Charlie Haden, the preeminent bass player of his generation, died on July 11 at 76. Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross spoke to Haden five times throughout his career, in interviews which span from 1983 to 2008.
Haden was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, and grew up in Missouri. From the age of 2 until he was 15, he sang on his family’s country music radio show. He had to stop singing when polio affected his vocal cords, at which point he got serious about playing bass.
Although he was brought up on traditional music, Haden made his reputation in jazz; he helped lead a musical revolution in the late 1950s and early ’60s as a member of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet. In 1969, he launched his own group the Liberation Music Orchestra, which performed works inspired by liberation movements around the world. In the ’80s, he founded the group Quartet West, drawing inspiration from film noir and jazz and pop singers of the ’40s and ’50s. Haden was especially nostalgic for that era. “I think it’s important to remember beautiful things in the past,” he said in his 1992 interview.
In 2008, he made an album with his three daughters and his wife, performing the kind of country music he sang as a child.
In remembrance of Haden’s extraordinary career, Fresh Air assembled some of his best interview moments.
On playing with Ornette Coleman, and how other musicians reacted
“There was a lot of controversy around us. When we opened up at the Five Spot in New York, fights used to break out right in the club. People would be putting us down, people would be praising us. The club was packed every night with everybody from different parts of the art world: Painters, famous writers, film makers, dancers, musicians. I would look out, and standing at the bar would be Paul Chambers, Percy Heath, Charlie Mingus, and they would be looking dead in my eye, you know, saying, ‘Okay, what are you going to do?’ And I would be playing, and have my eyes closed, and one night I opened my eyes and there was Leonard Bernstein with his ear glued to the front of my instrument.
“It was like that every night, it was very exciting. The violence wasn’t exciting. One guy set somebody’s car on fire. One night, I remember, somebody came back in the kitchen, we were standing, talking with Ornette — I won’t say who it was — and hit Ornette in the face. It was really a very strong ‘excitation’ time. New things were happening, not only in music, but in people’s minds, every night from that music.”
On being arrested in Portugal
“We were playing with the Newport Jazz Festival of Europe, which included Duke Ellington’s band and Miles Davis and a lot of people — giants of jazz. It was really a very exciting tour, but the last place that we were playing out of 14 countries was in Portugal, and I went to Ornette [Coleman] as soon as I saw it on the itinerary and I said, ‘I’m not playing.’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ve signed the contract; we should play. You’ll get me in trouble if we don’t play.’ So I decided to play, but what I did was we played ‘Song For Che’ [at] the concert, and before we played it, I dedicated it to the Black Liberation Movement in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau. [It] was in a hockey stadium in Casegas, outside of Lisbon, and there were 20,000 people there, most of whom were young students and were ready to hear something like that. They started chanting, and all hell broke loose as soon as I made the dedication, and police were running around with machine guns trying to get order. There was cheering — you couldn’t even hear the song, there was so much cheering.
“My wife had just given birth to triplets back in New York, and it was a very traumatic birth. And I was going to cancel the European tour before I even left New York, and she persuaded me to go. And then, after I was arrested, I thought maybe I’d never see my kids. I was actually crying, and I didn’t know whether I would even live or not. But now, looking back on it, even though it was very scary and very frightening, I know I would do it again, and I’m glad that I did it.”
On his family’s country radio show growing up
“Every day was a great experience for me. I just loved it. We did our radio show from the farmhouse, and my brothers and sisters would go out and do the chores, milk the cows and come in, have breakfast, and my dad would crank the phone on the wall to let the engineer in Springfield, [Mo.], know that we were ready to go on the air, and we’d do the show. Every day was like a wonder to me.”
On selling out to make more money
“At one time in my career, my wife Ellen [and I], we had just gotten married, she was pregnant with our first child and we were both scuffling financially. I was working a little bit with Ornette, I was working with Keith Jarrett, and there wasn’t enough money coming in to really pay the rent. And we were living in a four-flight walk-up tenement with cockroaches, you know, the typical New York musician beginnings. I felt guilty that I wasn’t making a living, and so I bought a Fender bass and I … started doing television jingles and commercial music recording that was really awful, that I really didn’t believe in. I started coming home depressed. I said, ‘I feel like I’m aiding and abetting the enemy.’ And [my wife] said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘I feel like I’m contributing to the people who are destroying creative values, and who are perpetuating shallow values, and that I’m a part of it.’
