September-October 2018

Charlie

By Art Podell

This is a true accounting of events and people. I continue to write these in the hope that they will add a smile and perhaps a smidgen of background color to the people and events that flirt on the fringes of yesterday.

Charlie Haden 1981 300px
Charlie Haden, 1981

Now I know that Charlie was known for being the quintessential jazz bass player and I don’t profess to be a jazz critic or even anything close to that. What’s the tally? Three Grammys and fourteen nominations? All I know is that he was one of the sweetest and most decent people I ever met. I knew his name not because I followed contemporary jazz. I knew his name because somewhere back around nineteen fifty-nine or sixty, my singing partner Paul Potash and I would walk past the Five Spot Café at 1 Cooper Square on our nightly jaunts from our walk-up on Fifth Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan to the West Village. It was an easy walk and we’d always stop for a moment to read the sign outside and catch a hint of the music if the night was warm and the door was open. The sign had Charlie’s name under Ornette Coleman’s (*see below) and I used to joke ‘Charlie Hadn’t’ to myself.

So when this skinny kid approached me outside the Troubadour in 1961 and told me his name was Charlie Haden, I knew exactly who he was, and Paul and I hired him on the spot because he was sincere and we were honored that anyone would care enough to want to play our complicated folk-ish stuff. Let me tell you, he fell in with our arrangements like he’d been there all along. He told us that he grew up on folk music back in Missouri and that it was in his blood. The proof was in the puddin’ and before long we were leaving him on stage to take long bass solos. Folk music with long bass solos - there’s got to be a joke in there somewhere. Jokes? Charlie had a million. “Did you hear about the skeleton who walked into a bar and asked for a beer and a mop?”. More…. When I ran into Charlie again in 1997, he was spewing jokes one after the other. Is that something road musicians do regularly? I think so. Charlie’s were always clean – the kind you run home and tell your kids without changing the set up or the punch lines.

Back to the Troubadour in 1961. Charlie and Alex. Did I mention Alex? She was Charlie’s girlfriend and was with him through the entire time we were together. To this day I don’t know the whole story but I’m pretty sure Alex was the reason Charlie told us we couldn’t announce his name or advertise him as our bass player. Something about her parents in New York looking for her, for the two of them and I never asked for the details because frankly, I didn’t want to know. Oh, and the other thing. Charlie was hooked pretty bad by then. I guess the association with Ornette must have splashed over to Charlie and he was carrying a pretty serious habit with him – another reason he probably wanted anonymity. Me? I was about as stupid and innocent about that side of life as could be. I just didn’t think along those avenues so when Charlie would ask me to pick up some cough medicine for him, I just did it without even asking. Maybe that’s why he hung around as long as he did but here’s the real important thing and I’m surprised I’ve haven’t spent more time on it. Charlie could play. I mean really play. He’d stroke that bass while we sang and it was like someone had lifted the stage four feet higher and added reverb to our sound. We loved it. The crowds loved it. By the time we finished our 14 week stay at the Troubadour, Charlie had moved on.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I started hearing his name again. He’d been involved in some recognized support group or other, joined a few programs and eventually cleaned up his act but not before establishing a reputation that was monumental.

So again, it wasn’t a shock to me that late one evening in 1987, seventeen years after leaving the music life, I was standing in the showroom at W.I. Simonson, Inc. Mercedes Benz in Santa Monica where I was employed as the Finance Manager (suit and tie-if they only knew!), Greg James, one of the salesmen finishes a sales call and says to me: “Hey guess who I just talked to on the phone? – Charlie Haden, the great – “

I grabbed the phone from his hand, demanded the number and dialed.

“Charlie! this is Art from Art and Paul – do you by chance remember…”

He was there in an hour. We hugged.

“You guys. Why did you ever break up? You were so far ahead of everyone else …” – then he reminded me of the songs we sang. I couldn’t believe he remembered almost every one of them. We talked like two guys who had been to the same summer camp when they were kids.

Then it started: “So a cop stops this guy with three penguins in the back seat of his car…”

That’s about all to the story. Charlie and I stayed in touch off and on. I helped him and his wife Ruth make some finance decisions about their cars. He called me once and asked if I remembered the words to ‘Wayfaring Stranger. I did. Then we lost touch and I heard he was having some medical problems.

When I was preparing to record my new CD ‘From The Village To The Canyon’ in 2014, I remember telling someone that someday I’d love to invite Charlie to play on a song with me if he would.

Then I heard he was gone…

* Ornette Coleman Quartet New York debut:

On 17 November 1959, the Ornette Coleman Quartet from Los Angeles made its New York debut at the Five Spot. The Quartet featured Coleman on alto saxophone, Don Cherry on cornet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Billy Higgins on drums. The engagement was originally scheduled to last two weeks, but due to its success was extended to ten weeks, ending in late January 1960. Musicians such as Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane were among the attendees on the opening night. On 5 April 1960, the quartet returned to the Five Spot for a second engagement which lasted four months ending in late October 1960. This second engagement featured Ed Blackwell on drums instead of Higgins.

[Editors note: Art's article ends here, but Charlie's legacy goes on. His daughters, The Haden Triplets continue to amaze and entertain audiences and we haven't heard the last of the Haden name. Here's a link to an L.A. Times article from a few years ago.]

Art Podell was one half of the iconic Greenwich Village duo "Art and Paul" before moving to L.A. in 1961. An original member of the New Christy Minstrels, Art wrote songs for many of the artists of the day. He continues to perform and write and he rotates as a host of KPFK’s Roots Music and Beyond.

  

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