The Keeper of Crazy Beats: Charlie Haden and Music as a Force of Liberation

Charlie Haden in performance.

Charlie Haden was the master of tempo, the keeper of crazy beats. He set the pace for some of the most challenging and beautiful music of our time. He was a scrupulous musician, his playing as precise as it was nimble. He kept the rhythms rich and earthy for music that might otherwise have sounded otherwordly.

Haden had an unrivaled sense of intuition. He could synch his playing with two of the most daredevil improvisers of jazz: Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett. He was fearless, eager to seize any musical challenge.

He was a child of the heartland, growing up in Iowa and Missouri in a family of country musicians, who, from time to time, appeared on the Grand Ole Opry. He started performing when he was two. They called him Cowboy Charlie. Perhaps this explains his refreshing lack of cynicism.

The Haden Family were radio musicians. He played and sang in radio station studios almost every day until he was 15. Finally, the family settled in the Ozarks, not too far from Branson, Missouri. He listened to Hank Williams and Sonny Boy Williamson. He played with the Carter Family, Roy Acuff, and Chet Atkins. His mother took him to black churches to listen to gospel music. His father took him to see a jazz show in Omaha, headlined by Charlie Parker. Haden was hooked. He came back to Springfield and started a jazz band with a couple of high school friends. They called themselves the Cool Four. They were all members of the Future Farmers of America. They wore blue jackets, jeans and cowboy boots. Haden would revisit those days with his marvelous rootsy album Rambling Boy, recorded in 2008 with members of his own family.

Haden knew he had to get out of Missouri if he was going to realize his dream of becoming a jazz musician. It was hard to find places to even hear the new music, never mind find talented musicians to play with. He had to mail order records by Monk, Ellington and Bud Powell. There was also the racism, which was oppressive and omnipresent. He set his sights on moving to Los Angeles and studying at the Westlake College of Modern Music, which he’d read about in Down Beat magazine. He needed to raise enough money for a cross-country bus ticket and tuition. So the summer after high school, he spent selling shoes at a place called the Walkover and playing bass on weekly country music TV show called Ozark Jubilee. “As soon as I had enough money,” Haden recalled, “I packed my suitcase and my bass and was gone.”

Haden hit Los Angeles in 1957 when he was 19, a few years after he had contracted polio. He was a tough kid, never complained about the crippling disease that would come back 57 years later to claim his life.  He felt like he’d landed in a Raymond Chandler novel. Haden loved the noirish atmosphere of the city and many years later he evoked the milieu of that era in Haunted Heart, the wonderfully dark and hazy album recorded by his group Quartet West.

By his own account, Haden spent more time cruising the nightclubs, listening to Stan Kenton, Chet Baker, Art Pepper and Hampton Hawes, than he did at Westlake. He learned more to, often staying at the jazz clubs until the early morning hours on the chance that he might be allowed to sit in with some of the musicians.

He was not a tortured soul. Like many jazz musicians, Haden grappled with heroin use. He finally kicked his habit in the 70s and stayed clean. He didn’t romanticize his addiction nor was he pious about his sobriety.  Haden got turned onto jazz by burning the grooves off of records by Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday, three notorious junkies. It wasn’t a moral thing. Haden felt, rightly, that inebriation interfered with the music. “You can’t be at your full creative power if you are sedated,” Haden said a few years ago in an interview with Strings magazine. “Bird was a great musician in spite of his addiction, not because of it.”

Late one night Haden walked into a club off of Wilshire Boulevard called The Haig. He sat down and began to listen to a rather mediocre jazz band, playing in the cool style that had come to define the West Coast scene. During a break he noticed a tall and lean black man approach the bandleader and ask if he could sit in. The man took out a plastic alto sax out of a bag and began to blow the strangest sounds Haden had ever heard. After a few songs, the bandleader told the sax player that he’d heard enough. The guy walked off the stage and out the door. Haden tried to follow him, but lost him in the night. The next day Haden told his friend Lenny McBrowne, a drummer in Paul Bley’s band, about the weird gig. “Oh, that was Ornette Coleman,” McBrowne said. The next day McBrowne introduced Haden to Coleman and later that night they jammed together at Ornette’s apartment. I was an encounter that would irrevocably change the course of music.

