Charlie Haden, a leading figure in jazz and a preeminent bassist, composer and bandleader, passed away today. He was seventy-six years old.
Polio had robbed Haden’s ambitions as a singer early in life, so he took up the double bass, and made his fallback instrument sing instead. The unassuming Midwesterner soon made his mark after arriving in Los Angeles in 1957, and just two years later became one of Ornette Coleman’s field generals in Coleman’s avant-garde revolution when The Shape of Jazz To Come shook up the genre with reverberations still being felt today; Ornette provided the shape but Charlie laid down the framework.
A decade later, Haden made one of the grandest jazz protest albums ever, Liberation Music Orchestra and the humanity he invests into his bass every time he plays was perhaps best presented on the album’s centerpiece song, “Song For Che,” a gorgeous outpouring of sorrow never wrung before from such a big, woody instrument.
His indispensible sideman work has lifted up vital records made by Paul Motian, Keith Jarrett and John Scofield, among so many others, and his Quartet West records put elegance back into jazz. Hank Jones and Pat Metheny found him to be the perfect duet partner, too. Haden took a look back at his rich career and his roots a few years ago with Rambling Boy, an album that made people see him much more than a jazz musician; rather, a lover and virtuoso of all traditional American music.
Haden’s death comes just weeks after a second duet record with Jarrett was issued. The ominously titled Last Dance was part of a set intimately sympathetic moments recorded at Jarrett’s home studio in 2007 when Haden was in fine form.
No cause of death has been publicized as of this writing, but in recent years his health has taken a bad turn as his long-sidelined polio had returned. Haden fought it almost all the way to the end, playing until he just couldn’t play anymore and his gracious Lifetime Achievement Grammy acceptance speech last year was arguably his last masterpiece performance.
So long, Charlie. You will be deeply missed by musicians and music fans alike.