Charlie Haden: An Analog Guy in a Digital World
CH: No, I didn’t know Ornette when I knew Scotty; he met Ornette after we got to New York. I was playing a club called the Hillcrest Club with Paul Bley, and we had an off night every Monday. I went to another club on one of those off nights to see Gerry Mulligan, and this guy came in and asked if he could sit in. He brought out a white plastic horn and he played a few notes, and the whole room lit up for me it was so beautiful, and [Mulligan] immediately asked him to stop. He packed his horn up, and before I could reach him through the crowd, he was gone out the back door. So the next night on the gig at the Hillcrest I asked Lennie McBrowne, who was our drummer from Brooklyn (he studied with Max Roach and he was my New York connection, always talking about New York), I said ‘I saw this alto player last night’ and he said ‘was he playing a plastic horn?’ I said ‘how’d you know?’ He said ‘that’s Ornette Coleman.’ I said ‘would you introduce me’ and he said ‘he’s coming in a couple of nights to the after hours session; I’ll introduce you.’ So he introduced us and I went over to his house and we played for about four days without stopping.
AAJ: Just as a duo?
CH: Yeah, then we started going over to Don Cherry’s house and rehearsing with Billy Higgins. I knew Billy and Don before I met Ornette; I played gigs with them when Don played piano.
AAJ: I guess it’s hard to put into words, but how did Ornette’s music affect you? How did it maybe change your conception of the instrument and what you were trying to do at the time?
CH: Well it didn’t really change my conception, it confirmed it. I had been going to a lot of after-hours sessions, and I wanted to play on the inspiration of a composition rather than the chord structure. But whenever I tried to do that, musicians would become very upset. In order to bring them back in after my solo, I’d have to play the melody so they knew where I was. When I met Ornette, the night I heard him, that’s what he was doing. He was playing on the inspiration of a song and modulating from one key to another. When we played together for the first time, I thought ‘Man! Finally I’ve got permission to do what I’ve been doing!’ It was like a situation where this is how I’m hearing, and here’s someone who hears like I do. I had played gigs already with Don and Billy, and we all got together and played at Don’s house, and then I got them on the gig at the Hillcrest Club, and that’s where [producer at Atlantic Records Neushi] Ertegun heard us.
AAJ: And that’s when Paul Bley’s conception got turned around too, probably.
CH: Yeah, Paul was thinking about playing free for a minute before Ornette; we would go into free improvisation once in a while. After he heard Ornette, it became a big deal. I was in the quartet with Dave Pike, Lennie McBrowne and Paul Bley, and we made a record called Solemn Meditation (GNP, 1957).That was the first album I ever made; I was about 19. Then Paul hired Ornette, Don and Billy and the three of us made a couple of records with Ornette, and we went to New York and opened at the Five Spot in ’59.
AAJ: How long did that Five Spot engagement last?
CH: Months, I don’t know, it was a long time and the place was packed with people every night. That’s when I met all the great painters, Mark Rothko, Larry Rivers, and Bob Thompson – I used to go over to his loft while he sat and painted all day long. I got a sketch he did of us at the Five Spot.
AAJ: Did you ever paint?
CH: No, I love painting and I love art, and there are a lot of painters I met, but I could never be able to afford to buy their paintings now. I got a couple of Ray Parkers, Fred Browns, and Thompson... the one he did of us, called “The Garden of Music,” that’s in Connecticut.
AAJ: When did you stop playing with Ornette? There was a hiatus, right, in the early ‘60s?
CH: We went out on tour and we played Chicago and Philly, made the rounds of the jazz clubs on the East Coast. And then I went through a period where I wasn’t feeling well, and Scotty [LaFaro] started to play with the band. He played a couple of gigs right after the double quartet record [Free Jazz, Atlantic 1364, 1960] but he didn’t really last that long with Ornette; I don’t think he really enjoyed playing the music. And he had already met Bill Evans by then.
AAJ: At least according to discographies, there were a few years where you weren’t recording, right?
CH: Well I recorded with Coltrane, and I made a couple of records with Denny Zeitlin; this was around ’64. The last time I had recorded with Ornette was ’62. I also made an album with Joe Pass around that period. Then I moved to New York and started playing again with Ornette.
AAJ: That was around ’66?