Jazz bassist Charlie Haden

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The jazz great reflects on his celebrated career and being honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Charlie Haden has contributed his virtuosity to many of the most compelling records in jazz and recorded many hundreds of albums with numerous innovative musicians. He's also a three-time Grammy winner and recipient of the NEA Jazz Master Award, the highest honor in jazz in the U.S. He's formed several groups, some of which he continues to lead, including the renowned Liberation Music Orchestra, and helped found the CalArts Jazz Program. Haden grew up in Iowa in a musical family and sang with the family group until contracting polio at age 15. He's known for his signature lyrical bass lines and was mentored by the famed Ornette Coleman.


Tavis: Jazz musicians don’t get any better than the bassist Charlie Haden, this year’s recipient of the Grammy lifetime achievement award. Haden began playing country music with his Iowa-based family back in the day. He turned to jazz in his early twenties, and is credited with taking the bass from a secondary instrument to being an integral sound in any jazz group, something we take for granted today, I think, but it was revolutionary back then.

He was also with Ornette Coleman as they made jazz history back in 1969, challenging the be-bop establishment with a freeform sound that ushered in a new era of jazz.

Charlie went on to play with great artists like Coltrane and Shep and Chet Baker. If I tried to include all of your accomplishments in this introduction, we would never get a chance to talk. So can I take a breather? (Sighs) It’s an honor to have you on this program.

Charlie Haden: Well, thanks for inviting me. It was actually ’59.

Tavis: Was it ’59? What’d I say, ’69?

Haden: Yeah.

Tavis: See, we young kids have no respect for history.

Haden: Yeah, yeah, there you go.

Tavis: No regard. (Laughter) No regard for history. How did it feel to be so honored by the Grammys?

Haden: It felt wonderful, because they’re all my peers, and the Grammys do great work. They care about music and they’re also, I really didn’t realize about that lifetime achievement award. It goes back to 1962. The first person to get it was Bing Crosby.

When I saw that, I fainted. (Laughter) I said, “Well, there’s some heavy, I’m in some heavy company.”

Tavis: Yeah.

Haden: So I was very appreciative, and I got to thank everybody. It was really an honor for me.

Tavis: You belong on that list, though.

Haden: Well, thank you, man.

Tavis: You belong on that list. I mentioned a moment ago, but why was the bass such a – my word, not yours – a background instrument before you helped push that thing out front?

Haden: It’s always been like that up until the big band era, with Duke Ellington. Roland (unintelligible) was his first bassist to really come out, and then Jimmy Blanton. Of course you’ve heard his name.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Haden: He was the guy that really brought the bass out to the forefront. People were really seeing how important the bass is. When I was a little kid singing on the radio with my family, my older brother played the bass. When he stopped playing, everything kind of fell. The depth left.

When you listen to a symphony orchestra and the basses don’t, there’s no bass part, there’s not that much depth. That’s why I’m attracted to the instrument, the bass. It brings depth. It’s like playing in a rainforest. You have that without word thing.

Tavis: I love that – “playing in a rainforest.”

Haden: Yeah.

Tavis: Let me go back to not really a rainforest, but how about Iowa? We’ll go back to Iowa for a second.

Haden: Uh-oh.

Tavis: You, before you picked up this bass, which I’m glad you brought with you today, you were singing first.

Haden: Yeah.

Tavis: Is it true you were singing at the age of two?

Haden: Yeah.

Tavis: You were singing at two?

Haden: Yeah, my mom used to rock me to sleep, and my brothers and sisters would be working around the house, and one day she was rocking me to sleep, singing – she was a great singer – humming different folk songs, and I started humming the harmony.

She told me, “Charlie, when you started humming the harmony with me, I knew you were ready for the show.”

So I started singing on the radio when I was 22 months old. I was the youngest person (laughter) – I was the youngest person in Iowa to have a Social Security card.

Tavis: Yeah?

Haden: That’s what they tell me. We had lots of fun, man. My dad was a great guy, my mother was wonderful. I was very lucky to be around music from the time I woke up until I went to bed.

Tavis: Yeah. I want to fast-forward, because there’s no way I can do justice to your career – that’s why the Grammys gave you a lifetime achievement award. You’ve been at this for so many years.

Haden: Yeah.

Tavis: But I want to hit some of these high moments. You start singing at the age of two with your family back in Iowa. At 15, you get struck with polio.

Haden: Yes.

Tavis: Tell me about that.

Haden: We had a TV show in Omaha, Nebraska, and I was going around the golf course with my dad. All of a sudden, I got really feverish and I kind of fainted, so he called the golf shop and they called the doctor to come out.

I had a temperature of 105, and the hospitals were filled with polio patients, and the epidemic was happening. This was before the vaccine. So the doctor came. They took me to the doctor’s office, and I don’t remember a lot of it. I always wanted to ask my mom about (unintelligible). None of it came back on me.

But there was apparently no medicine then. I was paralyzed, it’s called bulbar polio. My throat, my vocal cords, the left side of my face.

Tavis: So obviously, you couldn’t sing.

Haden: No.

Tavis: You’ve been singing since two –

Haden: Yeah.

Tavis: – but at 15, you get struck with polio, you can no longer sing.

Haden: No longer sing, and the doctor said I was lucky in one respect that since it was up in the throat area, I would eventually get over it.

