All of us at Serious were saddened to hear that Charlie Haden had lost his battle with a prolonged three years of falling health.  One of the defining figures in jazz since the 50s, his career ranged from the radical experimentation of the original Ornette Coleman Quartet in the late fifties, to his explorations of West Coast noir with the wonderful Quartet West, and the Liberation Music Orchestra, where Charlie’s profound belief in a better world manifested in Carla Bley’s evocative arrangements of songs of revolution, yearning and a demand for political change. Indeed, the last two bands formed the basis of a memorable residency at the Barbican in 2011, where he played two concerts of complete and breathtaking contrast – regrettably to be his last in the this country, and not far from being his last anywhere in the world.

Charlie was part of the life of Serious for the very beginnings of the company back in the 80s, but even before then, I’d got to know him as a complex and passionate man, with a devastating sense of humour who could tell jokes with the timing of the great comedians.  First through a concert by Old and New Dreams, the quartet of old Ornette hands that brought together Charlie, Don Cherry, Dewey Redman and the irrepressible swing of New Orleans drummer Ed Blackwell; and then by road managing three European tours of the Liberation Music Orchestra, the first of which included recording the memorable Ballad of the Fallen for ECM – a roller coaster of a ride that produced some of the finest musical energy that I’ve experienced, and some long-standing friendships. Often under very unexpected circumstances… 

In the early days of Serious, Charlie was a featured artist at the Camden Jazz Week – the precursor to today’s EFG London Jazz Festival – in 1987, where he collaborated with composer Gavin Bryars and the Balanescu Quartet.  We produced concerts and a Contemporary Music Network tour with his consummate trio with Geri Allen and Paul Motian, and, later, his duet with Pat Metheny – the collaboration that recorded a landmark piece of chamber Americana, Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories), where Charlie’s childhood background as a member of his family country band re-emerged to extraordinary effect.  And re-emerged again when he recorded Rambling Boy and an accompanying biographical film, an album of country songs with his own hugely talented family – both well worth checking out. 

In recent years, Charlie played some terrific London concerts with Quartet West, and was a featured artist at Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown, where we worked with him  to form an Anglo-American Liberation Music Orchestra which included some never-to-be-forgotten moments – the very rare appearance of Robert Wyatt to sing Song for Che was one;  the other, a piece of jazz history that brought Ornette, Charlie and Denardo Coleman together to play a definitive take on Ornette’s Lonely Woman ‘one of the most beautiful of jazz ballads’, as John Fordham wrote in the Guardian).

And finally, the Barbican residency, where the Anglo-American Orchestra re-formed to great effect, and where Quartet West played a blinder of a set, from Ernie Watts’ storming saxophone solos to delicately-nuanced ballads from Melody Gardot, an on-fire Lianne Carroll and Charlie’s partner and muse, Ruth Cameron, that tugged at the heartstrings.  And at the real heart, and despite already failing health, Charlie Haden’s extraordinary bass sound and swing.  Never one for technical display, every note carefully and thoughtfully placed, and an uncanny sense of time and space.  And that’s what will be missed the most – whatever the musical setting (and there were many, many more), Charlie Haden was a one-off.

Finally, a piece of anorak rock and jazz lore: the riff of Ian Dury’s Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll is  lifted from Charlie Haden’s bass line in the recording of Ramblin on Ornette Coleman’s 1959 album Change of the Century, itself lifted from an old Kentucky folk song. Check it out.

There are many tributes now on the web, but well worth checking out Richard Williams’ piece on his terrific blog, The Blue Moment.

John Cumming
July 2014