Obituary: Charlie Haden / Influential jazz bassist

Aug. 6, 1937 - July 11, 2014

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Charlie Haden, one of the most influential bassists in the history of jazz, died Friday in Los Angeles. He was 76.

His death was confirmed by Ruth Cameron, his wife of 30 years. For the past several years he had been struggling with the degenerative effects of post-polio syndrome, related to the polio he contracted in his youth.

Mr. Haden had a deep, grounded way with the bass and a warm, softly resonant tone. His approach to harmony was deeply intuitive and sometimes deceivingly simple, always with a firm relationship to a piece’s chordal root. Along with his calm, unbudging rhythmic aplomb, this served him well in settings ranging from the ragged and intrepid to the satiny and refined. His own acclaimed bands, like the Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West, handily covered that stylistic expanse.

His jazz career covered seven decades, with barely a moment of obscurity. He was in his early 20s in 1959, when, as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet, he helped set off a seismic disruption in jazz. Mr. Coleman, an alto saxophonist, had been developing a brazen, polytonal approach to improvisation — it would come to be known as free jazz — and in his band, which had no chordal instrument, Mr. Haden served as anchor and pivot. Mr. Coleman’s clarion cry, often entangled with that of trumpeter Don Cherry, grabbed much of the attention for the group, but Mr. Haden’s playing was just as crucial, for its feeling of unerring rightness in the face of an apparent ruckus.

In addition to Mr. Coleman, with whom he continued to play intermittently in the 1960s and ’70s (and later, in the occasional reunion), Mr. Haden worked with many principal figures of an emerging jazz avant-garde. For a decade starting in 1967, he was a member of a celebrated quartet led by pianist Keith Jarrett, with Dewey Redman on saxophone and Paul Motian on drums.

The Liberation Music Orchestra, which released its debut album in 1969, was Mr. Haden’s large ensemble, and an expression of his left-leaning political ideals. The band, featuring compositions and arrangements by pianist Carla Bley, mingled avant-garde wildness with the earnest immediacy of Latin American folk songs. Mr. Haden released each of the band’s four studio albums during Republican administrations; the most recent, in 2005, was “Not in Our Name,” a response to the war in Iraq.

Mr. Haden, who liked to say he was driven by concern for “the struggle of the poor people,” hardly restricted his opinions to the Liberation Music Orchestra. While playing a festival with Mr. Coleman in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1971, he dedicated his “Song for Che” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, and was promptly jailed.

Charles Edward Haden was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, on Aug. 6, 1937, into a brood of musicians known as the Haden Family. Prominent on the Midwestern country circuit in the ’30s and ’40s, the Haden Family had a radio show, on which Mr. Haden made frequent appearances as a yodeling toddler known as Cowboy Charlie.

His own children, who survive him, are also musicians: His son, Josh Haden, is a singer-songwriter, and his triplet daughters, Petra, Rachel and Tanya Haden, have worked as the Haden Triplets. In 2008, Mr. Haden released an album, “Rambling Boy,” credited to the Haden Family, featuring his children and a slew of guests in a rootsy style.

Pat Metheny - Ornette Coleman - Don Cherry - Keith Jarrett - Paul Motian - Carla Bley - Tanya Haden - Charlie Parker - Alan Broadbent - Hank Jones


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