I was sad to learn that jazz bassist Charlie Haden passed away on Friday. I know that with so many great musicians in the world, even in my home town, it is hard to say who your favourite is, exactly. But Charlie was certainly in my top ten, and his album Now is the Hour might well be my favourite album ever, in any genre. You know how it is with certain albums, they find you at difficult times and then they become part of who you are, part of your story. “The Left Hand of God” from the same album is the one song I would asked to be played at my funeral.
No great surprise that I have a story about him . . .
A few years ago, I was writing for the Calgary Herald. I typically wrote a Saturday column on nothing in particular other than myself, but from time to time if something came up that caught my interest, I would ask if I could write about it. And so when it was announced that Charlie would be playing at the jazz festival in Calgary, I contacted my editor and asked if I could write a piece about him and so it was arranged. I was told his publicist (his wife, Ruth) would contact me.
A few days later, my phone rang and I answered it and the person asked “Is Eugene there?” and I said, “This is Eugene,” and then the person said, “Hi, Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man?”
I said, “Fine, Charlie, but give me a second.” I put the phone down and hyper ventilated and jumped around my living room for a minute trying to get it together to have a conversation with one of the greatest musicians on the planet. It was one of the few times in my life when I was totally star struck.
I regained my composure enough to have a decent conversation that I could turn into a piece for The Herald. When we were hanging up, I said, “If there’s anything I can do for you while you’re here, anything at all, just let me know.” He thanked me. I wrote my piece. Other than looking forward to hearing him actually play, I assumed that was that.
A few days later, the phone rang. I answered and the voice on the phone said, “Hi Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man?” I told him I was good and I asked him how he was. Seems he was having issues with the hotel the Festival had booked him in.
“You live there, man, do you think the Sandman Hotel is any good?” I said I thought it was an insult that they were putting an artist of his stature up at the Sandman and he agreed. (I was just being sycophantic, it’s not a bad place, really.) He told me that he didn’t like the look for the place, but he’d been told there were no other hotels available. I offered to make a few calls. He appreciated that. So I made the calls and used what influence I have but everywhere I called it was the same thing: no vacancy. Even for Charlie Haden.
Charlie called the next day. “Hi Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man? Any luck finding us a hotel?” Well, it’s tough to let down a hero, but I had to report that I’d had no luck. Charlie thanked my and we said good-bye and I assumed that was that.
The next day the phone rang. My phone doesn’t ring that often, so I was hardly surprised when I answered and heard, “Hi Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man?”
“Good, man,” I replied. “What’s up?”
“What do you know about the Hotel Arts?” he asked.
“It’s great, “ I said. “A lot of visiting theatre artists stay there. It’s one of our coolest hotels.”
“They managed to find a room there. They want to put us up there,” he said.
“Great!” I said.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve checked it out on line and I don’t think I like it.”
I had an idea. I offered to give up my place for Charlie and Ruth, and I would go stay at the Hotel Arts for a few days. I lived in a beautiful old house in Bankview at the time and as far as I was concerned they were welcome to it. And a few days at Hotel Arts would have been a nice little break for me.
Charlie wasn’t convinced. It was my best offer and so there wasn’t much left for us to talk about. When we hung up, I knew it would be the last time I would hear from Charlie Haden.
As it turned out, he stuck to his guns and ended up getting a suite at the Rimrock in Banff, one of the best hotels anywhere. Well, he’d been touring for over 50 years. What did you expect? When the road is home, you learn to take good care about where you stay.
Charlie and his band played an amazing concert at Knox Church downtown a few days later. It was truly one of the great artistic experiences of my life, a real highlight. Afterwards, I went down to the green room. I walked past the security guard assuring him that “It’s OK, man, Charlie and I are friends.” I was calling everyone “man” by then.
And there he was, Charlie Haden, in the flesh. I approached him and said, “Hi, Charlie, it’s Eugene Stickland, how you doing man?” We had a little chat, but it was clear his performance had taken a lot out of him. That’s when he told me he was staying at the Rimrock. You could tell there was nothing he wanted more at that moment than to be there. And who could blame him?
I thanked him for the beautiful music, and I guess that’s what I’m doing with this post. He was a real beauty, I have always been in awe of his sublime artistry and incredible versatility. He was an artist’s artist, truly one of the greats. He will be missed.
Please take a few minutes to listen to “The Left Hand of God.” I hope it moves you the way it moves me.
RIP, Charlie Haden.
Thanks for reading.