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Charlie Haden: 'Risk Your Life for Every Note'

In August 1993, I attended a bass master class taught by Charlie Haden. I was expecting to hear about his method of playing the bass, how to construct interesting bass lines and, perhaps, his life in music. Any of this would have been interesting to me as a student of the bass and as a fan of Haden's. Since he has played with Ornette Coleman and many other great jazz musicians, a discussion of his experiences would have been equally compelling.

I was therefore unprepared for the fact (and initially very disappointed) that Haden did not bring his bass to class and had no intention of discussing his -- our -- instrument or his approach to playing it. And while he told us some stories about his life in the music, they were mostly incidental to the conversation. [2] What he came prepared to talk about was music, its importance and how to go about trying to make it. It was philosophical. It was ideological. It was spiritual.

At the end of the session, Haden played a tape of the title track from an album he had just recorded with Quartet West -- featuring Haden, Ernie Watts (ts), Alan Broadbent (p) and Larance Marable (d). The song, "Always Say Goodbye" was excellent, as was his explanation of the title. Paraphrasing, he said "you never know if you will see the person you are talking to again so you should always say goodbye. Don't leave things unsaid or undone." That statement kind of sums up Haden's philosophy in other respects as well. He also said that you should play every note as if it is the most important note you will ever play, to play each note as if it is your last. It suggests a reverence for the music that goes beyond the familiar. It suggests a joy of playing and an appreciation for the importance of music in our daily lives. I was awed by his comments, impressed by the new composition and left thinking about my own approach to playing and listening to music. Which was, I suppose, Haden's goal.

I mention all of this now because the August 1994 issue of Downbeat magazine named Haden's album, "Always Say Goodbye", as the "Album of the Year" winner of the 1994 Critic's Poll. Haden was also named "Acoustic Bassist of the Year" -- for the 13th time! Downbeat's Fred Shuster interviewed Haden:

FS: What can music teach a musician?

CH: There are so many things you can learn. It teaches humility, and if you pick up on that, it's a type of humility that's very special. Music teaches that you'll not be allowed to play music unless you're humble. It teaches about being in the moment you're in and that there's no yesterday or tomorrow, there's only right now. And in that moment you have to see your insignificance and unimportance to the rest of the universe before you can see your significance or importance. The secret of playing music in a powerful and beautiful way is to have humility.

FS: How do you relate that philosophy to jazz students at CalArts?

CH: I say if they want to play music at the level of freedom, of beauty, you have to play as if you're willing to risk your life for every note you're playing. As if you're on the front lines. I tell young people it's especially important to strive to become a great human being, and if you work on that, then you'll be a great musician. I think the secret of this art form, as far as young musicians are concerned, is to discover your soul. No two people hear music the same way, just as no two people have the same fingerprints. Every person is unique. I help each student discover their sound, their melodies, their harmonies. The whole purpose is to get people to go into the world and play their music. I talk about what happens spiritually when you play, not what happens technically. I talk about the spiritual connection to the creative process. A lot of people are eager to hear that because mostly they get the technical stuff.

Haden also discussed a hearing problem he developed over the years by playing music very loudly or in highly amplified settings. It has manifested itself as a constant ringing in his ears and he almost always must use earplugs when he plays now. After discussing how amplification can damage musicians' hearing, Haden said:

One of the first things I teach at CalArts in discovering your sound is you have to be able to hear the sound of your reed, the sound of your embouchure, the sound of your skin on the strings, on the piano keys. You cannot communicate that to your instrument from your soul unless the volume is low and natural. In my classes, I want everyone to play soft so they can discover a sense of dynamics. Because once you start out at a very high volume level and stay there, you never get a sense of dynamics. The phenomenon of sound from the human being to the instrument is unbelievable.

As to the present and future of jazz:

"I am disappointed, however, to hear stories about a few of these young musicians' distorted egos and lack of humility. These people actually believe the hype that is written about them, and they're using their inflated self-image as a basis for demanding exorbitant fees, for example, to appear as guest musicians on albums by jazz legends. The fact is, they should consider themselves lucky to play with musicians of the caliber of a Sonny Rollins, Hank Jones, J.J. Johnson, Benny Carter, Max Roach, or Roy Haynes. I sincerely hope they don't forget that it takes humility to become a great musician.

". . . It's up to all of us to make sure that arts and music education in the schools doesn't disappear. We have to start demanding it again -- that it be a part of everyone's education. A society -- a world -- without art and music is doomed as far as I'm concerned. Jazz has always been a minority art form with a limited Audience. That's one of the reasons why the musicians that play the music are so dedicated -- because they know they're a minority and they have to persevere. Most musicians that play on the level of dedicating their lives to their music won't accept playing a type of music they don't believe in. As long as there are musicians who have a passion for spontaneity, for creating something that's never been before, the art form of jazz will flourish. [emphasis added]

[2] One story Haden told was about coming to New York with Ornette Coleman's band. They had been traveling the country and receiving very good notices. In addition, Ornette's music was "different" and "new", so there was a lot of interest in the band's first appearance in the world's "jazz capitol." Haden described entering the club to play for the first time, picking up his bass, and then looking out into the crowd and seeing Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers and several other "bass gods" standing along the wall waiting to check him out. It was at that moment that he decided that playing with his eyes closed was the way to go! Later that week, I was playing bass in a combo at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. In the middle of playing a bass solo, I opened my eyes and came face-to-face with Buster Williams staring at me. He was the principal bassist at Stanford that year and also didn't like electric bass, which was what I was playing. After flubbing a few notes, I quickly decided that Haden was right, closed my eyes again, and finished the solo.

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Meanderings 1.07 -- October 25, 1994