When I heard that Charlie Haden passed away, it didn’t make much of an impression. While I’m a fan of jazz music, I wasn’t familiar with his name. Then, I read a 2006 interview with him on the Democracy Now news program. To say the least, I was impressed.
Charlie Haden was born around the year 1938 in Shenandoah, Iowa. His parents traveled the country performing what he called “hillbilly” music. At the age of 22 months, Haden’s mother discovered her son could sing and he began performing with his family.
When Haden was 15 he contacted the disease polio. The disease affected his vocal cords and his singing career was over. However, he continued to listen to all kinds of music on the radio.
Then, he attended a jazz concert in Omaha, Nebraska. There he saw Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, and Lester Young. After hearing that music, Haden made the statement “That’s what I want to do.” He would become one of the premier jazz bass players.
He gave up a scholarship offer from Oberlin Conservatory and went to a school in Los Angeles where he could study jazz. Haden also wanted to go to L.A. because his favorite musicians were based in the city.
Haden eventually began to tour with Art Pepper’s band. While on tour he met Ornette Coleman. At the time, many musicians didn’t understand Coleman’s free form style of jazz. Charlie Haden was immediately drawn to Coleman’s music and performed in his group for most of his career.
Opposition to the war against Vietnam
During the years of the U.S. war against Vietnam, Haden formed a band called the Liberation Music Orchestra. Haden’s idea was to take some of the songs from the Spanish Civil War, and use those arrangements in songs in opposition to the war against Vietnam. One of the songs in this album was dedicated to his hero Ernesto “Che” Guevara titled, Song For Che.
Haden recruited several musicians who also wanted to make a statement against the war. In one rehearsal he invited veterans of the Spanish Civil War to attend. These veterans fought for the elected Spanish government and against the military dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who was supported by Adolf Hitler.
When Haden was ready to record the album, record executives were worried about the word “liberation” that was the name of his group. They felt that this name sounded like the Vietnamese National Liberation Front.
Haden countered their argument with the point that the revolutionaries who established the United States were also about liberation. He then said that if he did not use this name another group would. These arguments convinced the record executives to go along with the Liberation Music Orchestra.
Solidarity with African liberation
In 1971 Haden’s wife had triplets. During that same time, Ornette Coleman asked Hayden to go on a Newport Jazz Festival tour of Europe. Haden was reluctant to go on the tour because of his new daughters, but he eventually agreed.
One of the stops on this tour was in Portugal. At that time the Portuguese dictatorship of Marcelo Caetano was at war against the liberation movements in their African colonies.
Haden asked a journalist what would happen if he made a statement in Portugal in support of the African liberation movements. The journalist replied that Haden could be shot or arrested.
During the concert in Portugal, Charlie Haden made his dedication to the Black peoples’ liberation movements in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea Bissau. Then, he performed his Song For Che. The authorities stopped the concert and the Portuguese political police eventually arrested Hayden.
The Portuguese authorities asked Haden to sign a paper denouncing his statement at the concert. He refused. Haden didn’t know if he would ever see his family again. There was a guard with a truncheon who was hitting this weapon on his other hand. This was a clear message that Haden was about to be beaten. Then, fortunately the U.S. cultural attaché to Portugal intervened and sent Haden to the airport where he left the country.
In 1974 there was a revolution in Portugal and the Caetano dictatorship was no more. The new Portuguese government wrote about Haden’s experience with the police in the school-books studied by children. This new government invited Haden to return to Portugal. He performed a concert where 40,000 people attended yelling his name “Charlie, Charlie, Charlie.”
Iraq and South Africa
During Washington’s war against Iraq Haden put out another recording in opposition to that war tiled, Not in Our Name.
During a concert in Cape Town, South Africa, a member of the African National Congress approached Haden. This person listened to Haden’s music during the apartheid years when this person lived in a one-room shack with eleven children. Hayden’s music inspired this person to read and find out about the history Haden performed in his music. This person eventually joined the ANC and spent time in prison for his political activities. Today, this person is a minister in the new government of South Africa.
Haden concluded his interview with the following words. “You know, it’s up to us to try to make a difference in this world and try to make this planet better to live for all the human beings and stop the cruelty and the devastation that’s going on, you know, and have a great place.
I don’t think better words could have been spoken. Oh yes, I will be looking into the music of Charlie Haden.
If you are interested in reading or listening to the Democracy Now interview with Charlie Haden you can see this at the link below: