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Charlie Haden: Liberation Music vs. ABC

Charlie Haden: Liberation Music vs. ABC image Charlie Haden: Liberation Music vs. ABC image
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“Despite the signing of a ceasefire, U.S. aggression continued in Indo-China. Then we learned of the falsification of records by the Pentagon to mask the secret bombing of Cambodia beginning March, 1969. This deliberate deception of the American people was in progress while Richard Nixon claimed he recognized the sovereignty of that country. On our TV sets we watched the Senate Watergate Hearings which finally revealed to the majority of middle-America how our country is being run by corrupt and criminal men who want only personal gain, wealth, and world domination. This is what I believe has to change. Such men should be exposed as the criminals they are. Every human being should have an equal chance to experience life to its fullest. I would like to see these changes happen in my lifetime. This is what I am trying to say to as many people as possible with my music.”

--Strong sentiments but hardly revelatory at this late date and offensive only to the fat few who remain in tenuous power. Yet as recently as this past autumn, the Board of Directors of ABC/Dunhill Records refused (not so surprisingly) to include these notes with the re-issue of bassist/composer Charlie Haden’s brilliant Impulse album, “Liberation Music Orchestra.”

It’s no accident that revolutionary politics and revolutionary music come together in the persons of many of the principal makers of Free Music (you might read Frank Kofsky’s “Black Nationalism and the Revolution in Music” for documentary purposes). Charlie, recognized as a distinctively brilliant voice on his instrument since his early appearance with Ornette Coleman’s barrier-busting aggregations, gathered together, in 1969, a multi-national, multi-racial group of superb musicians to record his first, and only, date as a leader. These “masters of creativity” included Gato Barbieri, Carla Bley, Don Cherry, Paul Motian, Dewey Redman, and Roswell Rudd playing songs inspired by and composed in honor of “the peoples’ struggle for freedom” during the Spanish Civil War, a “Song for Che” and “Circus ‘68, ‘69,” a recreation of the madness manifest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. What follows is the story that the jazz magazine, “Down Beat” refused to print, fearing the loss of ABC ad revenue. The story, recorded in Ann Arbor after Charlie’s performance with the Keith Jarrett Group in Hill Auditorium in February, in his own words, of the struggle to get his music, his message, to the people.

Charlie: When I first started thinking about recording the music that I wanted to do, I had to decide whether or not to do it with a big record company because to do it for a large corporation is. in essence, completely the opposite of what you’re trying to do. It’s like aiding and abetting the very system that is stifling creative music and also perpetuating the shallow value system that everyone is raised under.

SUN: OK. So why did you decide to go with that?

C: Because I had to get my record distributed. Now Columbia, Atlantic, and a lot of people at big record companies wanted me to record but as soon as I mentioned Che and the things that were included in the record, they said, “No.” And the first person who said “Yes” was Bob Thiele, of ABC/Impulse. As soon as I showed him the music and played some tapes for him, he said, “I’ll see what I can do.” I called him every day for about six months and he kept telling his secretary to tell me he wasn’t in. And then finally he said, “OK, we’re going to get a record session.”

SUN: How long ago was this?

C: This was 1969 in April. Now when we first talked it was, like December of ‘68. Finally, we decided to record at Judson Hall in New York and I wanted to invite people involved in political movements, especially the Spanish Civil War veterans and their wives, musicians, composers, critics; all told there were like 300 people invited to the recording sessions.

The first recording session was completely lost because they (Impulse) brought in the wrong equipment for the remote recording. That left us two more sessions. Each session is only three hours and some of the music we hadn’t even rehearsed. The second session was in the daytime... before we recorded we had to go take our picture for the cover. And Bob Thiele didn’t want that picture taken and I had to take the photographer and all the musicians by the hand and lead them down 57th to this brick wall. Carla had made a banner…

SUN: “Liberation Music Orchestra?”

C: Yeah, and she sewed it by herself, with her hands... she’s beautiful, man. And not only did she do that but she did the arrangements, too, for the music. Anyway, the photographer took the picture and we went back and started recording and that day went all right.

The last session was at night and there were a couple of people late. Don Cherry came a couple of minutes late, someone else was a couple of minutes late and Bob Thiele was in the balcony with the recording equipment and he started screaming, in front of all the invited guests, at the musicians.

SUN: What did he say?

C: First he started screaming at me, he said, “What the fuck kind of a leader are you? Don’t you have any control over your musicians?” He said, “Everyone’s not in their chairs, tell them to get in their places. We have to start recording. You’re costing my company thousands of dollars.” The thing that really surprised me was that Bob Thiele supposedly has been associated with jazz musicians for so many years. And he, especially, should understand jazz musicians as opposed to studio musicians who are in their chairs at 9 am and they record ‘til five in the afternoon. When you get innovators and creative musicians, you have to expect somebody’s not going to be in their chair. And a couple of the musicians wanted to go up and just smack him in his face, you know...and I wanted to do it, too...but I wanted to get the album recorded and it was the last session we had, three more hours. Most rock groups get six months to record; six hours, that’s all we had. All the music that you hear on the album is almost all one take. Everyone had come to the recording session with such a good feeling to play and they felt very strongly the political reasons that we were recording. But when Bob Thiele started screaming everyone was, like, stunned, you know, and just sat in silence. And then Don Cherry carne up to me and he said, “I have to leave. I can’t stay in the same room with this guy.” And I talked him into staying and he recorded “Song for Che” and he played flute and if you listen to Don Cherry’s solo on the flutes you’ll understand where he was at, because it expresses everything that happened before we started recording. Anyway, as soon as we finished that, the yelling started again and Don said, I’m sorry, I have to leave.”

SUN: What was Thiele yelling about the second time?

C: I don’t know. The musicians were yelling back and forth to him. And Don packed up his trumpet, and started for the elevator and I rode down with him to the street. And he said, “Charlie, I love you, and I want to play the rest of the music but I can’t stand in the same room with that guy.” And Don got in his car and drove home. The next thing we were going to record was “War Orphans” and Don was supposed to play the melody and he split so I got Carla to play it on the piano. Don was supposed to play the melody “We Shall Overcome” and...

SUN: Roswell Rudd played it. It’s beautiful.

C: Oh man, that’s one of the most beautiful things I ever heard in my life! Anyway, Don left and then Carla left. She was upset about what had happened and she was physically sick and Mike Mantler, a trumpeter, composer and one of the directors of the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra and the JCO Distribution Service, got a ride for her to the doctor’s office. We hadn’t recorded the Chicago convention piece and Bob Thiele came up to us and said that we had enough music for the rest of the album and didn’t have to record that piece. I said, “Man, if you don’t record the other thing, forget it, you know, I don’t want the record released. He said all right. So we recorded the “Circus ‘68, ‘69” without Carla and without Don Cherry and Carla overdubbed the organ and we mixed it later. It was a very intricate mix because we had to superimpose soundtracks from 1936. Finally we got it done and Capitol, who Impulse jobbed out mixing to in those days, calls me up one day and says, “We lost the second side of your record.” So I had to go over and remix the whole second side again.

SUN: How long did it take to remix it?

C: About two weeks. So then Bob Thiele sent the test pressing and the liner notes that I wrote to Impulse in Los Angeles. As soon as they heard the music and they read the liner notes, they called me up and said, “We can’t release this record.” So I had to go to LA to talk to them on their level, which is one of making money. And I said to Howard Stark (Vice-President of ABC/Dunhill) “Why don’t you want to release my record?” He said that the board of directors thought that there were too many leftist views in the notes. And he didn’t like the title of the album. Now this was in 1969 when the album was first recorded. I said, “Well, if you go down Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco or MacDougal Street in the Village in New York, you’ll see “The Liberation Record Shop” and “The Liberation Boutique” and if you don’t hurry up and get my record out, man, the rock groups are gonna steal the title.”

SUN: (Laughter)

C: Stark also had his objections about the pieces on Che and on the Democratic Convention but I managed to convince him to release the album unaltered. So they released it and it was completely forgotten about. There was no promotion... and then it started winning awards. It won the Grand Prix Charles Cros in Paris, it won the best jazz album award in England from “Melody Maker” and it won the best jazz album of the year in Japan’s “Swing Journal.” It won four or five international awards. And then they wanted to take up my option and I said, “No.” I told them I wanted to get out of my contract.

SUN: When was this, 1971?