“It isn’t what I want to do. I have a very clear picture of what I want to do and what I feel is important as far as my contribution or my appreciation and respect for this life that we’re living, and to try to make it better. I can’t feel that I’m making it better playing commercial music, and I never could and I never will.”
On being born in the wrong era
“I always felt that I was born in the wrong era. I wanted to be friends with John Garfield, for instance. He was one of the only actors that refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee back when the Hollywood Ten [blacklist] was happening [in the] McCarthy period. I wish I could’ve been friends with Charlie Parker and played with him. That’s my period. I feel real close to the ’40s — and actually I was born in ’37, so I was a kid singing on the radio in the ’40s. But I always dreamed of going to big cities.”
On improvisation and being in the moment
“I think it’s very important to live in the present. One of the great things that improvising teaches you is the magic of the moment that you’re in, because when you improvise you’re in right now. You’re not in yesterday or tomorrow — you’re right in the moment. Being in that moment really gives you a perspective of life that you never get at any other time as far as learning about your ego. You have to see your unimportance before you can see your importance and your significance to the world.
“The artist is very lucky, because in an art form that’s spontaneous like [jazz], that’s when you really see your true self. And that’s why, when I put down my instrument, that’s when the challenge starts, because to learn how to be that kind of human being at that level that you are when you’re playing — that’s the key, that’s the hard part.”
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Today we pay tribute to Charlie Haden, the preeminent bass player of his generation and one of the greatest bass players in the history of jazz. He died on July 11 at the age of 76 of complications related to post-polio syndrome. He had polio as a teenager. We’re going to hear excerpts of several interviews I recorded with him spanning from 1983 to 2008. Haden played a remarkable range of music. He was born in Shenandoah, Iowa and grew up in Missouri. From the age of 2 until he was 15, he sang on his family’s country music radio show. He had to stop singing when polio affected his vocal cords. That’s when he got serious about playing bass. Although he was brought up on traditional music, he made his reputation in jazz, helping lead a musical revolution in the late 1950s and early ’60s as a member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet. In 1969, he launched his own group, the Liberation Music Orchestra, which performed music inspired by liberation movements around the world. In the ’80s, he founded the group Quartet West, drawing inspiration from film noir and jazz and pop singers of the ’40s and ’50s. In 2008, he made an album with his three daughters and his wife performing the kind of country music he sang as a child. Here’s Haden in 1959 featured on the groundbreaking Ornette Coleman Quartet album, The Shape Of Jazz To Come. We’ll hear Coleman’s composition, “Lonely Woman.”
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN SONG, “LONELY WOMAN”)
GROSS: The first time I spoke with Charlie Haden, in 1983, I asked him what kind of jazz he was playing before he met Ornette Coleman.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
CHARLIE HADEN: Bebop and blues and standards and Bird tunes – loving every minute of it. Learning the language – it was very exciting. And at one point, when I was first beginning to do that in Los Angeles, I started to hear other things to play. When it would come time for me to solo and I wanted sometimes to play on the inspiration that a tune that I received from a certain composition instead of on the chord structure. But when I tried to do this, a lot of musicians wouldn’t know where I was, and they would become very upset with me. So I had to be careful when I did this because I didn’t want to have any hard feelings. But I was definitely hearing other ways of improvising. I wasn’t satisfied so much with playing just on chord structures. Then I met someone who was doing this as a way of life. It was Ornette. And it was like a revelation to me because here was someone who was playing this way as a way of life. He was playing this way years before I had met him. And he invited me to his apartment – his little room in LA – and this was in 1957. I was 19 years old. And we played all day long. And he had a room full of music strewn all over the floor, the walls, the ceiling. He was constantly writing music. And he told me before we start to play, he said Charlie, I’ve written these pieces now and here’s the chord changes. Now these are the chord changes that I heard inside myself when I was writing the melody, but these are just a guide for you. I want you to be inspired from them and create your own chord structure from the inspiration or from the feeling of what I’ve written. And that way constantly a new chord structure will be evolving. And we won’t be constantly modulating, and we’ll be listening to each other, and we will make some exciting music. And that’s exactly what happened. And it’s still happening. He – his way, and all the musicians that were brought up with that kind of improvising, it’s different from other improvisation in jazz. It’s a very unique language, and not very many musicians know about it.
