A persistent current of political and social consciousness runs through the music of Charlie Haden. Whether leading his Liberation Orchestra in jazz arrangements of songs of revolution or Quartet West, a cross-cultural combo that looks to a nostalgic ideal of Hollywood's glory days for inspiration, the bassist-composer is always making a statement.
"Music can't be separated from politics," Haden declares. "The two are intertwined whether one likes it or not."
So it came as no surprise when the bassist, directing a student edition of his Liberation Orchestra at CalArts on April 17, made some late additions to an already long concert.
The first, the anthem of the anti-apartheid African National Conference, Haden dedicated to Chris Hani, the ANC leader assassinated earlier that week in South Africa. To close the program, Haden led the students in "We Shall Overcome" to mark the verdict in the second trial in the Rodney G. King case, which had been announced early that morning. Both numbers, arranged for jazz orchestra by Haden's longtime colleague Carla Bley, turn from their stately themes to hard-driving jazz sprints in which a number of soloists make expressions of freedom.
Haden is accustomed to dedicating his tunes in the name of politics. In 1971, while appearing with saxophonist Ornette Coleman's quintet at a festival in Cascais, Portugal, Haden--with Coleman's knowledge--dedicated his "Song for Che," for the Cuban-born revolutionary Ernesto (Che) Guevara, to the black liberation movements in the Portuguese African colonies.
Before Haden could finish his dedication, pandemonium erupted. "There were shouts and screaming and some booing, but it was overshadowed by the cheering from the students in the audience," Haden recalls.
The government of then-strongman Marcello Caetano reacted as well. Plainclothes police officers escorted Haden from the stage, then detained him for two days of questioning before releasing him to the American Embassy.
Since its first, eponymously titled release in 1969, the Liberation Orchestra has been the purest expression of Haden's political thought. Its repertoire includes Bley's jazz arrangements of folk music from the Spanish Civil War, traditional music from Central America and such Haden compositions as "Sandino," a piece he wrote for Deborah Shaffer's documentary on Nicaragua's Sandinistas, "Fire From the Mountain."
The orchestra's most recent release, the critically acclaimed "Dream Keeper," includes Bley, saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Dewey Redman, drummer Paul Motian and the Oakland Youth Chorus.
Haden's other working ensemble, Quartet West, stands in direct contrast to the revolutionary sensibilities of the Liberation Orchestra. Its music, a mix of romantic ballads, be-bop tunes and period originals written by Haden and pianist Alan Broadbent, represents a harmonious ideal, a utopian society established once the battles reflected in the Liberation Orchestra's music are won.
The quartet's three albums--all with Broadbent, saxophonist Ernie Watts and drummer Larance Marble--are inspired by the Los Angeles portrayed in Raymond Chandler's novels and films of the '30s and '40s. "Haunted Heart," the most recent, is a dreamy soundtrack to a bygone era when Packards cruised Sunset Boulevard, celebrities gathered in swank hotels and supper clubs, and the perfume of orange blossoms scented the air.
"I have conceived this recording as if it were a film telling a story," Haden, who credits himself as "director," says in the liner notes. And, indeed, the music is framed by a scratchy recording of the fanfare that Warner Bros. used in the late '30s to introduce its films, as well as a snippet of Adolph Deutsch's overture to "The Maltese Falcon." At one point, the distant voice of Jo Stafford, pulled from a long-out-of-print recording, seems to transcend time as it rises from the quartet's version of the title song.
"I wanted to communicate the historic Los Angeles that Chandler's novels portrayed and to make people cherish the feeling that L.A. had back then," says Haden, who came to the city in 1956. "Even when I arrived here, the city had a family air, the communities were more tightly knit, and there wasn't nearly as much violence. And the movie industry made it very special. There was an aura here like no place else."
That this vision of bygone Los Angeles is based more on fiction than fact doesn't bother Haden. "I know that the view of Los Angeles (embraced by Quartet West) is more romantic than real. When I first came to L.A. there was also a lot of poverty and racism; there were problems in Watts and East L.A. and other places. Working with black musicians, I saw exactly what they were up against."