OXFORD—I dragged my two young children to Memphis that night back in March 1997 with a promise: "Someday you'll thank me."
We went to see one of jazz's great bassists, Charlie Haden, and his Quartet West. Rachel and Michael had never heard of him and had no interest in jazz, but they were going. Daddy insisted.
French berets, dark glasses, goatees and black outfits were everywhere among the crowd at the University of Memphis concert hall. After high school and university jazz bands warmed things up, Haden and his group—tenor sax man Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent, and drummer Larance Marable—walked onto the stage.
"Dad, he's so normal looking," 14-year-old Rachel said.
That's my gal. With just a few words, she went straight to the heart of the matter with Charlie Haden. With his short-cropped hair, thick glasses, clean-shaven, cornfed, Iowa-and-Missouri-bred looks, Haden hardly seemed the revolutionary who helped change jazz forever or the political radical whose "Song for Che" honoring Che Guevara and liberation movements in Angola and Mozambique got him tossed in a Portuguese jail.
Haden, who died at 76 in July from post-polio syndrome, was what writer David A. Graham described as "the least likely revolutionary" in sax great Ornette Coleman's quartet, when they threw a bomb into the bebop establishment with their album "The Shape of Jazz to Come" in 1959. After all, Haden had started out as little "Cowboy Charlie" with the country music-crooning Haden Family on radio back in the 1940s.
Yet it was Haden's bass lines that held Coleman's wild and soaring "free jazz" together and then guided it into the stratosphere. "His firm grounding in the roots seems to have been what enabled him to be such an effective radical," Graham wrote in his tribute in The Atlantic.
It's the bass that provides the bottom, the foundation, on which jazz and other roots music stand. A long tradition of great bassists have made jazz what it is. It includes Charles Mingus, who bridged the worlds of big band and bebop, and Vicksburg native Milt Hinton, often called the "dean of jazz bass players." With what record producer Jean-Philippe Allard has called his "huge, deep, dark tone, his perfect intonation and his melodic invention," Haden is another giant in that tradition.
Haden's devotion to roots is evident in one of his most evocative albums, "Steal Away," with another Vicksburg native, jazz pianist Hank Jones. The duet offers a collection of ageless gospel and spiritual tunes that date back to pre-Civil War times and come out of African American as well as both white and black Protestant traditions. Legend has it that the title tune was written by Nat Turner, best known for leading a bloody rebellion against slavery in Virginia. Haden also contributed his own "Spiritual," a tribute to Mississippi civil rights leader Medgar Evers and fellow martyrs Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
Haden teamed up with another Mississippian, Jackson native jazz and blues singer Cassandra Wilson, later in his career on "Sophisticated Ladies," a collection of torch songs from the 1940s and 1950s. Haden so badly wanted Wilson to do Johnny Mercer's "My Love and I" for the album that he sang the tune to her on the phone to convince her.
Haden felt a life-long connection to the poor, the marginalized and their struggles. Polio nearly cost him his voice as a teenager and precipitated his switch from vocals to bass. He saw jazz, like country, as the music of poor people fighting to make their way. His leftist politics were like his music, bold, revolutionary even, but always with an eye on roots, the basics.
The rich body of work he left behind ranged from his renditions of Spanish Civil War songs in his "Liberation Music Orchestra" album in 1970 to the ultimate film noir soundtrack that is his classic "Haunted Heart" in 1992. The latter was part of a trilogy devoted to Haden's longtime home city, Los Angeles, and the noir world there that writer Raymond Chandler captured so well in his novels.
On that night in 1997, Haden's quartet played at least four tunes from "Haunted Heart," my favorite of all his records. I remember he would let out a "Whoop!" after a good solo by a fellow musician. It was the same whoop you hear on "Lonely Woman" back in 1959 with Ornette Coleman. On the day after I heard the news of his death, my wife, Suzanne, and I flew to Los Angeles to visit Rachel, a social worker there. She took us to Vibrato, one of the city's best jazz clubs, a perfect place to drink a silent toast to one cool cat whose cornfed looks belied the revolutionary fire that was behind them.
Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist, columnist and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. He can be reached at [email protected].