GROSS: Were you surprised at how controversial the music was when you started playing it? You know, a lot of people couldn’t handle it at all – musicians, listeners.
HADEN: I was very involved in learning about the playing. We were all involved because it was a brand-new language. We didn’t even think of it as being a brand-new language. We only thought of it as we’re hearing something and we got to play it. There was a lot of controversy around us. When we opened up at the Five Spot in New York, fights used to break out right in the club. People would be putting us down. People would be praising us. The club was packed every night with everybody from different parts of the art world – painters, famous writers, filmmakers, dancers, musicians. I would look out and standing at the bar would be Paul Chambers, Percy Heath, Charlie Mingus. And they would be looking dead in my eye, you know, and saying OK, what are you going to do? And I would be playing and have my eyes closed. And one night I opened my eyes and there was Leonard Bernstein with his ear glued to the front of my instrument. And I looked over at Ornette. I said, what is this? He says, I’ll tell you later. And then we were invited to Leonard Bernstein’s table. He invited us to the Philharmonic rehearsals. And he couldn’t believe that I was self-taught. And he wanted to try and get me to study music, and he was very helpful in me getting a Guggenheim Fellowship 10 years later in composition. But it was like that every night. It was very exciting. The violence wasn’t exciting. I mean, people – one guy set somebody’s car on fire. One night – I remember – somebody came back in the kitchen. We were standing, talking with Ornette – and I won’t say who it was – and hit Ornette in the face, you know. I mean, it was really a very strong, excitation time. New things were happening not only music but in people’s minds every night from that music.
GROSS: We’ll hear more of my 1983 interview with Charlie Haden later in the show. Let’s hear him on the Ornette Coleman album, Change Of The Century, which was released in 1960. This track, “Ramblin'” features one of Haden’s most famous solos on which – in a nod to his country music roots – he quotes the song, “Old Joe Clark.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “RAMBLIN'”)
GROSS: After Charlie Haden became famous for playing revolutionary jazz with Ornette Coleman, he started a group in 1969 playing music inspired by political revolutionary movements. He called it the Liberation Music Orchestra. The group’s first album included a Haden original called “Song For Che.” He was arrested for playing it when he performed it with Ornette Coleman in Portugal in 1971. At the time, the country was led by the authoritarian prime minister Marcelo Caetano. Hayden told me the story when we spoke in 1983.
HADEN: We were playing with the Newport Jazz Festival tour of Europe, which included Duke Ellington’s band and Miles Davis and a lot of people – Giants of Jazz, which included Art Blakey and Monk and Sonny Stitt and Al McKibbon and Kai Winding, Dizzy Gillespie. And it was really a very exciting tour. But the last place that we were playing out of 14 countries was in Portugal. And I went to Ornette as soon as I saw it on the itinerary. And I said, I’m not playing. And he said, well, we’ve signed the contract; we should play. You know, you’ll get me in trouble if we don’t play. So I decided to play. But what I did was we played one of my – we played “Song For Che” on the concert. And before we played it, I dedicated it to the Black Liberation Movements in Mozambique and Angola and Guinea-Bissau. It was in a hockey stadium in Casegas, outside of Lisbon. And there were 20,000 people there, most of whom were young students and were ready to hear something like that. And they started chanting, and all hell broke loose as soon as I made the dedication. And police were running around with machine guns and trying to get order. And there was cheering – you couldn’t even hear the song, there was so much cheering. We were playing for an audience, also, that were in sympathy with Caetano. There were people there in $10 seats who were in sympathy with what was happening with the fascist regime. And those are the people I didn’t want to play for, and I wanted them to know why. I wouldn’t have been able to have lived with myself if I had played and not done anything. So the thing that happened was what I had feared would happen, was that I was arrested afterwards. And at the airport they took me into custody and took me to the political headquarters of the PIDE and interrogated me through the night. And I was very frightened and very scared. And I guess that’s the most frightened I’ve ever been.
GROSS: What did they interrogate you about? What did they want to know?
