrome, a recurrence of polio symptoms late in life in people who had the disease as a child. In addition to the albums linked above, much more of Haden’s music is available for streaming at Hoopla.