Jazz Great Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra Is a Balm for the Post-Election Blues

The late jazz bassist and his Liberation Music Orchestra made powerful, sophisticated protest music. His final recording arrives just when we need it most.

Chris Pizzello/AP

Did Charlie Haden know we’d be living in Donald Trump’s America?

The great bassist, who died in 2014 at 76, first served notice as a musical revolutionary in Ornette Coleman’s quartet in 1959. Through a career that never waned, Haden’s warm and woody tone, his disarming way with a melody and intuitive connection with fellow improvisers made for unusual clarity and intimacy in any context. He was also perhaps jazz’s truest and most effective radical in the political sense. He assembled his Liberation Music Orchestra—the defining expression of his ideals—in 1969, to make his version of Vietnam War-era protest music. He reconvened the group whenever a Republican was in the White House: The orchestra’s 2005 release, Not in Our Name, was a defiant statement against the Bush administration’s Iraq War.

Haden had begun planning another Liberation Music Orchestra album several years ago, before post-polio syndrome set in (related to a teenaged bout with the disease) and eventually took his life. A new CD fulfills that ambition. Time/Life: Song for the Whales and Other Beings (Impulse!) begins and ends with the final recordings of Haden leading this group during a 2011 concert in Belgium and, in between, features three studio tracks made in 2015, with the orchestra led by Carla Bley. It was released on Nov. 4. Even then, Bley—the pianist and arranger for Haden’s orchestra from its start—and Ruth Cameron Haden—his widow, and the album’s producer— thought, as did the rest of us, that victory was imminent for Hillary Clinton.

The album now seems suddenly, alarmingly, timely.

Ever since the election, these stirring new sounds from Haden’s orchestra have soothed me and helped lend focus to strained thoughts. They’ve also prompted fresh reflections on my encounters with Haden and his renegade band.

Not long after the Supreme Court decision that led to George W. Bush’s first term, during an interview Haden lamented “a world growing colder, with no room for sensitivity and no time for measured statements.” We talked again during a 2002 engagement at Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club, during which Haden used duets as “offerings of tenderness for a city I love,” still devastated from terrorist attacks. He’d thought then about making a Liberation Music Orchestra album. “But after the events of 9/11,” he said, “I just couldn’t go there—it seemed too delicate.” Instead, he aimed for comfort and affirmation with American Dreams, a 2002 album that featured a large string section and a fairly straightforward version of “America, The Beautiful.”

Soon after, with our nation at war, he reconvened the orchestra and began playing “America, The Beautiful” in a minor key, as arranged by Bley. (A version appears on Not in Our Name.)

I caught Haden’s Orchestra at the Village Vanguard the night before the 2004 election. After a run through Pat Metheny’s ominous-sounding “This Is Not America,” Haden grabbed the mic: “I’m Charlie Haden,” he said, “and I approve this message.” He was trying to be funny, but instead seemed tense. “It was as if I wasn’t even there,” he recalled shortly after the election. “There’s a person inside of me that wants to believe things can be different, the way I wish it to be, but I was scared to let that person out. I just knew Bush would win again. The next day, I cried.”

In 2008, I spent most of election night with Haden, whose orchestra was back at the Blue Note. Not long into the second set, somebody shouted out “Obama’s won!”

“I guess it’s time to play ‘Amazing Grace,’” Haden said from the bandstand. And the band did.

Earlier that night, in between sets, he and Ruth had sat at a table wearing identical silver pins shaped like the rising-sun logo of Barack Obama’s campaign. Obama was already up, 200 to 87, in the delegate count. The mood was giddy but Haden wouldn’t crack a smile. “I want to relax,” he told me then. “But, you know, they can do anything.”

This year, on Nov. 8, as the night wore on inconclusively, I could nearly hear those words, whispered in Haden’s soft West Coast hippie whine. Anything had happened.

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Funny thing is, when Haden first talked with Bley about making another Liberation Music Orchestra, the idea seemed out of place. “Why would we complain?” Bley recalled telling Haden. “It was 2008, and we were all happy that Obama was president. In spite of not having a Republican to rail against, Charlie wanted to make another orchestra album. It would be about a subject that gave him great concern: the trashing of the environment.” “For Charlie,” Ruth Cameron Haden said, “The environment was always a political issue. We wanted that to be the focus of this orchestra recording, which we knew would be his last.”

The new CD closes with “Song for the Whales,” a fiery piece Haden wrote 40 years ago and first recorded in 1979 with the group Old and New Dreams—here, as played at that 2011 Belgian festival. Two other older compositions, from Bley’s catalog, extend Haden’s theme, including “Silent Spring,” a gorgeous composition inspired by Rachel Carson’s classic book on environmentalism.

Now that material, too, seems eerily timely: a reminder that climate change should have been a central issue during the presidential debates and yet went nearly unmentioned; and a warning about global priorities that, in a Trump administration, with a Republican majority in both legislative bodies, are unlikely to figure into U.S. policymaking. As the ice melts and the seas warm and rise, those whales aren’t the only ones endangered.

The cover of the orchestra’s 1969 debut album showed its members assembled under a banner emblazoned with the group’s name, which Bley made by affixing felt letters. “We felt very much like a band of revolutionaries,” Bley said. “But I wasn’t political by any stretch back then. I wanted to make a difference, in terms of notes and the way music could be arranged and played. I think we all learned about why we were playing this music through Charlie’s ranting. I know I did.”