HADEN: Well, I mean, what they really wanted to do was to beat me up, to make me see that I can’t do that, you know? I’m a foreigner in their land, invading their privacy and their political ideology, and I have no right to do that. They were very upset, you know. They knew that I was an American jazz musician. And I had an American passport. It’s one of the first things I said, you know, when they arrested me. I said, listen, I have an American passport – call my embassy. And the guy looked at me, one of the plainclothes men. And he said, this is Sunday, and the American Embassy is closed – smiling, you know, knowing that I couldn’t reach anyone. Ornette, as it turned out, after they took me away, remained at the airport and tried to reach the American ambassador, who wouldn’t do anything. He said that the American government had very many economic and political dealings with Portugal, that the main NATO base was there, that it was very embarrassing to the government, what I had said and that I was on my own. Later, he persuaded them to send the cultural attache to the prison to retrieve me. And I was very happy. My wife had just given birth to triplets back in New York, and it was a very traumatic birth. And I was going to cancel the European tour before I even left New York. And she persuaded me to go. And then, after I was arrested, I thought maybe I’d never see my kids, you know? I was really actually crying, you know. And I didn’t know whether I would even live or not. But now, looking back on it, even though it was very scary and very frightening, I know I would do it again. And I’m glad that I did it – and especially after they invited me back when they elected a new government there, and they invited me to come and play at the festival of the communist newspaper, Avante!. I went and played with some fresh musicians that I had never played with before in front of 40,000 people. When I started to play – when I came out on the stage, people started chanting my name – 40,000 people – Charlie, Charlie. And it was a really unbelievable feeling to hear that, you know.
GROSS: Charlie Haden, recorded in the 1983. Here’s a track from Hayden’s first Liberation Music Orchestra album. This is, “Song Of The United Front,” written by Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht.
(SOUNDBITE OF LIBERATION MUSIC ORCHESTRA SONG, “SONG OF THE UNITED FRONT”)
GROSS: Charlie Haden’s “Liberation Music Orchestra,” recorded in 1969. Remember how Haden explained that his triplet daughters were born shortly before he was arrested in Portugal? After a break, we’ll hear how the triplets sounded singing beautiful harmonies together on a Charlie Haden album from 2008. And we’ll hear an excerpt from the interview Haden recorded that year about singing on his parents country music radio show. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Today we’re remembering Charlie Haden, the great jazz bass player and composer. He died July 11, at the age of 76. From the ages of two to fifteen, Haden sang on his family’s country music radio show. In 2008, he returned to that music on his album “Rambling Boy,” which featured vocals by his triplet daughters, his son-in-law Jack Black and his wife Ruth Cameron. Here’s a track with Haden and the triplets.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “A VOICE FROM ON HIGH”)
HADEN: (Singing) I hear a voice calling. It must be our Lord. It’s coming from heaven on high. I hear a voice calling, I’ve gained my reward, in the land where we never shall die.
GROSS: That’s Charlie Haden and his triplet daughters – Tanya, Petra and Rachel from Haden’s album “Rambling boy.” When I spoke with him after the album was released in 2008, I asked him about the biggest surprise on the album. This recording of him at the age of two singing on his family’s country music radio show, where he was nicknamed Cowboy Charlie. He’s introduced by his father.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CARL HADEN: Honey, say good morning to all the little boys and girls. Say hello all you little boys and girls.
HADEN: Say, I’m just fine.
HADEN: I’m fine.
HADEN: Just fine. And say I’ve got a brand new song to sing for you this morning.
HADEN: I got a song to sing.
HADEN: This morning.
HADEN: This morning.
HADEN: There you are. All right, little Charlie has had so many, many requests to sing that dandy little song “Row Us Over The Tide” and then momma’s going to take him out to get his big bottle of soda pop. So you sing real loud and nice here and a nice yodel – all right.
HADEN: (Singing) Row us over the tide. Row us over the tide. Row us over the tide.
HADEN: Yodel loud.
HADEN: (Yodeling) Olay-yeee-ooo, olay-yeee, olay-yee-ooo. Olay-yee-ooo, Olay-yeee.
HADEN: All right, thank you honey. Friends, that was…
GROSS: Charlie Haden, welcome to FRESH AIR. Charlie, that is just about the most adorable thing I’ve ever heard, especially the yodel. What goes through your mind when you hear it?
HADEN: I remember being there, and I remember my mother holding me and my dad telling me, you know, he’s going to go get me a big bottle of sodie pop if I sing. And, you know, it brings back really wonderful memories to me. And of course, that’s a radio show from 1939, which was really edited to get it on the record. We didn’t have that much space so you don’t hear the commercials my father was giving, you know, for Wait’s Green Mountain cough syrup and Sparkle Light Cereal(ph) and Allstate Insurance and talking to all the listeners out there and – and all the songs that my brothers and sisters sang. And the song that you hear me singing and yodeling is really cut very short. You don’t hear the verse. You just hear the chorus right before I yodel.
