Reverence for Life

Jazz legend Charlie Haden to appear at much-deserved tribute this weekend

‘You have to figure out where you are and why you’re here,” says the voice on the other end of the phone line. “And once you’ve figured that out, you have to figure out why you’ve been given the gift of music. And once you figure that out, you realize you have to give it back—because it doesn’t belong to you.”

The man on the other end of the line is Charlie Haden—the hugely respected jazz legend who, like Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus before him, helped completely reshape the role of the upright bass in jazz. Over 50 albums feature him as a leader; he’s performed on hundreds more as a sideman, alongside the likes of Ornette Coleman, Hank Jones, Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Pat Metheny, Art Pepper, Archie Shepp and countless others.

This weekend, Haden’s gifts are celebrated in a mammoth two-day tribute at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. Appearing is a cross-section of those who’ve played with Haden in his many varied groups over the years: the pianist Geri Allen, playing solo and in a duo with Chris Potter; the saxophonist Lee Konitz, playing in a quartet; Haden’s nostalgic Quartet West with special guest Ravi Coltrane; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, playing solo piano; and the large, politically charged Liberation Music Orchestra, with Carla Bley. Even his four children—Rachel, Petra, Tanya and Josh Haden—make an appearance, singing with the guitarist Bill Frisell.

But whether Haden himself will be able to play at his own tribute is uncertain. “I’m not doing well,” he says from his home near Calabasas. “I haven’t had any solid food in two years. I’m fed with a tube in my stomach. And I can’t swallow very well. I can’t swallow my own saliva, I have to spit it out.”

When Haden was 15, he was afflicted with polio; it’s the reason he started playing bass instead of singing with the family. But the polio has returned, 60 years later. Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron, who serves as his manager and his saving grace, has dedicated herself to taking care of his health. “I’d be dead if it weren’t for her,” Haden tells me. But he also says there is no treatment.

As for wrapping his hands around his upright bass at his own tribute, “I’m going to try,” he says determinedly.

There’s another issue, too, in addition to Haden’s health. For the last two years, the 75-year-old titan of jazz has been unable to play concerts—which, as the recording industry withers and royalties continue to disappear, serve as his primary source of income. Haden doesn’t mince words about it: there is no money coming in.

Haden is inextricably linked with the golden age of jazz, a perfect living example of what Sonny Rollins called “a lot of great innovators, all creating things which will last the world for a long, long time.” With his talents persisting to the present day, he last year received the NEA’s Jazz Masters Award—essentially jazz’s highest honor—and, this past February, accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.

Born in Iowa, raised in Missouri, Haden was turned on to jazz by one of Norman Granz’s touring “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts, featuring Charlie Parker. Right then and there, he decided what he wanted to do. Soon, he moved to Los Angeles in order to find the pianist Hampton Hawes. Not long after, he also found Ornette Coleman, a short man with a plastic saxophone who succeeded in eliciting confusion from clubgoers. To Haden, however, he was a revelation.

With Haden, Billy Higgins and Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman set about turning the jazz world on its ear. The quartet’s residency at the Five Spot in New York marked a sea change; the avant-garde had arrived, and nothing would ever be the same.

“We really didn’t have time to stop and think about our impact,” Haden says today. “All we had time to do was play our music, and to make sure we were playing the stuff we were hearing. Because it wasn’t like anything else.”

In a way, Haden was at the wrong gig. After his sets with Coleman, he’d cross town to the Village Vanguard to listen to Bill Evans, at the time leading a now-legendary trio with drummer Paul Motian and bassist Scott LaFaro. Haden loved LaFaro, shared an apartment with him in Los Angeles, and the two learned much from listening to each other. (“Charlie had the biggest ears,” Ornette Coleman once told an interviewer.)

In his career since, Haden’s signature, lyrical bass playing has been a manifestation of beauty in settings with Keith Jarrett, Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny, Hank Jones, Paul Motian and many others who, like Evans, are imbued with a sense of empathy. “‘Look for all the pretty notes,’ that’s what Charlie Parker said,” Haden explains.

These days, Haden spends a lot of time at home listening to music. What he keeps coming back to is those Village Vanguard recordings of the Evans trio—almost the complete opposite, aesthetically, of what he was doing with the Coleman quartet across town, but a harbinger of much of Haden’s music to come. Hearing them is bittersweet: 10 days after the Vanguard run, LaFaro died in a car accident.

Haden and Coleman still talk, usually about once a week. The two have played together as recently as 2010, but they’ve both had to cancel appearances. “He’s not working either,” Haden says of his good friend. “He’s not doing too well.”

In the meantime, Haden is open to more tributes like the one this weekend, suggested by Healdsburg Jazz Festival artistic director and tireless jazz supporter Jessica Felix, a longtime friend of Haden’s. (According to Felix, many of the musicians involved have agreed to play for reduced fees in order to help Haden with his financial situation.) Maybe, he hopes, a Doris Duke or MacArthur foundation grant will come along and help out.

In the meantime, Haden hopes more than ever to perform. In his touching Grammy acceptance speech, he closed with a tone of humility: “If through my music I have been able to bring beauty and peace to my fellow human beings, I feel truly blessed.”

On the phone, Haden expands on this. “It really doesn’t have that much to do with music—it has to do with the universe, and where are we, and why are we here? Most people will never find that out, because they’re on American Idol. But the people who are close to creativity and depth have a chance to find it out. And they’re very lucky.”