THE SHAPE OF PROTEST TO COME
Liberation Music Orchestra and Charlie Haden’s Legacy

Charlie Haden, who passed away this year after a storied career as one of jazz’s most deeply valued bassists, titled his first recording as a bandleader Liberation Music Orchestra. The choices he made on the record were both deeply political and personally intuitive; Liberation Music Orchestra is bolted to its moment in history both as a response to the fog of war and an expression of the spontaneous self. Its seeds of inspiration were found in the battle-strewn landscapes of Spain, the heroes of Cuba, and the gangland politics of Chicago. It fused the stoic solidarity of folk music with the wild oneness of free jazz. It positioned itself historically as a tribute to acts of selfless battle in senses both literal and figurative, military and artistic. Liberation Music Orchestra is deliberately and precisely what its title implies: a big sound pointing towards a larger freedom.

Charlie Haden (far left) and the Liberation Music Orchestra.
Photo by Thomas Dorn.

Charlie Haden was born in Shenandoah, Iowa in 1937. Two months shy of the age of two, he was deemed fit to join the Haden family singing group, performing “hillbilly music” (his term) on the family’s regular radio program. It was in the dense sound of voices locked in close harmony that Haden’s obsession with the possibilities of musical texture began. After a bout with polio at age 15 rendered him unable to continue singing, he moved on to study bass, a step that would eventually lead him to Los Angeles, to gain a foothold in the West Coast jazz community, and, in 1957, to witness Ornette Coleman being persecuted onstage at a venue named, perversely, the Hague.

As Haden watched, Coleman was asked to take his white plastic alto saxophone and leave the stage. Coleman’s crime was one of creativity: in his idiosyncratic approach to improvisation, he had stepped outside of the music’s chord structures and into a world of his own, where presumably no one else sharing the stage with him was willing or able to follow. It’s very likely that the audience was equally nonplussed. For his part, Charlie Haden was floored.

“The whole room lit up for me,” Haden told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! in 2006, recounting a story he’d told many times. “It was so brilliant. And as soon as he started to play, they asked him to stop. So he put the horn back in the case and started out the back door.”

What was received by the musicians onstage that night as a gravely mistaken deviation from universally agreed-upon chord structures, Charlie Haden recognized as a dynamic means of composition. Haden tracked Coleman down and was soon a fixture in Coleman’s quartet. For their willingness to stretch harmony’s boundaries, they were lauded by some, ridiculed by others. Some ears would gradually open to Coleman’s voice, which benefited hugely from Haden’s sympathetic accompaniment. Haden became known as a musician capable of uncommon melodic expression and supportive harmonic intuition.

Along with Coleman and others, Charlie Haden invested himself deeply in the musical science of spontaneity. “To make people free,” said artist Joseph Beuys, “is the aim of art; therefore art for me is the science of freedom.” If this view can be appreciated and endorsed, then artists are fortunate scientists: their resources are personal, and potentially limitless. How they take advantage of these great opportunities is often a question of bravery. Charlie Haden was a pioneer in this field, the arena of liberation.

Haden recorded Liberation Music Orchestra over the course of three days at the end of April 1969, in New York’s Judson Hall. To aid in arranging charts for a large ensemble, Haden contacted composer, arranger, and pianist Carla Bley, whom he’d been friendly with in the past; the two had bonded over a shared appreciation for recordings of Dmitri Shostakovich and Erik Satie. In the wake of the news that Nixon had begun bombing Cambodia, the two set out to issue a statement of sorts, a record of protest.

In Ashley Kahn’s history of Impulse Records, The House That Trane Built, Bley admitted that for the musicians assembled, this was a gig, not a sit-in. They were not politically active as a unit, despite the banner-waving album cover. But the multiracial roster of contributors, including Argentinian tenor saxophonist Gato Barbieri and Eastern-influenced trumpeter Don Cherry, lends the album an implicitly internationalist bent. The question of whether or not all 13 of the performers were in political lockstep becomes irrelevant with the album’s opening bars, as the sauntering introduction leads straight into a restrained but pointed rendition of Hanns Eisler and Bertolt Brecht’s “Song of the United Front.”

The album’s first side is dominated by “El Quinto Regimiento,” a sprawling, 20-minute medley of folk songs made popular in Spain during that nation’s Civil War. That conflict saw an international coalition of volunteer soldiers fighting against fascism where their nations would not. This coalition included the American Lincoln Brigade, a regiment of Americans who, for their efforts, were sometimes blacklisted from getting work or U.S. passports upon their return stateside.

As Haden began to prepare his musical statement, the Second World War was in the past and communism had replaced fascism as the supposedly severe threat to the West. Starting in 1965, Americans had been fighting to support a dubious statehood in South Vietnam. In the context of this kaleidoscopically fractured upsetting of our nation’s priorities—perhaps to remind his audience that not all battles are false—Haden led his ensemble through highly sensitive improvisatory takes on “Los Cuatro Generales,” “Viva la Quince Brigada,” and “Los Cuatro Muleros.”

The medley begins with some modest and traditional Spanish guitar playing from Sam Brown, which gradually and recurrently spirals into the out playing that had earned Haden and his associates both heckles and accolades. There are moments of slow burning rave-ups, followed by bursts of riotous explosions from the horn section. Some musique concrète is employed, as original 78 rpm recordings of the Spanish folk songs that served as Haden’s source material add to the warlike cacophony. During the session, members of the original Abraham Lincoln Brigade were invited to observe. “There were at least six of them with their wives, sitting there sort of scratching their heads, wondering what kind of music this was,” Bley recalled to Kahn. “I said a polite hello to a couple of them.”

The album’s second side begins with a ballad to the man Haden called his “hero,” titled “Song for Che.” This composition was one of two original Haden pieces on Liberation Music Orchestra, the rest credited either to Bley or others. “Song for Che” retains the album’s cocktail of mourning and determination, and its beginnings in emotive melodicism swing into joyful, expressive chaos. The large group moves forward into mystery as a unit, bound by trust. On “Circus ‘68, ‘69,” the ensemble musically recreates the hysterical collapse of decorum at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, setting braying animal-like horns against a wobbling, discordant take on “We Shall Overcome.”

The wild and unpredictable music on Liberation Music Orchestra seemed to be struggling to fight two battles at once: a primary effort to be heard in protest amidst the chaos of the day, and a second, equally vital campaign to be heard, period. The question persists: can music this free function as protest?

By harkening back to folk music of Spain and the American civil rights movement—itself as of yet unresolved—Haden was surrendering himself to songs that were bigger than himself. In the prior decade, folk music had been adopted and somewhat fetishized as a representation of social purity; if a folk song was not officially traditional, at the very least its righteousness of intent stood to dwarf its authorial source. Folk music was idealized into a socialist’s first line of aesthetic defense, unimpeachable in its connection to the underclass.

This sort of ego-sacrifice shared unlikely qualities with the burgeoning free jazz movement. Often emphasizing group performance over soloistic indulgence, this music was radical in its mutual encouragement as well as its individual liberation. The rejection of handed-down chord changes in favor of personal choice stood as a doubly potent assertion of freedom by its practitioners, most of whom were black musicians. To be free was one thing; to be free and black was another.

But by another token, free jazz’s emphasis on expression first created a disparity between it and the folk movement: its aggressive detonation of traditional harmony frequently rendered it too oblique for explicit storytelling or sloganeering. Folk music aside, it was often read as too oblique for mainstream jazz fans as well: from the release of Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come onward, a line was being drawn between traditionalists and those who trafficked in what was being called “the new thing.”

Despite Charlie Haden’s genuine roots in the stuff of rural American folksong, he was not an activist first. He’d delved too far into artistry to make concessions to overt banner-waving. Liberation Music Orchestra was the sound of ingrained personal responsibility expressing itself in one’s natural life. The need to say something was simmering at the root of Haden’s daily existence; it came out in his daily actions. That, on its face, is radical action. The need to be free birthed a greater urgency of purpose: the unshakeable notion that everyone should be free. The breadth of Liberation Music Orchestra’s influence would be a consequence not of its message, but of the artistic position of its creator, Charlie Haden, at that moment, 1970. But the depth of its conviction was a consequence of his integrity, not as a musician or an activist, but as a human being.

Contributor

Jeff Tobias

JEFF TOBIAS is a musician, composer, and writer currently living in New York.

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