GROSS: How old do you think you were before you could sing on pitch (laughing)?
HADEN: Well, my mom told me this story. She was rocking me to sleep, I’m 22 months old and she’s humming all these hillbilly songs and all of a sudden I start humming the harmony. And she said, wow, you’re ready for the show.
GROSS: God, that’s so amazing. So Charlie, would you share one of your favorite memories of your family’s country radio show from when you were, you know, a child?
HADEN: Every day was like a great experience for me. I just loved it. I – you know, when we were in Shenandoah, we were there until I was 4, and then we moved to Springfield, Missouri. My dad got a farm near my grandmother’s, near his mother’s place, and we did our radio show from the farmhouse. And my brothers and sisters would go out and do the chores, milk the cows and come in, have breakfast and my dad would crank the phone on the wall to let the engineer in Springfield know that we were ready to go on the air and we’d do the show. And every day was like a wonder to me. You know, I just loved it. And then we moved to Springfield and we did all the shows from KWTO studios, which was – I loved that so much. I couldn’t wait to get there. The double glass windows and the acoustic tile and the air conditioning and all the entertainers and, you know, that I met. I can’t really pinpoint one day. I can just pinpoint the whole thing.
GROSS: What made you think of doing a family album of your own?
HADEN: Of course, this music’s been inside me since I stopped country music and started in jazz when I was 15. And I have this music in me, inside me, and I have always thought about playing and singing again. I had to stop singing when I was 15 because I had bulbar polio that paralyzed my vocal chords and that’s when I started playing. And when I play jazz, the folk and hillbilly music comes out of me in one way or another in different improvisational ways. And of course, I hadn’t done any country music since I was 15, and I was, you know, a little bit apprehensive and a little bit nervous about whether I could really pull this off. You know, I’m a jazz musician for 50 years. So the first rehearsal we had over at the house with Ruth and the kids, and I was, you know, blown over about how great they were. I mean, they all sang with such great intonation. I played all these Stanley Brothers songs for them and the Carter family songs and Jimmy Martin, and they just, you know, took to it as if they’d been doing it every day. You know, the girls and Josh.
GROSS: Charlie Haden, recorded in 2008. He died July 11, at the age of 76. We’ll continue our tribute in the second half of the show. I’m Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SEVEN YEAR BLUES”)
HADEN: (Singing) Just seven years ago today was when you said goodbye. It broke my heart to see you go.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, continuing our tribute to the great jazz bass player Charlie Haden. He died July 11 at the age of 76, of problems related to post-polio syndrome. He got off to a musical start at the age of two, singing on his family’s country music radio show. In the late ’50s, he kicked off a jazz revolution playing with Ornette Coleman. He also played beautiful, melodious music. He was incredibly versatile. But one constant was, he played from the heart. This is an excerpt of our 1983 interview remembering a period earlier career when he was married to his first wife, Ellen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You’ve never done anything remotely like quote, “selling out.” If you decide to, like, go commercial at some point and, like, make it big in session music or whatever, what would you play, like, if you were really going for the big bucks – could you envision yourself doing anything like that? It’s so different than what you’ve done.
HADEN: I can’t imagine that happening. Hopefully a person involved in a minority art form is always wanting to or needing to make a living as a side effect from what they’re doing – not to have to think about making a living. I’ve been very fortunate. In the past few years I’ve been able to do that. Knock on wood, I hope it still keeps continuing. But at one time in my career, my wife Ellen, we had just gotten married, she was pregnant with our first child and we are both scuffling financially. I was working with – a little bit with Arnett. I was working with Keith Jarrett. And there wasn’t enough money coming in to really pay the rent and we were living in a four flight walk-up tenement with cockroaches, you know, the typical New York musician beginnings. I felt guilty that I wasn’t making a living and so I bought a Fender bass and I joined a radio registry and I started doing television jingles and commercial music recording. It was really awful – that I really didn’t believe in. But I was doing it. My wife, Ellen, used to come home from her job. She was working as a caseworker for the Department of Welfare in New York City. She had to go out in the field to Bedford Stuyvesant, to Harlem, to Brownsville, and she would come home so depressed because of the futility of her job. She wasn’t able to help people the way she really wanted to. She would come home in tears. And I started coming home depressed, you know, and she said well, we both know why I’m depressed – why are you depressed? And I said I feel like I’m aiding and abetting the enemy. She said what you mean? I said well I feel like I’m contributing to the people who are destroying creative values and who are perpetuating shallow values. And that I’m part of it. And it’s awful to feel like that. I used to get so – feeling so bad at the studio that I would just have to leave the studio on a break and go off by myself, you know. I guess maybe I’m too sensitive in that respect. I know a lot of musicians who were in the studios and their great people and I really love them them, you know, and that’s what they want to do, but it isn’t what I want to do.
