Q&A with Charlie Haden

By Fred Jung for All About Jazz
Published June 2005

All About Jazz: How did you come to play jazz?

Charlie Haden: Well, I was involved with country-western music during the beginning of my life, from the time I was 2 until the time I was 16. My parents were on the Grand Ole Opry before I was born.

AAJ: Why the bass?

CH: My brother played bass on our radio show and I really loved the bass. I loved the sound of the bass. I loved the way it lifted up the music. When the bass stopped playing the music kind of fell apart.

AAJ: Did anyone influence your playing style?

CH: When I started listening to jazz (they) weren't really influences on my playing, I just really loved the way they sounded - Jimmy Blanton, Wilbur Ware and Oscar Pettiford.

AAJ: You were an integral part of Ornette Coleman's classic quartet from 1958 to 1960. How did playing with him influence your playing style and how did he impact your career?

CH: Before I met Ornette I was going to a lot of jam sessions and playing with a lot of different people like Hampton Hawes, and Art Pepper, and Dexter Gordon. Then at jam sessions I used to want to play - not in the chord changes, because I was hearing to play in a different way - and, when I met Ornette, that's what he was doing, and we really hit it off and got together with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins and started the quartet. We went to New York and made a lot of records.

AAJ: Beyond the Missouri Sky won a Grammy and was a duet recording with Pat Metheny. Your latest release is a duet with pianist Kenny Barron. Do you have an affinity for the duet setting? Is it the intimacy that attracts you?

CH: Most of my releases on Verve have been with Quartet West. I love the duet setting. I like to break the tradition of the traditional format of a quartet with drums, or trio with drums, and quintet with drums. Sometimes I like to play away from what you usually do in jazz. I like to do duets.

AAJ: You were awarded a Grammy for Beyond the Missouri Sky and have been a consumate poll winner. How do you feel about all the accolades and recognition?

CH: I feel very good about it. I was nominated 10 times for a Grammy and it's the first time that I've gotten one and I was so happy, and Pat Metheny was really happy. I like to be recognized, and appreciated by my peers and professionals in the music industry.

AAJ: You have been a prolific recorder and have been able to sustain a very high level of playing. How have you been able to keep your intensity level and how important is that to you?

CH: It is almost like an obsession. I have to make new music. Make music that's never been before and to play with musicians that have the same musical values that I do. So I have a lot of projects that I'm planning that are going to be coming up and I always want to do new things. I'm going to do a tango album. I'm going to do a flamenco album. This new album with Kenny Barron is a real special album to me because of Kenny. I've always loved his playing. He's a master improviser. He's a great composer and we really love playing music together. I am really looking forward to playing in Orange County with him, and I hope that a lot of people come to the concert and I hope a lot of people buy the record. It's a beautiful record.

AAJ: At this stage in your career, do you practice? And, if so, how important is practicing?

"It is almost like an
obsession. I have to make
new music."

CH: I really don't practice any more. I just play. I play with whoever or whatever concerts I'm doing or recording sessions I am doing and I try to play every day at home. I've been doing a lot of playing with my wife, Ruth. She's singing and she's got a new CD coming out. We sing and play a lot at home.

AAJ: As an educator at Cal Arts, as a composer and as a musician, which "hat" do you find is most difficult to wear?

CH: They're all a challenge to me, teaching and interacting with young musicians. We're going to be performing a concert this weekend at the new Getty Museum with the California Institute of the Arts, where I founded the jazz studies in 1982. We're going to be performing there with the classical music and this album that I did with Gavin Bryars, who's a classical composer in London. We're going to be playing that piece with the Cal Arts Chamber Orchestra and then we're going to be doing my Liberation Music Orchestra with the students that are in my class and it's going to be great. All my hats are challenging.

AAJ: When most of your peers were moving to New York, what possessed you to remain on the West Coast?

CH: I came to the West Coast when I was in Missouri playing and singing. Actually, I was singing hillbilly music with my family on the radio and when I decided to play jazz I decided to come to L.A. to find Hampton Hawes, who was my favorite pianist.

AAJ: Let's talk about your latest release, Night and the City.

CH: I played with Kenny Barron in different settings, once with Chet Baker, and another time with Abbey Lincoln, and then he asked me to do his album Wanton Spirit, which was nominated for a Grammy, which has Roy Haynes on it. I really love playing with Kenny. I got us a gig at the Iridium in New York and told Jean-Philippe Allard, my executive producer in Paris, that I wanted to record it and that's what we did.

AAJ: What can we expect for you in the future?

CH: I'm touring with Kenny to promote the album, and I'm going to be in Europe this summer with Lee Konitz and Paul Bley. I'll be doing some concerts with Quartet West. I'm going to be doing a new record with Quartet West. I'm going to be doing a new record with Quartet West and strings, and then I'm going to be doing a lot of other projects, recording that I want to do with different groups.

AAJ: Any young musicians that you think we should watch out for?

CH: There's one young pianist, his name is Brad Mehldau, that I really love. Actually, I've got him on this thing with Lee Konitz called Alone Together on Blue Note that we recorded last year at the Jazz Bakery. It just came out and it is a great record. He is one of the young musicians that has innovation in his playing and I just think he is fantastic.

AAJ: Favorite standard?

CH: "Body and Soul" is my all time favorite.

AAJ: What motivates you?

CH: To make music that's going to have some effect in a positive way on people's lives. To touch their lives in a beautiful, positive way and to help them recognize the deep qualities that are inside themselves. To play as much beautiful music as I can for as many people as I can.

AAJ: When do you see the direction jazz will go in the future?

CH: I see the future of jazz, hopefully going in a direction beyond category, where it's going to be music that more and more people can appreciate.

AAJ: What instrument would you like to play other than the bass?

CH: I can't imaging that I wouldn't be playing the bass.

AAJ: What would you like the audience to take away from your recordings and performances?

CH: I would like for them to be touched by the beauty and to remember how there is beauty in everyone's life, and that there is beauty in the world and how important it is to be romantic.

AAJ: Describe jazz.

CH: I am really not close to categorizing music any more. To me it's important to play something that's never been played before. To approach music as if you are playing it for the first time every time you pick up your instrument. To create something that has never been before. To really put your life on the line. I tell my students at Cal Arts that you should be willing to give up your life for your art form. To risk your life for every note that you play and to make every note count.

Reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2006 by All About Jazz and Fred Jung

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