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The Power of Commitment

Charlie Haden
Gene Martin

This Is His Time: Bassist Charlie Haden
extends his reach on his latest
album, "Now Is the Time."

Bassist Charlie Haden cares more about the music he plays than his place in musical history

By Nicky Baxter

IN AN ERA in which morality is as much a commodity as pork bellies, its refreshing to know that for some people, commitment is not open to negotiation. Charlie Haden, one of the headliners at this year's San Francisco Jazz Festival, is such an individual. The bassist/composer and activist is not so much concerned that years from now jazzologists will count him as one of the brilliant voices of the music; it is the path to greatness that concerns him. That sense of commitment led to his brilliant partnership with Ornette Coleman in the late 1950s and '60s. And, while the jazz status quo dismissed such pioneering efforts as The Shape of Jazz to Come and This Is Our Music as gimmicky, the music of Coleman's quartet has stood the test of time and critics.

"There's so much opportunism," Haden says. "A lot of people are conditioned and misled by the establishment. They're easily misled by somebody who says you can make a lot of money if you play this way or that way--and if there was honesty and purity inside them, it takes them away from that." That hasn't happened to Charlie Haden. Born and reared in America's heartland, he was weaned on a healthy diet of C&W. Picking up the bass in his teens, Haden arrived in L.A. in the mid-'50s. There he found work with the likes of hard boppers Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper, but it was his association with the enigmatic Coleman that would alter the very fabric of improvisational music. Coleman had developed a revolutionary musical concept that freed soloists from predictable harmonic and rhythmic structures. Concomitantly, the rhythm section assumed a new, liberated role. In the process, Haden evolved what was perhaps the most singular voice among his bass-playing contemporaries, interpolating C&W and other folk elements into Coleman's brave new world.

For the past decade, Haden has fronted Quartet West, a cutting-edge ensemble in its own right. Now Is the Time (Verve), the unit's current release, is swathed in shadows. Time's noir-ish pieces evoke a cool world where Charlie Parker and Raymond Chandler trade stories at some dimly lit, scrungy bar. In addition to his own work as a leader, he's cut discs with everyone from former piano prodigy Keith Jarrett to Chicago blues-harp hero James Cotton. "No matter who I play with, I put my life on the line for my music," Haden says. "It's a commitment that goes beyond just paying rent. It's about striving to be more human."


Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, Nana Vasconcelos and Peter Apfelbaum perform a tribute to Don Cherry on Oct. 26 at 8pm at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. The San Francisco Jazz Festival runs Oct. 23­Nov. 3 at a variety of venues. Call 415/776-1999 for ticket information.

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From the October 17-23, 1996 issue of Metro

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