I have a very clear picture of what I want to do, and what I feel is important as far as my contribution or my appreciation and respect for this life that we’re living in to try to make it better. And I can’t feel that I’m making it better playing commercial music. And I never could, and I never will. That’s just the way I am inside – I don’t know what made me that way, whether it was genes or environment or I don’t know. It’s just something that I know very deeply and feel very deeply and I have to do it. So I don’t think I could ever envision that happening where I would – you know, after I said that to Ellen, she said, well, why don’t you stop? So I sold my electric bass right away and I dropped radio registry and I never did it again.
GROSS: Charlie Haden recorded in 1983. We’ll continue our tribute to him after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We’re paying tribute to the great jazz bass player Charlie Haden. He died July 11 at the age of 76. We’re listening back to excerpts of my interviews with him. This next interview is from 1992 when he realized his album, Haunted Heart, with his band, Quartet West. The album featured standards and original compositions evoking the atmosphere of classic film noir and the Los Angeles of the 1940s as described by Raymond Chandler. Haden moved to L.A. from Missouri in 1956. Our interview started with this track, “Lady In The Lake,” written by Alan Broadbent who’s featured on piano.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN SONG, “LADY IN THE LAKE”)
HADEN: I’ve always felt that I was born in the wrong era, really. I wanted to be friends with John Garfield, for instance. He was one of the only actors that refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee back in the – when The Hollywood Ten was happening – McCarthy period. And I wish I could’ve been friends with Charlie Parker and played with him. That’s my period. I feel real close to the ’40s. And, actually, I was born in ’37 so I was a kid singing on the radio in the ’40s. But I always dreamed of going to big cities. You know, I’m from the Midwest. And I used to stand in front of the mirror with my brother’s raincoat on and my dad’s hat and dreamed that I was in New York on Broadway, you know, walking down the street at night.
GROSS: That’s great. In the liner notes for the new Quartet West album, you quote a passage from the Raymond Chandler 1940 novel, The Little Sister. This is a passage about how Los Angeles was changed by Hollywood. Reading that passage about how Los Angeles was changing made me wonder what Los Angeles was like for you when you left the Midwest as a young man to go to Los Angeles.
HADEN: I had been raised, you know, in the Midwest and it was small-town, rural kind of thing. And getting into L.A. was kind of an overwhelming experience for me. It was very, very exciting and very wonderful. And I started playing right away with very, very good musicians which was lucky for me because I found out as I went along that the way you really learn the art form of jazz is to learn it from musicians who are really great and are dedicated to the art form. And I merged into the nightlife very quickly and started playing so much that I had to drop out of school because I was cutting classes in the mornings. I was getting home very late and sleeping late. And my career just took off from there as far as, you know, playing with people like Hampton Hawes and Sonny Clark and Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper and then Paul Bley and then Ornette.
GROSS: Did you leave home or did your family come with you to Los Angeles?
HADEN: Oh, no, I left home. I loved, you know, Missouri but it was a very racist part of the country and I couldn’t leave fast enough to tell you the truth. I knew that there was nothing I could do to make it better while I was there. If I wanted to make it better and improve the country I had to do it through the music, and in order to do that I had to go somewhere where the music was happening. And I left.
GROSS: You know what I find really interesting – your first records with Ornette Coleman were regarded as very far out, very avant-garde, like nothing that had come before, very controversial – not only in jazz but even people who didn’t listen to much jazz found it controversial. And listening to this record and hearing you talk about it, you know, I get a sense of someone who’s really very much steeped in the past as well. And, you know, you said that you sometimes wish that you had, you know, been part of the ’40s, you know, that you thought you were in the wrong era. And I find it kind of paradoxical that on the one hand, you know, your music has been so forward-looking and on the other hand, you feel so rooted and even nostalgic for the past.
