Charlie Haden, the pioneering jazz bassist who played with the likes of Ornette Coleman and Keith Jarrett before enjoying a decades-long solo career, died Friday at age 76 of a prolonged illness, according to his label, ECM.
Praised by critic Martin Williams for his “almost lyric directness,” Haden achieved fame in the late ’50s as a member of saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking free jazz quartet. He would later be a key member of another celebrated ensemble, pianist Keith Jarrett’s mid-’70s unit.
In 1969, Haden founded the politically charged Liberation Music Orchestra, a brew of radical politics and free ensemble playing, with pianist-composer Carla Bley. During the ’70s and ’80s, he recorded with Old and New Dreams, a cooperative quartet featuring other members of Coleman’s pathfinding ensembles.
In 1987, Haden formed his long-running group Quartet West, which achieved commercial and critical success with its highly cinematic repertoire.
Born in Shenandoah, Iowa, Haden was reared in a musical family. Making his professional bow at the prodigious age of 22 months, he sang with his parents and older brothers and sister in country unit the Haden Family, which appeared on national radio.
A bout with polio at 15 damaged nerves in Haden’s vocal cords and ended his singing career, but he continued to play the bass. He gravitated to jazz after hearing Charlie Parker on a radio broadcast by Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic. As a sideman on Springfield, Mo.’s network TV show “The Ozark Jubilee,” he jammed with the jazz-oriented country guitarists Hank Garland and Grady Martin.
Relocating to Los Angeles in 1956, Haden enrolled in Westlake College of Modern Music and began performing with such local jazzmen as pianist Hampton Hawes (an early mentor) and saxophonists Art Pepper and Dexter Gordon. He was soon introduced to alto saxophonist Coleman, who was then developing his concept of free jazz.
Haden attracted attention on Coleman’s game-changing series of recordings for Atlantic Records: the quartet sessions “The Shape of Jazz to Come” (1959), “Change of the Century” (1959) and “This Is Our Music” (1960) and the double quartet “Free Jazz” (1961), which also featured Eric Dolphy and Freddie Hubbard.
His association with Coleman, which established his international reputation, would continue onstage and in the studio through the early ’70s. In 1971, Haden was arrested in Portugal after dedicating a concert performance of his “Song for Che” with the saxophonist’s group to African anti-colonialists. He appeared on “Song X,” the 1986 collaboration between Coleman and another regular Haden colleague, guitarist Pat Metheny.
The Liberation Music Orchestra was formed in 1969. The big band’s self-titled debut, with its thematic allusions to the Spanish Civil War, the Cuban revolution and the ’60s civil rights struggle, featured a pair of Coleman alumni, trumpeter Don Cherry and saxophonist Dewey Redman, as well as such notable free players as drummers Paul Motian and Andrew Cyrille, trombonist Roswell Rudd and saxophonist Gato Barbieri. The LMO reunited for similarly left-leaning releases in 1983, 1990 and 2005.
Haden’s work with keyboardist Jarrett dated from a 1967 session. It reached its apex with three intuitive 1973-74 sessions for Impulse — “Fort Yawuh,” “Treasure Island” and “Death and the Flower” — in a quartet lineup that also included Redman and Motian.
The empathetic combo Old and New Dreams was co-founded in 1976 by Haden, Cherry, Redman and drummer Ed Blackwell. Each of the group’s four albums included at least one Coleman composition.
Inaugurated in 1986, Quartet West — Haden, saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist-arranger Alan Broadbent and drummer Larance Marable — reflected the noir sensibility of ’40s filmmaking in its soundtrack-like sonorities. Sometimes augmented by lush strings, the group recorded seven albums for Verve; an eighth set, “Sophisticated Ladies” (Emarcy, 2011), included vocal performances of standards by Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall and Haden’s wife, Ruth Cameron.
Haden was a three-time Grammy winner. His 1997 collaboration with Metheny, “Beyond the Missouri Sky,” was named best jazz instrumental performance. His sessions with Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Nocturne” (2001) and “Land of the Sun” (2004), both took best Latin jazz album honors.
Over the years, Haden appeared as a sideman on albums by Cherry, Barbieri, John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Konitz, Joe Henderson, Abbey Lincoln, Joe Lovano and other elite jazz players. He also worked with such pop figures as Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, Rickie Lee Jones and Beck (on his 1994 breakthrough “Odelay”).
His three decades of solo recording for such labels as Horizon, ECM, Antilles and Verve climaxed in 2008 with the retrospective project “Rambling Boy” for Decca. The album, which incorporated early radio transcriptions by the Haden Family, featured country and bluegrass performances with his wife and children — son Josh (leader of the moody L.A. group Spain) and daughters Tanya, Petra and Rachel (who performed in the Haden Triplets and that dog).
Haden was the subject of Reto Caduff’s 2009 documentary “Rambling Boy.”
He received the National Endowment for the Arts’ Jazz Masters Award in early 2012.
Haden is survived by his wife, daughters and son.