I’ve long considered Ornette Coleman to be the premier creative artist of the last 50 years. If that’s a valid assessment, then Charlie Haden belongs right beside him as his co-pilot, navigating the unexplored space of free jazz. “I was finally able to play music the way I had been hearing it in my head,” Haden said. “What Ornette was doing was playing in a free way in which you didn’t have to improvise on chord changes. We started rehearsing every day with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins. We were all thinking the same things musically. It was a matter of everyone being at the same place at the same time.”

Coleman took the band to New York, where they soon earned a steady, mind-blowing gig at the Five Spot. Soon they were in the studio furiously recording the new sound. The records came in rapid shock waves: Something Else! (58), The Shape of Jazz to Come (59), Tomorrow is the Question (59), This is Our Music (61), Free Jazz(61). All in the dizzying span in of three years. The music was so new, so fresh so revolutionary that it made Miles Davis’s modal masterpiece Kind of Blue (59) sound almost antiquated by comparison. The floodgates had burst open. Coleman and Haden had shown the way forward and soon Albert Ayler, Eric Dolphy and John Coltrane would rush after them. Free jazz was not merely a liberation from restrictive musical forms and harmonic structures. It was a bristling political statement and soon became the assertive sound of the black power movement.

Haden was a joyous adventurer. His music writhes with life. Haden’s playing is never abstract, never an intellectual enterprise. Each note carries an emotional resonance. His music is meant to be felt. Even as a sideman, Charlie Haden tended to occupy the center of the band, serving as its pulse.

Haden didn’t want to destroy genres so much unshackle them from expectations, from the suffocating confines of tradition. It was Haden who heard the lyricism in Ornette Coleman’s playing when almost no one else could. Haden who heard Coleman’s gift for melody. Haden who understood that Coleman’s freestyle playing owed much to folk music. “I want to expand jazz,” Haden said. “I don’t want to keep the audience limited. I want to reach people who have never come to a jazz concert before. One way to do that is by making records that have a lot of different kinds of music on them.”

Haden and Coleman were political leftists, who never hid their ideological allegiances. Check out their criminally neglected record Crisis. The album cover depicts the Bill of Rights in flames. The core of the album is a 12-minute Haden composition of infectious Caribbean rhythms called “Song for Che.” That album came out in 1972. A year earlier Coleman and Haden had performed “Song for Che” in Portugal, a country struggling to unburden itself from a fascist regime. Haden introduced the song by dedicating it to the freedom fighters in Mozambique and Angola. The crowds erupted in applause, but the dictatorship of Marcelo Caetano wasn’t amused. The following day Haden was detained at the Lisbon airport by Portuguese secret police, until his release was secure by the US state department.

By that time, Haden had already formed the Liberation Music Orchestra with pianist Carla Bley. Their seditious first album was a roaring tribute to those who fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, to anti-war activists and battered protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In 1994, Haden teamed with pianist Hank Jones to record the spellbinding Steal Away, a collection of black spirituals and gospel songs, that stands as a haunting tribute to the civil rights movement.

After Coleman, Haden’s most intimate collaborations have been with Keith Jarrett. Jarrett and Haden first collaborated on the record Life Between the Exit Signs. Released in 1969, the album was deeply influenced by the nonchordal improvisations Haden had perfected with Coleman. A year later, Somewhere Before was released on Vortex Records. This free-wheeling live set was notable for opening with a sonic dismemberment of Dylan’s “My Back Pages.” The orchestral Arbour Zena, recorded for ECM in 1975 with Jan Garabek on tenor, marked a decisively new, almost ethereal approach, highlighted by the 28-minute long “Mirrors.” A year later came The Survivor’s Suite, one of the masterpieces of the 1970s, recorded with Dewey Redmond on tenor and Paul Motian on drums. The record is essentially a 48-minute long improvisation cut into two halves. The playing has an airy, dreamlike quality to it, which is kept tethered by Haden’s resonant playing.

This remarkable group, called the American Quartet, last appeared together on Eyes of the Heart, a live collaborative improvisation recorded in Austria, which features Jarrett noodling on soprano sax. Again it’s Haden’s playing which lends the challenging set its aural shape, it’s physicality and emotional depth.