C: Yeah. They finally let me out of my contract with no more options to do any more records. I was on tour with Alice Coltrane in 1971 or ‘72, we did about ten concerts on the West Coast. It was an Impulse tour. When we got to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium all the big wheels at Impulse were at the concert and I went up to Howard Stark and I said, “I want my tapes. Give me my tapes back.” And the guys standing around him who were, I guess, in positions under him, said not to sell me the tapes because potentially it was a big-selling album and it had won a lot of awards and they should re-issue it. So he said, “No, we won’t sell you the tapes.” Anyway, last summer I played the Newport Jazz Festival in New York with Don Cherry, then I went to Europe with Ornette. Ed Michel said, when I got back, that ABC wanted to re-issue my record. And I said. “I don’t want my record re-issued, I just want my tapes.” He repeated that they were going to re-issue it anyway. I said, “Well, whatever you want, you know, go ahead and do it.” See, they were re-issuing my record without my consent and against my wishes and I had no choice in the matter, contractually, they own it, you know. I’d already sent my family out to LA to my wife, Ellen’s, parent’s place, they were already there. And I said, “If you’re going to re-issue my record, I have to be there to remix it. So send me a plane ticket.” He said, “I’ll see what I can do.” I waited a day, two days, no phone calls. Finally, I had to go, so I paid my own fare. Two days after I was in LA the phone rang at my wife’s parent’s house. It was Ed Michel, he says to me, “Hey man, we’re remixing your record, we want you to come over here and help us.” I said, “Man, you mean I paid my own way here and you’re remixing my album...” And he said, “Well talk to Howard Stark about all that.” I asked Stark again for his tapes and was again refused and told that LMO would be re-issued Stark said, “We’re going to put Gato Barbieri’s name on the cover.” I said, “I don’t want just his name on the cover, I want all the soloists names.” He said OK. And I said, “If you re-issue my album I want to write revised liner notes.” He said, “OK, but please don’t put me in a bind.” I asked him what he meant and he referred to our hassles over the original notes. Well, I said, “Man, I’m gonna write what I want to write. And I want some bread. I, at least, want my plane fare out here.” I said, “When someone records in New York and Impulse mixes in Los Angeles, you pay their fare and their hotel,” and I said, “You should at least do that for me.” Stark said he’d see what he could do. So I get half the album remixed, you know, and then I’m told that Howard Stark said there would be no money for old albums that are re-issued. I was, naturally, vexed at this information and proceeded to call and yell at Stark until he finally relented. So he sent me a check for whatever it cost me to get to LA. Meanwhile, I wrote some new liner notes and turned them in to the ABC/Impulse lawyer and he was concerned about ABC getting sued so I said, “If you’re worried about ABC being sued, put down ‘The liner notes are the expressed opinion of Charlie Haden and not of ABC Impulse’.” He said OK. Later I was called to the Impulse offices to read the proofs of the revised liner notes to correct them for grammatical errors. A few days later we went back to New York with the assurance that the notes were going to be put on the album. The next thing I know Ed Michel is calling me and he told me, “I just received the record jacket from the manufacturer and it’s got the new outside cover with the names of the featured soloists but the inside is the old, same liner notes.” And he said he was going to quit his job if they didn’t make good by what they said. And he said, “They’ve lied to me before, but when they force me to lie to one of my artists, that’s the last straw.” Ed had told me the liner notes were going on the album. And they told him that it was cool and that they were going to go on the album. And then after I left LA they were humoring me all the time, you know.

SUN: They knew all along...

C: They knew all along they were going to put the old liner notes on the record. Ed called Impulse and called me back and said he’d been told that only 100 records with the old notes had been released and that they would immediately stop them and print the rest of the albums with the new liners. He called back five minutes later to say he’d been lied to, that over 9000 copies had been distributed with the old liners and that he was quitting. Howard Stark and Jay Lasker were very upset that Ed Michel quit because he’s a very valuable person. They asked him what it would take to get him to come back and Ed replied that they should either release LMO the way I wanted it or call all the discs back and let JCOA do it right. They told Ed that they couldn’t release the album with the revised notes and that they would recall all the already distributed albums. So Ed went back to work for Impulse.

SUN: Did they actually recall them?

C: The albums were in the stores, they’re selling them right now...the re-issues...

SUN: With the old liner notes?

C: With the old liner notes and there’s nothing I can do about it. Mike Mantler has been trying to negotiate with them to lease the tapes from them. Meanwhile, the last statement I had was like almost a year ago. I get another statement six months later and it says the album sold ten copies.

SUN: Ten copies!?

C: Yeah, I haven’t received any kind of renumeration. They paid me $500 initially to do the record as the leader. The other musicians were paid scale… Japanese royalties from the album have been going to Impulse and not to me, and they didn’t tell me about it. Someone told me my album sold over 10,000 copies in Japan. I haven’t received any money for that. The last time I spoke with the guy who books all the German concerts, Joachim Berendt, he said, “Your album, I know, has sold at least 40,000 copies.” The only way that you can really know that you are getting what you’re due, is if you have a lot of money and a lot of power – like rock groups or pop singers or whoever, you sell a million records and have lawyers that can go in and audit the books of the big corporations and find out what’s happening. But I have no way of finding that out, man, because I can’t afford to. I can’t afford to pay a lawyer to go in and audit books.


For all its numerous seamy scenes and acts of oppression, Charlie Haden’s tale of his dealings with Impulse Records is hardly extraordinary. Any authentic jazz or blues musician (or really any of the “Blues People” – a group growing every day and comprised of anyone not rich enough to buy their way out of the nightmare of American history) could sing similar sad songs and they do – that’s why they sing the blues. The very latest chapter of this tale is the word from Charlie that Impulse has broken off negotiations with JCOA for distribution rights to “Liberation Music Orchestra.” On the bright side Charlie has received a grant from the National Endowments of the Arts for composition and he continues to record (with Keith Jarret) and tour and thereby create music “dedicated to creating a better world; a world without war and killing, without racism, without poverty and exploitation, a world where people of all governments realize the vital importance of life and strive to protect it rather than to destroy it. I hope our music will help to build a new society of enlightenment and wisdom where creative thought becomes the most dominant force in all people’s lives.
**from the original liner notes, “Liberation Music Orchestra”

--interviewed by Bill Adler and David Fenton

“As soon as they heard the music and read the liner notes, the Board of Directors of ABC called me up and said, ‘We can’t release this record.’”