Politics were always a motivating force for Haden. He was uncompromising and even clever about these ideas, as when a record executive suggested in 1969 that he reconsider his use of the word “liberation.” (“It’s a hip term,” Haden told him, “and if I don’t use it, some rock band will.”) He was also fearless about his convictions. While onstage with Ornette Coleman’s group in Portugal, in 1971, despite warnings from those he’d told of his intentions, Haden dedicated his composition “Song for Ché” to the black liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola, as a direct protest against a repressive Caetano regime. He was promptly jailed and interrogated, though soon rescued by a cultural attaché to (ironically enough) Richard Nixon.

In a 2006 segment of “Democracy Now!” Haden reflected on that episode, telling Amy Goodman, “When you’re a sensitive human being and you see the things that are going on around you that aren’t human, you have to speak out and do something about it. And I think that’s what Louis Armstrong did. And, you know, Max Roach and Charlie Mingus did the same thing when they made the recordings they made about racism. It’s a commitment.”

Among the many tributes given during a 2015 memorial for Haden at Manhattan’s Town Hall was a distinctly moving one from Maurice Jackson, a Georgetown University history professor and chair of the District of Columbia Commission on African American Affairs, who had written a liner note for Steal Away, Haden’s riveting 1994 duet album of spirituals with pianist Hank Jones. “Charlie helped me understand the role of jazz in American politics,” Jackson told the audience.

That 2015 memorial ended with the Liberation Music Orchestra’s members onstage in a semi-circle, playing “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome,” as conducted by Bley. The next day, the musicians assembled at Manhattan’s Avatar Studios to record tracks for the new CD. The heightened emotions of the memorial spilled over most clearly into the album’s centerpiece, “Time/Life.”

Bley had composed that piece after learning of Haden’s death. “I was in my garden, and the phone rang,” she said. “It was Ruth, who gave me the news. After I hung up, I thought it was good. Charlie had been suffering for years. I walked inside, sat down, put my hands on the piano, and out came this chord I knew Charlie would like. It seemed like the last chord, something final to say that he was gone. But it turned out to be the first chord, and a piece came out. This was my eulogy.” As recorded, “Time/Life” is ostensibly a slow march, with a melody that descends like a slow walk down a staircase. Through a series of solos that eventually bleed across its theme, the song carries the sadness and uplift of respects properly paid, individually and in communion. It’s a tearful goodbye and one last salute to a fallen leader.

Long before Haden helped ignite a jazz revolution with Ornette Coleman; before he spent a decade in another landmark band led by pianist Keith Jarrett; before he formed his Liberation Music Orchestra; before his Quartet West, which played noir ballads inspired by Raymond Chandler novels and movie themes; before memorable collaborations with musicians spanning three generations of jazz’s finest players and nearly all its idioms, he was “Cowboy Charlie,” a precocious toddler singing his way into listeners hearts through what he’d later call “hillbilly music” on his parents’ radio show. Haden’s love for sturdy, heartfelt melody and folk traditions were touchstones through his career, evident even within complex improvised settings. And from start, Haden knew how to connect directly and honestly with his listeners, how to make them hear what he heard, and care about what he cared about.

“Charlie was irreplaceable in many ways,” said Bley. “And one of those ways was the relationship between him and his audience. It must have been thrilling to enjoy that sort of bond, and it was enthralling to witness it wherever we went.”

By the time the Liberation Music Orchestra played in Belgium in 2011, Haden was already using a feeding tube. “Offstage, he’d slump into cot,” said Ruth Cameron Haden, “but onstage, he ran on adrenaline. He was literally living though his music.” On the new CD, the strain in Haden’s voice is evident as he addresses the Belgian crowd after “Song for the Whales.” Yet so is the youthful enthusiasm he never lost. In those closing remarks—about the whales, and the sanctity of our environment—he made the political personal and perhaps addressed his own mortality. “You’re a part of it,” he said. “It’s so important to remember how precious life is.”

Back in the ’60s, Haden knew we were living in a divided nation. Along with reconfigured versions of Spanish Civil War songs and his own “Song for Ché,” that first Liberation Music Orchestra album contained “Circus ’68 ’69,” for which he broke his ensemble into two clashing bands, and which his liner note described as follows: “The idea came to me one night while watching the Democratic National Convention on television in the summer of 1968. After the minority plank on Vietnam was defeated in a vote taken on the convention floor, the California and New York delegations spontaneously began to sing ‘We Shall Overcome’ in protest. Unable to gain control of the floor, the rostrum instructed the convention orchestra to drown out the singing. ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ and ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ could then be heard trying to stifle ‘We Shall Overcome’. To me this told the story, in music, of what was happening in our country politically.”

Haden once told me that he thought instrumental music could make a difference, that even without lyrics he could “articulate social and political ideas, especially in times of need or conflict.” In that 1969 liner note, he wrote, “We hope to see a new society of enlightenment and wisdom where creative thought becomes the most dominant force in all people’s lives.”

The music that Haden made with his Liberation Music Orchestra remains strikingly relevant—a soundtrack to discontent and a righteous call to envision something better.