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Remembering Jazz Legend Charlie Haden, who Crafted his Voice in Bass

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Bassist Charlie Haden in 1978. Haden died on Friday, July 11 in Los Angeles. (Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis)

Jazz legend Charlie Haden has died. Polio damaged Haden’s voice when he was young, but as a bassist and composer, Haden helped shape the sound of jazz and still spanned country and gospel. For more on Haden’s life and music, you can hear Melissa Block speak with Slate columnist and jazz critic Fred Kaplan at the audio link on this page.

Bassist and composer Charlie Haden, whose resonant playing and penetrating melodic craft influenced generations of jazz musicians, died this morning in Los Angeles, after a prolonged illness. He was 76.

Haden’s death was announced by his record label, ECM Records.

It is with deep sorrow that we announce that Charlie Haden, born August 6, 1937 in Shenandoah, Iowa, passed away today at 10:11 Pacific time in Los Angeles after a prolonged illness. Ruth Cameron, his wife of 30 years, and his children Josh Haden, Tanya Haden, Rachel Haden and Petra Haden were all by his side.

Born and raised in the rural Midwestern United States, Haden grew up in a family which hosted a country and western music radio program. He sang on air in the family band from before the age of 2. At age 15, he contracted polio, damaging his vocal cords, and turned instead to learning bass.

In 1957, Haden moved to Los Angeles, where he integrated quickly into the West Coast jazz community — including saxophonist and composer Ornette Coleman. Their collaboration over decades, on stage and on record, not only anchored Coleman’s innovations in harmony and melody, but also generated new possibilities for his own instrument in group improvisation.


His work with Ornette Coleman made him an icon of avant-garde jazz, but in a career that spanned over 50 years, Haden worked in many and varied contexts. His Liberation Music Orchestra large ensemble, a collaboration with composer-arranger Carla Bley, performed and recorded political protest songs for over 30 years. His Quartet West ensemble, featuring pianist Alan Broadbent and saxophonist Ernie Watts, provided avenues for more traditional hard bop and backing vocalists. And in 2008, he revisited his country roots with an album called Rambling Boy, gathering his wife, son and triplet daughters in a new family band.

In 2012, he spoke of the connections between the music he grew up with and the music he was known for. “When you think about the art form jazz coming from this country and you think about the Underground Railroad and all the music that came from that struggle, and then you think about all the music coming over from Scotland and Ireland and England into the Appalachian Mountains and the Ozark Mountains where I was born and raised, you know, it’s all one really,” he told NPR’s Rachel Martin. “We can only have been born here in this country.”

As a sideman, Haden was the bassist for many of pianist Keith Jarrett’s bands of the 1960s and ’70s. The group Old and New Dreams reunited Ornette Coleman’s sidemen, sometimes to reinterpret Coleman’s compositions. He frequently performed in duet settings, which brought him into close contact with fellow jazz greats like Hank Jones, Alice Coltrane and Pat Metheny. And in 1982, he introduced jazz studies to CalArts, now one of the premier programs of its kind.

In interviews and on stage, he spoke often about the artist’s duty to introduce beauty into a conflicted world. “That’s what I tell my students at California Institute of the Arts where I teach for 27 years,” he said to Martin. “I tell them if you strive to be a good person, maybe you might become a great jazz musician.”

Earlier this year, Charlie Haden released his latest album, a collection of duets with pianist Keith Jarrett. It ends with the two standards “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and “Goodbye,” and is titled Last Dance.

Below is a clip of Haden playing in the Ginger Baker Trio with guitarist Bill Frisell.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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