HADEN: Well, I think it’s very important to live in the present. One of the great things that improvising teaches you is the magic of the moment that you’re in and the importance of living in the moment. The artist is very lucky because in an art form that’s spontaneous like that, that’s when you really see your true self, you know. And that’s why, you know, when I put down my instrument the challenge – that’s when the challenge starts because to live – to learn how to be that kind of human being at that level that you are when you’re playing or when you’re approaching playing, that’s the key, you know. That’s the hard part. And when I put my instrument down I’m in trouble, you know. I try to live up to that level of being a musician and being close to music. But as far as being nostalgic, I think it’s important to remember things in the past.
GROSS: Charlie Haden, recorded in 1992. Let’s skip ahead to 1996 when we spoke again after the release of another album by Haden’s band, Quartet West. Haden loved songs and singers. And as a child, he sang on his family’s country music radio show. But at the age of 15, he got polio and had to stop singing.
HADEN: I had bulbar polio which – it was an epidemic going on in ’52. And we were in Omaha, Nebraska. We had a television show there. This was right before my dad retired from music. And I got this virus and it paralyzed – I was really lucky, actually, because most of the hospitals were filled with polio patients. And it was all paralyzed lung, you know, function and legs and mine hit my vocal cords and for some reason my -the left side of my throat and my face and I eventually – the doctor said I was a very lucky guy. And I eventually got over it and – but the thing that I couldn’t do any more – the range in my voice kind of left me. I couldn’t sing. I loved singing, but I wasn’t able to sing anymore.
GROSS: Charlie Haden, recorded in 1996. I don’t know what I was thinking when, after hearing about how polio forced him to stop singing, I asked him to sing. Here’s what led me to ask.
You end the album with something called, “Now Is The Hour.” It’s the title track of the record. And you say it’s a Maori farewell song. How did you learn this song, and tell us something about it.
HADEN: It was a very well-known song during World War II because it was – it depicted, you know, the guy going off to war and his wife saying, you know, when you come back I’ll be waiting for you, but we must say goodbye now. And I just love this song. And then I was speaking to Alan Broadbent, who’s from New Zealand, about the song. And he said, you know, that’s a Maori folk – farewell song. And I said – I said, well, I guess that’s where it came from, you know. So I knew then that we had to do it because Alan, also, was close to this song. And so we did.
GROSS: Would you sing the song as you remember it?
HADEN: Well, I’ll try. (Singing) Now is the hour when we must say goodbye. Soon you’ll be sailing far across the sea. While you’re away, oh, then, remember me. When you return, you’ll find me waiting here.
GROSS: That’s really a lovely song.
HADEN: Yeah. I think it’s beautiful.
GROSS: Well, let’s hear your version of it on your new CD, “Now Is The Hour.” And Charlie Haden, thank you so much for talking with us.
HADEN: My pleasure, Terry. Thanks for playing the music.
GROSS: After we recorded that interview, I found out that this was the first time Haden had sung in public since polio had forced him to stop singing at the age of 15. According to the liner notes Orrin Keepnews wrote for a Haden album two years after our interview, it was because I persuaded Haden to sing on FRESH AIR and then called him and urged him to sing on his next album that he actually did. We’ll hear that vocal track and what Haden had to say about it when we conclude our tribute after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. To conclude our tribute to jazz bass player Charlie Haden we’re going to hear him sing. He grew up signing on his family’s country music radio show, but gave up at the age of 15 after polio affected his voice. He sang again on his 1999 album, The Art Of The Song.” The album showcased two of his favorite singers, Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson. The final track featured Haden singing in a small voice but with deep emotion. Our previous interview played a part in getting him get to sing again and that means the world to me. He explained the story when we spoke in 1999.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: I want to get to your vocal on your new CD. Your new CD is called “The Art Of The Song,” and you chose two of your favorite singers to do most of the performances – Shirley Horn and Bill Henderson. But the last track is you singing. You, as a rule, don’t sing on your CDs. I think this is your first recorded performance outside of the years when you sang with your family when you were a child. Your family had a country group and used to sing on the radio. So tell us the story about how you decided to sing on your own CD.
