Saturday, July 12, 2014

Charlie Haden Remembered

The anticipation that I feel before doing an interview often has a debilitating effect on me. Bad connections, bad recording devices - both are possibilities, even when I test them beforehand. Then there's always the prospect that the subject will turn out to be less than friendly. I went into an interview with a certain punk rock icon, who I had casually meet on a few occasions and found sweet as pie, who was prickly and intimidating.

But there's always the hope of having a breakthrough with a subject. You ask a question, or more likely make an observation that will really open them up. That happened when I interviewed Charlie Haden in 2003. We talked about his music, the term "jazz," about teaching music, whether or not you can teach what he did with Ornette Coleman's quartet, and how to reach an audience with what you do.

Being so close to 9/11, and right around the time that W. declared "mission accomplished," I wondered if he was considering doing another Liberation Music Orchestra album. The first had been recorded in 1969, in the wake of the Democratic Convention in Chicago which had erupted in riots. The album's penultimate track attempted to recreate those particular events, by dividing the ensemble in two and letting them blow their brains out, following a jaunty Haden solo. Right at the height of the frenzy, Carla Bley began playing "We Shall Overcome" on the organ. The track juxtaposed chaos and hope of that era all at once. And while the track ends sounding bleak, it's followed by a one-chorus version of "We Shall Overcome," blown by Roswell Rudd's trombone. I took the message as one to be just what the song said: no matter how bleak, we will overcome.

When asked, Haden wasn't sure about another LMO album (the fourth, following Ballad of the Fallen, which came out in the '80s, and Dream Keeper in 1990). But sure enough, he released another one, Not In Our Name, in 2005. I was happy to see it and even happier when it drew piss and vinegar in the letters section of jazz magazines, due to its fearless comments about the country's politics.

But back to that interview...

I searched and found the article I wrote for Pulp back then, but I didn't include one key exchange Charlie and I had. He was telling me something that went kind of like this: he liked to tell his audiences how he'd like to multiple them by one million because with more people like that in existence, the world would be a better place.

Hm. That's cool, I thought. Now what do I say? "Well," I finally replied, you've given me a lot to think about." It felt like the most wishy-washy thing to say.

Wrong.

"THAT'S COOL, MAN" he exclaimed. It seemed like he felt like I got where he was coming from. A minute later, he was telling me that we ought to get together when he came into town. Charlie Haden wanted to hand out with me, an indie rock geek who was just starting to think he was a jazz writer. How could that be? (My first JazzTimes article had just been published two months prior.) I gave him my phone number and he wrapped up the interview with the word that I will forever associate with him: "Solid!"

Haden was supposed to get into town on a Wednesday for a weekend stand at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. I had given up on hearing from him when I finally got a voicemail either Friday or Saturday afternoon. Yes, he was still interested in hanging out. Maybe we could check out the Crawford Grill (still open at that point) where he played with Ornette several decades prior. We made plans to meet up after the Sunday matinee show at the Guild.

Pittsburgh was hit with a pretty heavy snowstorm that day, but my partner in crime Shawn Brackbill had grown up in eastern PA and knew how to maneuver the roads. After checking out the subdued but really enthralling set by Haden's quartet (which included pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and pianist David Sanchez), Haden, Shawn and I made plans to meet at his hotel downtown and find a place to eat.

Things started off rather bleakly. The snow was getting bad. Charlie seems hungry and a little prickly. The mix tape that Shawn made for the trip wasn't having the desired effect. "Could you turn that off," Charlie asked, just about a minute into it.

But once we got to Palomino, the only place that seemed both open and accessible, he warmed up. We heard some great stories. A Pat Metheny song was playing in the restaurant. "I think I'm on this," he said, casually.

Yes, I did feel star struck, but I also felt like I was hanging out with a regular guy who just happened to be one of the most groundbreaking bassists in jazz music. I loved it for both reasons. And when I look back on the, uh, charmed life I briefly lead as an alt-weekly editor, making that connection with Charlie Haden is always the first thing I think of. And when I hear one of those early Ornette Coleman albums on Atlantic, I always think of how genuine a guy Charlie Haden is, and how I would to multiply him by one million. The world would be a better place.

Thanks, Charlie. I hope that you, Don Cherry, Eddie Blackwell and Scott LaFaro are hanging out together, laying down some drum and bass grooves.

Solid.

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