Charlie Haden, for those who aren’t jazz fans or musicians, was a bass player. He died yesterday at the age of seventy six as a result of the onset of post-polio syndrome. He didn’t always play the bass. From the age of 2 until the age of 15, he was a professional singer with the Haden Family band until polio took away his voice and forced him to concentrate on the bass. I say “forced” because, if you’ve ever heard him play, it seems as if the music just bursts out of him, as if he had to find a way to let it out or it would eat him up.
There’s something else too. From the age of two he was in a band. A country band, where the songs come first, but where the simple act of making a good sound becomes elevated to the level of virtuosity. I imagine restraint and modesty are the guiding principles in that kind of music, but in the narrow harmonic range of a three chord country song everything you do makes a difference, so bravery counts too. The endless possibilities of stop or go, up or down, and the effect it has on the overall sound of those around you. Simply to do nothing, to sit on something and let things happen, is often the best policy. This also gives you time to think about the sound as a thing in itself. It seems to me that everything Haden did relates to this idea, that a simple thing can be made profound by what happens around it, and the bass is the perfect place from which to observe it all.
It’s as simple as this; chords in music are described from the bottom up. A three chord song has (largely speaking) three bass notes, and whilst most recent examples of the genre tend to hover around a couple of faux emotional wails or grunts, practically any note can occur in the melody without losing that sense of what the song is. A three chord song. When a note changes in the bass, it only has to deviate a little to change the whole sense of the chords, like pulling out all the bottom pieces in a game of Jenga. Haden was always able to control this power by sticking to simple phrases, melodies cutting through the form of a song like a warm knife. Like his former bandleader Ornette Coleman, you can hear that he sees the notes on his instrument as all different, each with its own personality. The upward curve of a line, often spun out in Haden’s trademark stepwise motion, is given character by the sound of going up. A note on the way up sounds completely different in Haden’s solos to that same note coming down; maybe it’s the way he cuts it short, or bends into the pitch, maybe he holds it behind the beat a touch. So often in jazz we are taught to produce an even sound across the whole instrument, to overcome the limitations of the machinery. Haden asks us to look instead for its soul, to meet the instrument halfway, almost as if what he expresses in his playing is not “himself” but the bass itself.
Once a musician does that, he or she is always themselves. From Ornette Coleman’s pioneering quartet of the late fifties right up to his own album of Country songs “Ramblin’ Boy”, via a dizzying array of collaborations and self-led projects, Haden maintains an unshakeable and dignified prescence, never changing his sound, his style, his personality. The bends, the articulations, speech-like in their delivery, are always there.
Bass players are a particular breed. You have to like it down there. You have to get some satisfaction from making others sound good, and for reading endless reviews with your name missed off. Bass players are like coal miners, horn players warming their hands around the fire. The frantic myth that accompanies jazz as some kind of cathartic working through of ones own shit in the company of others bent on a similar path is possibly the one thing that has most quickly emptied the various ad hoc rooms in which it has been performed. Charlie Haden stood for music through melody and sound, communication and cooperation.
I’m not upset that he died because I never met him. I still have the CD reissue of Song X, I still have him playing “You’ll Never Know” with Geri Allen, the whole of the early seventies stuff with Keith Jarrett, the trio with Paul Bley and Paul Motian where he and the drummer almost sound like they’re ignoring each other and yet, like really great friends, listening again you can hear them subtly moving together, sharing jokes and stories that only they understand. So he’s still alive the way I knew him.
No I’m not upset; I’m angry. I’m angry that people talk about him and his music, and yet so often there is a failure to learn by his example. I’m angry at myself every time I play something and it’s not true, not real, not meant. Jazz is an eternal battle for meaning. Not what does it mean, but how. How is this music made meaningful and what makes people care about it. Now there’s one less person in the world who seemed close to some kind of solution.