Charlie Haden died today. I just typed that sentence very fast without thinking, but now I don’t know if I can ever type it again.
I’ve enjoyed the personal tributes I’ve been reading from my CalArts friends, all of whom were deeply inspired by Charlie and are no doubt as profoundly affected as I am. Whenever I play with or hear any musician who went to that school, I can usually sense a kindred spirit we all share, which I imagine was formed in no small part in Room 120 on Tuesday afternoons, when Charlie came by to teach an improv class, only it was more of all of us listening to records or CD’s, and listening to him tell the most amazing stories.
All of us who knew him have personal anecdotes regarding Charlie. Allow me to share a few of mine, as they are all rushing back now:
I can’t really describe how much Charlie helped me as a musician. He helped me to see music as something I couldn’t own, that didn’t come from me, but rather something beautiful that comes from another place, though me and other musicians into the world. He would say “play every note as if your life depended on it!” And he certainly did, even in class. Early on, he admonished me for comping too much and too erratically behind him when he was soloing on ballads. He asked me to simply play whole notes on the downbeats, as if I were a string orchestra. He would then proceed to play the most beautiful melodies, seemingly completely out of time, but when I would start to drift with him he would yell out “where’s the time!” It would make me so nervous. I eventually realized that Charlie himself would accompany other soloists in a similar fashion, playing with perfect time and perfect harmony, often times using just whole or half notes, and he expected the same treatment when it was his turn to solo. I felt bad about the way I played behind him, until I saw him work with a few outstanding and well-known pianists, and witnessed Charlie chastising them about their accompaniment in the same way he did to me. How about that?
I remember working on Ornette Coleman’s tune Lonely Woman, when Charlie went to the piano and played at least 5 different re-harmonizations of the melody, which he said were interchangeable with each other and something that wasn’t on the original recording but part of the way they performed the tune. How I wish I had written those progressions down right away, because to my shame and regret I cannot recall all of them. A little while later, Charlie told us he played Lonely Woman with Ethan Iverson (at Dewey Redman’s memorial) and was very impressed because Ethan somehow knew all of those different ways to do it. This is why Ethan Iverson is the best.
I remember a particular class session where Charlie talked about his friendship with bassist Scott LaFaro. He went into detail about the night he died in a car crash, how his bass was in his car as well and got destroyed as well in the fire. It was an emotional moment for Charlie, then he put on a record of LaFaro with the Bill Evans Trio, and picked up a bass and played pretty much note for note everything Scott did underneath Evans’ piano solo. To me and the other students in attendance, if seemed as if the ghosts of Evans and LaFaro had appeared in the room and were playing along with Charlie! (Paul Motian was still alive then.). There was always something mystical about and around Charlie whenever he played, and certainly that’s truer than ever now.
Charlie helped me to get a scholarship from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), which is the organization responsible for putting on the Grammy Awards every year. When I met the good folks at NARAS, they told me that Charlie had spoken so highly of me, even comparing me to the great Gonzalo Rubalcaba, whom he discovered and helped to super jazz stardom. Now, I have no illusions that Charlie actually believed I was in the same universe as someone as amazing and virtuosic as Gonzalo, but the fact he went that far in going to bat for me to get me that scholarship is humbling and to this day one of the most incredible things anyone outside of my family has ever done for me. As a side note to that story, they also told me that they would have given the scholarship to another student pianist if it weren’t for Charlie’s endorsement. That student? Adam Benjamin, the incredible keyboardist for Kneebody, Dave Douglas, and so many others. Sorry, Adam! I’m just glad I got the award a year before Adam came back to CalArts for grad school and became one of Charlie’s favorite pianists. (By the way, NARAS ended up giving a scholarship to Adam as well, and of course he deserved it.)
After I got out of school, Charlie would call me sometimes to go over to his house to play tunes, an invitation I know he extended to other piano students as well. Usually he would have me go to Starbucks on the way and get coffee for him, which in my mind was an incredible bargain. One particular session he told me he just needed to play a bit to get in shape before he went out of town to do something. He wouldn’t say what it was. After the fact, I learned he was getting ready to go to New Jersey to Keith Jarrett’s home to record, resulting in two utterly important recordings, Jasmine, and Last Dance (the latter just released and apparently the first number one jazz album for Jarrett, which is astounding).
I also caught a glimmer of the Hollywood version of Charlie. He invited me to the Henry Fonda Theater, for the sound check of Hullabaloo, a regular fundraiser held by Flea and the Red Hot Chili Peppers for the Silverlake Conservatory (and getting to meet Flea was an honor and totally surreal). Charlie was to perform on the bill that evening with the great Larry Goldings, but Larry couldn’t make the sound check so I was to fill in for him. I remember Charlie giving the piano tuner such a hard time, which made me think of stories I had heard about his erstwhile bandleader Keith Jarrett and his contentious relationship with piano technicians. I wondered if Charlie had learned to do that from Keith, or even vice versa. The sound check sounded great, but at the show, the sound man apparently just erased Charlie’s bass settings on the board and decided to use Flea’s settings instead. Charlie’s bass sound was mammoth and completely dominated Larry’s piano to the point where you couldn’t hear Larry at all. Charlie wasn’t about to take that lying down, and he refused to continue to play until they fixed the sound. Many minutes passed, and the crowd began to grow restless, to the point where Charlie’s son-in-law (the very funny actor Jack Black) had to go on stage to entertain the audience while they tried to fix the sound. Eventually Charlie just tuned his amp off and pushed the bass mic away and played acoustically, which then made it impossible to hear him. Thankfully Flea saved the day by coming on stage with a trumpet and playing blues with Charlie and Larry, which if nothing else, was a unique moment in the history of music.
There are so many more memories, but as this post is already too long perhaps I best process those on my own. It had been years since I last spoke with Charlie. I caught a glimpse of him at Royce Hall when Brad Mehladu and the Bad Plus played there, but I wasn’t able to get to where he was before he disappeared behind a wall of admirers. I already miss Charlie a lot, and I’ll forever treasure his stories, his music, and most of all for me, I will treasure his enthusiasm and encouragement for me personally. He helped me to believe in myself as a musician and an artist, which is something I take with me to every musical situation I find myself in. I will never forget him. Thanks for everything, Charlie.