HADEN: I stopped singing on our show when I was 15. I developed bulbar polio and it paralyzed vocal cords. And eventually, you know, I got my vocal cords back, but I lost the range of my voice. And I used to sing every day on our radio show from the time I was two until I was 15 and after that occurrence, I kind of focused all my musical melody energy into my playing. I never really thought about singing again after that. I didn’t even sing in the shower. It wasn’t that I was afraid to, it was just like, it was over, you know, for me. So recently some people have been talking about, you know, you used to sing, how come you don’t sing anymore or sing with my wife, who’s a singer. They said, you know, why don’t you sing. And then actually one day I was on your show a while ago and we were talking about “Now Is The Hour” and you asked me to sing it. I was very reluctant – I couldn’t believe that you asked me, and I finally gave in and sang and you called back later and said that you thought it was great and that I should sing some time on one of my records. And I said, well, thanks for the compliment, Terry. And, you know, I just – it was kind of humorous to me. And I never really took it seriously until we started planning this record and I was going through music and I ran across some of our music from our radio show with my family back in the forties, and I saw this song called, “The Wayfaring Stranger” that my mom used to sing on our show and I remember how beautiful it was and I thought about doing it on the record instrumentally. And then I thought, you know, this is a song for Shirley or Bill to sing, but it should really be sung because the words are so beautiful because I remember it when my mom sang it and so I said well, the only way it could be sung is if I sing it. And that I thought, you know, my goodness, that’s not going to work. And Alan was over and I played it for him. I said, what do you think of this and he said well, that is really beautiful. I said, what you think if I tried to sing it, and he said, wow, that would be different.
GROSS: (Laughing) What did you mean by that?
HADEN: Yeah, I said well, you know, and I even called Jean-Philippe Allard, our executive producer, in Paris, and there was a big silence and he said, pardon? I said, I might sing. And another long silence – pardon? Anyway I told Alan, I said, write the arrangement as if someone’s going to sing it, and if I don’t make it, I’ll play it on the bass. So we got into the studio and I just got up to the microphone, and they started to play it and I sang. Shirley Horn came into me and said, you’ve got to put this on the record. And I said, are you really serious? She said, yes. And she said some of those string players out there are in tears. I said, that’s probably because it’s so bad, you know. So I put it on the record and I hope people like it. It’s not doing it as a singer, it’s doing it to tell a story of, you know, where I come from.
GROSS: Well, I really love this one and I’m so glad that you went through with singing it. And listening to it, I was wondering, you know, knowing that you knew this song as a kid and that your mother sang it, when you were a child what did the words mean to? The song is just filled with metaphors about death, you know, crossing over the River Jordan, I’m going home to see my mother, I’m going home to my father. What did you get about that and was it a frightening song for you thinking about death or what?
HADEN: No, it actually is a very soothing song. It’s just the opposite to me, it’s a song about life. I remember a very funny thing that my mom told me once when I was four years old. She was working around our – we lived on a farm outside Springfield, Missouri and she was working around the house, and all of a sudden she heard me screaming in the living room. She thought, you know, I’d done – something horrible had happened to me -she ran in the living room, and she said Charlie, what’s wrong? And I looked up at her and I said I’m going to die.
HADEN: And she said, what in the world are you talking about? She said, you’re thinking about – you don’t have – she was like cracking up. So I always had this deep need for the beauty of life, the reason for life, and the preciousness of life, you know. And how precious every moment is that we’re alive and we should really do everything that we can to enhance this life that we have and this planet that we live on. And this song just evokes that to me.
GROSS: Well, I do hope you sing more and I want to thank you for talking with us. And why don’t we end with the recording of the “Wayfaring Stranger” from the new CD, “The Art Of Song.” And my guest has been Charlie Haden. Thank you, Charlie.
HADEN: Thanks, Terry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “WAYFARING STRANGER”)
HADEN: (Singing) I am a poor, wayfaring stranger. A-wandering through this world alone. And there’s no sickness, toil or danger, in that bright world to which I go. I’m going home to see my father, I’m going there, no more to roam. I’m only going over Jordan. I’m only going over home. I know dark clouds will gather round me. I know my way is rough and steep. But golden fields lie out before me. Where God’s redeemed shall ever sleep. I’m going home to see my mother, she said she needs me where I come. I’m only going over Jordan, I’m only going over home.
GROSS: Charlie Haden from his 1990 album “The Art Of The Song.” He died July 11 of complications related to post-polio syndrome. He was 76. The vitality, beauty and honesty of his music will live on and all of us who love his music will continue to listen with gratitude. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.