Nearly three decades would pass before Jarrett and Haden would record together again. The reunion came about during the shooting of a documentary film, Rambling Boy, about Haden’s career directed by Reto Caduff. The two geniuses played together for the film-maker and enjoyed themselves. Afterwards, Jarrett invited Haden back to his house in New Jersey and they started playing together in Jarrett’s home studio. Over the next four days, they recorded more than 20 songs, most of them standards, many of them love songs. As is Jarrett’s habit, the tapes of those sessions were to ferment, to distill for nearly three years, before eight of the songs were released on Jasmine. The music is intimate, tender, almost hypnotic. The playing is finely crafted, the camaraderie between the two musicians is intense that it’s hard to believe that the playing was completely improvised. Jasmine surely ranks as one of the best records of the new century.

“I had a tour assistant who heard “Jasmine” in a limo on the way to a gig,” Keith Jarrett wrote shortly after Haden’s death. “She was  young and not familiar with jazz, but she said, ‘You guys are so together!’ and so I asked her: ‘What do you mean, Amy?’ She said, ‘Well, if you played bass and Charlie played piano, you would play the same way.’ This was a compliment.”

In June 2014, a month before Haden died, ECM released Last Dance, containing nine more songs from those sessions in 2007. The title alludes to the fact Haden’s illness had reached a terminal stage and this would stand as one of his final releases. The music is warm, tender, and lushly melodic. Jarrett’s playing has rarely sounded so refined, even when he is undertaking a dazzling reinterpretation of Monk’s “Round Midnight.” The music swings, too, largely because of Haden’s propulsive and forceful basslines.  The record is revelatory. Two virtuosos totally in synch with each other: impressionistic, daring and uncompromising.

A few days after my obituary for Saul Landau ran on CounterPunch, I got a call from Charlie Haden. No introductions were necessary. For me, there’s always been only one Charlie Haden. I’d seen him play many times: in DC, Portland, Indianapolis, and once in Berkeley with Alex. We had chatted briefly after a gig at The Shed in Eugene, Oregon and again in Santa Monica, where he lived.

Haden was sick when he called, but I had no idea. His childhood polio had returned and he’d developed liver cancer. But you couldn’t tell from his voice, which was as hip and lively and curious as ever. Turns out he and Landau had crossed paths many times, in Latin America, at concerts and political rallies. They shared a deep affinity for Cuba, for the Sandinistas and Zapatistas, for the indigenous people of the south.

“Landau was one courageous, guy,” Haden said. “So was Cockburn, of course. But Saul was funnier. And you need that, man, you really do. The struggle is long and dark and hard and you can’t let it bring you down. You’ve got to stay upbeat.”

Haden’s music never brought you down. It was always upbeat. It worked on you, dissolving walls that limit your aspirations, pointing you the way forward. Haden’s music was all about human liberation.

The word authentic has become sullied, rendered into a reactionary term by musical purists and cultural revanchists. Haden was no purist, but he was an original and every note he played rang true.

A version of this essay originally ran in CounterPunch magazine in 2014.

Song for Che

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

My Lai: 1968 and the Descent into Darkness by Howard Jones
Munich by Robert Harris
Living Emergency: Israel’s Permit Regime in the West Bank by Yael Berda

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

The Pacific Jazz Collection by Gerry Mulligan
Rebirth of Soul by Syleena Johnson
Andalusia of Love by Marcel Khalife
Love Rides a Dark Horse by Gill Landry
For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s (1986) by The Replacements

A Conscious Participation in the Making of History

Victor Serge: “Early on, I learnt from the Russian intelligentsia that the only meaning of life lies in conscious participation in the making of history. The more I think of that, the more deeply true it seems to be. It follows that one must range oneself actively against everything that diminishes man, and involve oneself in all struggles which tend to liberate and enlarge him. This categorical imperative is by no way lessened by the fact that such an involvement is inevitably soiled by error: it is a worse error merely to live for oneself, caught within traditions which are soiled by inhumanity.” (Memoirs of a Revolutionary)


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3