Iowa native Charlie Haden started out on his parents’ country & western radio show. But it was in Los Angeles and in jazz where the bassist would make his mark. His resume includes Art Pepper, Hampton Hawes, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane and 15 years in Keith Jarrett’s American quartet. He was part of the seminal Ornette Coleman’s Quartet (alongside trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Billy Higgins). He’s been a Guggenheim fellow, had four NEA grants for composition, and won France’s Grand Prix Du Disque (Charles Cros) Award.
I am presenting him with the award, no prepared speech — everything’s improvised. I met him in 1957. On one of my off nights I heard him play, and it really was a very brilliant sound. I wanted to meet him, and someone introduced us when I was playing at the Hillcrest Club. We went and played at his apartment, then started recording with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins. We made two recordings for Atlantic Records, and we opened at the Five Spot in New York in 1959.
We all met each other at the same time, when we were all thinking in that direction … i.e., like when Charlie Parker met Dizzy … when you have a desire to create every time you play your instrument, create something new. We both felt the same way about music and improvisation, and it was really great, starting to play music (with Coleman) opened a whole new world for me.
He completely turned jazz upside down. There were several innovators in jazz — Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, be-bop — and Ornette’s band started what we started. I saw it as a new vocabulary. (Coleman called it “Harmolodic.”)
For instance, if you play Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” you play the melody, then everyone improvises and takes solos. What we do is we create from a composition of Ornette, so that after you play the melody, you create a new chord structure that’s always different; it’s never the same, it’s moving.
But we weren’t thinking about those things; writers were. A lot of people didn’t like what they heard. As we kept playing, eve-rybody finally saw that we were doing something completely new. I’m versed in traditional jazz with chord changes. If you can get a sketch and idea where jazz came from, you will understand why Ornette is getting a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. I’m really happy that he’s getting it, it’s wonderful.
The great thing about jazz is that every great musician makes an impact, develops their own song. If you hear Coleman Haw-kins, you know immediately it’s because of the sound. Ornette’s got this human sound to his playing that’s really unique to him. He writes these songs that are unique to him — like diamonds. I play (Coleman’s) “Lonely Woman” quite a bit with different bands.
Every time I go to New York, we play at his house. Every gig I’ve ever played with him is a revelation of musical beauty — something being born for the first time, people in different forms that strive to do something new each time they do something: That’s what Ornette does.