Tavis: Right.

Haden: It didn’t affect my lungs or my legs or anything. So it eventually went away. I had to drink a lot of liquids (unintelligible) swallowed, and other than that I was fine, and I traveled all over the world, met my wonderful wife, Ruth. Had triplet daughters and a son, they’re all musicians, and all of a sudden I was doing birthday cards for every birthday at the Blue Note in New York.

Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.

Haden: With the different people. And two years ago I was there, I came back to the hotel and I told Ruth, I said, “Man, I have these devastating headaches. Never had a headache like this before.” Every day, all day long. So she said, “We’ve got to take you to the doctor’s when we get back.”

So we went, and they referred me to a neurologist because they thought it was neurological, and they never did come up with a diagnosis. It’s that kind of a weird thing. Thank God it wasn’t cancer.

But they did all kinds of CAT scans and PET scans and tests for muscle disease stuff, and they couldn’t find anything that they could tell me that I had. They could only guess because I had polio when I was younger, and they said, “Charlie, we think you have post-polio syndrome.”

Tavis: Post-polio syndrome.

Haden: Yeah. I said, “What is that?”

Tavis: What do you make of the fact that it stayed at bay for so long?

Haden: Yeah. Yeah.

Tavis: Allowing you to advance this entire career.

Haden: Well, I wish it would go back to the bay. (Laughter)

Tavis: Go back, that’s funny. So how has it impacted you over the last couple of years since it’s come back?

Haden: Well, I have a lot of trouble swallowing. The muscles in my throat are very weak.

Tavis: Right.

Haden: I can’t eat, so I have a tube going into my stomach.

Tavis: Right.

Haden: I haven’t eaten any solid food in two years.

Tavis: No solid food in two years.

Haden: Yeah, because I had, I drink this special nutrition stuff that you have to, it goes into your (unintelligible).

Tavis: But you can still play your bass, though.

Haden: Yeah, I can play my bass, (unintelligible). (Laughter) The guys come over to the house.

Tavis: I heard about this. I was about to ask you, is that true that people just come by your house, all these greats just come by, just play with you?

Haden: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Wow.

Haden: Yeah, it’s good.

Tavis: How cool is that?

Haden: It’s cool.

Tavis: Just come by the house to hang out. Well, of course, to get a chance to play with you, I’d come by your house too.

Haden: Well, you’re welcome.

Tavis: What does Ruth say about that? So the house is full of music all the time?

Haden: All the time, man.

Tavis: Yeah?

Haden: Ruth’s a wonderful singer. As a matter of fact, she’s on my last album with Norah Jones and Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson and Melody Gardot with strings. It’s called “Sophisticated Ladies.”

Tavis: Yeah. I want to just throw some names at you, because again, it’s just impossible in the time I have to do justice to your wonderful legacy. But you’ve played with some of the greats, and they’ve been honored and blessed, of course, to have you alongside them. But when I say Ornette Coleman, what comes to mind?

Haden: When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were bringing be-bop in, Ornette was playing then too. Then I met him at this club in L.A., and I said, “I heard you play. I sure would love to play some music with you,” and he said, “Well, come on over.”

I said, “Well, I’ve got to finish doing this gig (unintelligible).” (Laughter) We got to his little apartment. You couldn’t open the door because there was music all over the front of the door, doorway, all over the bed, all over the dresser. So I took the cover off the bass and he said – he reached down and got some music, “Let’s play this.”

I said, “Okay.” I finally felt like I was free and doing what I really wanted to do, was to play on the inspiration of a piece rather than the straight chord structure, which I do too.

Tavis: Yeah.

Haden: But it was like being reborn for me.

Tavis: So he picked something off the floor, said, “Let’s play this,” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Haden: Then later on, he said, “Turn it upside-down.”

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Haden: Yeah.

Tavis: That sounds like Ornette. That sounds like a Ornette (unintelligible) story consistent with the ones I’ve heard.

Haden: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.

Tavis: What about Coltrane?

Haden: Coltrane was a beautiful person, man, and he used to come – we all met each other, me and Ornette and Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, in L.A., and then we went to New York and we opened at this little club called the Five Spot. I tell the story because I started the jazz studies at CalArts here in ’82, and one of my students asked me one day, he said, “Mr. Hagen, why do you close your eyes when you play?”

I said, “Well, we opened at the Five Spot, I was taking off my cover and Ornette was doing his read, and Cherry was getting his trumpet. I looked out across the bar, and there was Charlie Mingus, (unintelligible) Arthur (unintelligible), Paul Chambers – every great bass player in New York staring right at me.” (Laughter) I said, “From that time on, I close my eyes.”

Tavis: So you play with your eyes closed.

Haden: Yeah.

Tavis: So if I brought this bass up here right now and asked you to play, could you do it with your eyes closed?

Haden: Oh, that’s the only way I play.

Tavis: That’s all you know how to do, I know.

Haden: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: So Brian, bring this thing in for me. Let’s see if we can’t work this out right quick. First of all, can I just say what an honor it was to have you on this program?

Haden: (Strumming bass) Thanks for inviting me.

Tavis: Anything that his name appears on, you’ll want to get it and add it to your collection. I’m going to shut up now after I say that’s our show for tonight and I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, keep the faith, and enjoy.

(Charlie Haden playing bass)

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: July 11, 2014 at 7:05 pm