Charlie Haden: The charismatic bassist whose work with Ornette Coleman put him in the free-jazz vanguard but who also valued tradition

He never forgot that he and his music inhabited a country at war

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There is a belief, sustaining admirers and sceptics alike, that underneath even the most radical “free” music there is melody, harmony and danceable rhythm. It is true in the case of the late British guitarist Derek Bailey, an absolutist of freedom who ended his career openly playing the old Broadway and music-hall songs that haunted his work.

And it is true of bassist Charlie Haden, who was present at the founding of free jazz in the pioneering late 1950s quartet of saxophonist Ornette Coleman but still managed to sound as if he was channelling memories of “Sugarfoot Rag” or a boy’s patient Bach exercises.

Haden embraced modernity and tradition, progressivism and nostalgia in equal measure. Indeed, he believed they were one and the same, telling a British journalist in 1994 that “every so-called revolution is just that, a wheel going round to the place – maybe a better place – it was once before. There is only ever now”.

His career as a group leader took in the music of the Spanish Civil War, arranged by Carla Bley for his Liberation Music Orchestra, and old radio torch songs, which he wove into the concept album Haunted Heart in 1986. As well as Ornette Coleman he was closely associated with pianist Keith Jarrett, whose early recordings dabbled with country themes and rags as well as structures borrowed from Baroque and classical music. Through it all, Haden’s bass was a distinctive presence, richly sonorous, singing at both ends of the register.

Ian Dury’s melody for the Blockheads’ “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” was taken from a Haden bass figure. “Those things stuck in your head”, said Dury in 1997. Along with Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus and Scott LaFaro, Haden made the double bass a distinct solo voice in jazz.

That he played it at all was something of an accident. He grew up in Shenandoah, Iowa, where he was part of a family radio show, singing country songs. But poliomyelitis damaged his vocal cords and made pitching difficult. He had already been experimenting with bass and gradually switched to the instrument, working on Red Foley’s pioneering show Ozark Jubilee (theme music: “Sugarfoot Rag”).

He moved to California and studied at Westlake College, which offered a music programme sympathetic to jazz. Ornette Coleman had just released his first LP Something Else!!! Haden heard the saxophonist playing with the cool Gerry Mulligan group, was impressed and became part of the group that pianist Paul Bley assembled with Coleman at the Hillcrest Club in LA. The group, with cornettist Don Cherry and drummer Ed Blackwell, made its way to New York in 1959 for an epochal stint at the Five Spot club. The saxophonist’s idiosyncratic harmonics and raw, Texan sound were a sensation, conjuring a Wild West show spectrally ringmastered by Arnold Schoenberg.

Haden began to use narcotics and left Coleman’s employ in 1960, not returning for nearly four years. He underwent rehab in California and spent some time away from active music. During this period he married for the first time and fathered a son, and triplet daughters who would later record together as The Dog.

Haden freelanced for a period before returning to Coleman, taking part in some of the saxophonist’s most daring and sophisticated music, including 1971’s Science Fiction. He had worked with Keith Jarrett’s quartet, and brought the same heartbeat sound, elastic time and harmonic sophistication to the pianist’s deceptively light music as he had to Coleman’s.

But Haden had been evolving other musical interests and in 1969, using arrangements by Carla Bley and a large, international ensemble, he recorded the first Liberation Music Orchestra LP for Impulse! which included Republican songs from Spain, wry détournements of Americana like the “Star Spangled Banner” as well as his peerless “Song for Che”, a modern jazz classic. The LMO remained dear to Haden’s heart, though economically unviable.

Haden’s lifelong interest in song re-emerged with a more mobile and saleable small group, Quartet West, with saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent and drummers Billy Higgins and Larance Marable. Some felt Haden’s neo-traditionalism sat awkwardly with the fierier music of the LMO and murmured sell-out, but the group proved to be a happy and fruitful source of innovation for a musician increasingly recognised as one of the key imaginations of modern jazz.

Despite efforts to keep alive the LMO he became known for duos and small groups highlighting his bass playing. A 1996 record with guitarist Pat Metheny, Under The Missouri Sky, became a bestseller. It included tunes dedicated to Haden’s late parents: Roy Acuff’s country classic “The Precious Jewel” and the traditional “He’s Gone Away”; also included were themes from Cinema Paradiso, which squared with his interest in making records that evoked an almost filmic atmosphere. In 2001 he won the Latin Grammy award for Nocturne.

Haden’s credits as a sideman are extensive and eclectic; he worked with everyone from John Coltrane and Archie Shepp to Yoko Ono and Ringo Starr. His early fascination with bass as a solo classical instrument was reflected in work written for him by the British composer, his close friend Gavin Bryars, and in 1996 he recorded an adagio written by Bryars for him on the CD Farewell To Philosophy.

He never forgot that he and his music inhabited a country at war and in 2004 made Not In Our Name with LMO. At the beginning of his last decade it was a powerful restatement of his belief in America’s split nature. A charismatic teacher, with a passionate belief in music as a source of resistance to oppression, Haden established a jazz programme at California Institute of the Arts in 1982.

He suffered ill-health in later years, having struggled with tinnitus. The album Rambling Boy (2008) brought together a second-generation Haden family band, including his son Josh, a successful singer. It was co-produced by Haden’s second wife Ruth Cameron, who survives him.

Charles Edward Haden, musician: born Shenandoah, Iowa 6 August 1937; married firstly (three daughters, one son), secondly Ruth Cameron; died Los Angeles 11 July 2014