Also section where Flea discusses Stadium Arcadium (added as a separate page)
Transcript: Many thanks to Sally Sturman for typing this out!
FLEA & HADEN
A ROCK STAR & JAZZ LEGEND FIND COMMON GROUND IN MUSIC’S BEAUTY & DEPTH
BY BILL LEIGH
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEIL ZLOZOWER
“IS CHARLIE HERE YET?” I DIDN’T CATCH who asked the question this time, but the impending arrival of the veteran jazz bassist was clearly causing anxious excitement despite the bona-fide rock star already present. The room felt awkward, and Flea responded by strapping his ‘61 Fender Jazz and stabbing it energetically at its flat wound strings, escaping into his own musical world.
It was an early evening last June, and I was in the Hollywood studio of music photographer Neil Zlozower, among a handful of people trying not to seem restless or impatient. Decades of rock photos covered the walls and surfaces of a dark alcove that opened into a large, well-lit room, where a busy assistant on a ladder adjusted a huge backdrop on a long, high wall. Outside, a film opening party a block away was drawing a well-dressed crowd buzzing with self-consciousness, while the distinctive Capitol Records building loomed over the nervous neighbourhood like a giant stack of neglected 45s, dwarfed only by the darkening Hollywood hills. When Charlie Haden finally stepped from his hired limo, the whole place seemed to relax.
Missouri native Haden, who lengthy resume includes legends like Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, as well as his own Liberation Music Orchestra and Quartet West, began singing on his family’s country radio show when he was a toddler. Following his older brother, he took up bass, then got hooked on jazz after hearing pioneering saxophonist Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. Haden joined Ornette Coleman’s revolutionary group when he was still a teenager. In 1982, he founded the jazz program at California Institute of the Arts – CalArts – where he continues to teach. His triplet daughters are all talented musicians, as is his son Josh, an electric bassist who led the alternative rock group Spain.
Flea’s band is the Red Hot Chili peppers, one of the most creative and successful in rock, and Flea himself is one of the genre’s most revered bassists. He found his playing voice melding funk’s techniques and groove with punk’s intensity, but his initial musical fascination was with jazz, a passion that has stayed with him decades after commending himself to a life in rock & roll. Five years ago, inspired by how his own youthful musical experiences spared him from delinquency, he founded the Silverlake Conservatory, a Los Angeles music school that offers free music lessons to children who can’t afford them.
The two bassists had never met before, and the reason for their meeting that night was an advertising photo session for Gallien-Krueger, whose amps both players endorse. I came on the scene because I knew that both players were particularly broad-minded, deep and serious musicians, despite coming from different musical worlds. In short, I thought they might have an interesting conversation. And if they needed a facilitator, I’d gladly make myself available.
The hero worshipper in each of us tends to expect a lot from celebrities. We hope or perhaps believe that once they enter a room, they’ll transform the environment with their big, charismatic personalities and by extension, transform those with the luck or privilege to be around them. But when Charlie Haden walked in, it was clear it wouldn’t be like that at all. He was fully engaged while playing his bass or having a conversation, demonstrating the rare radiance of fulfilled potential. Otherwise the Grammy winner seemed almost unsure of himself, which, because it made everyone else feel at ease, came of as a generous act. At the same time, Haden exudes uncommon coolness: There’s the ever-present shades; the slow, deliberate motions; the unaffected decoration of his speech with genuine nuggets of bebop-era lingo. Yet the true source of his cool lies far deeper than these external traits, while remaining ready and accessible.
In contrast, Flea is brimming with wiry energy, tempered by a clearheaded confidence, seriousness and a protective veneer that seems like a famous person’s reasonable wariness. When the camera started clicking, his intensity transformed, reawakening as passion for being an entertainer. Flea mugged harder with each snap of the shutter, striking increasingly acrobatic poses, and inspiring an unexpected playfulness n Charlie Haden.
Both bassists were immediately drawn to and comfortable with one another and their conversation was soon characterized with a kind of person generosity that can come from a life of rhythm section playing. They hardly needed by facilitation; in fact, I was barely involved. But during the course of their conversation it became apparent that these two very different musicians have something significant in common: A comfort with themselves and a commitment to giving, traits both have come to believe are music’s requirement and reward.
BEGINNINGS & LEGACIES
Flea: You were singing country music as a kid. And all of a sudden you’re playing with Ornette! What happened there? You were pretty young.
Haden: I was 19.
F: From singing country music at 15 to inventing free jazz with Ornette at 19 – that’s a big switch. Four years isn’t that long!
H: Before that, in the late ‘40s, there was no TV and I listened to classical and jazz radio constantly.
F: Did you study jazz?
H: I’m self-taught. One of my brothers played bass on the radio show, and he had some jazz records, but you’re talking about Missouri. It was hard to find records, and nobody played jazz. I went to a concert in Omaha, Nebraska – Jazz at the Philharmonic with Charlie Park, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and Oscar Peterson – and when I heard Bird play, that was it. It was unbelievable. He had beautiful harmonies and beautiful melodies. You hear the gamut of beauty in his playing.
F: It’s hard for me to fathom; not only that level of musical sophistication, but the depth of feeling. And to step so far beyond what had ever been done before on an instrument. Maybe Mozart, Bach and other classical cats had some deep concepts of music, but improvising like that and inventing an entirely new language of music is stunning to me.
I feel bebop is the greatest gift this country has given to the world, with the possible exception of basketball. If they look back in 2,000 years and ask what the great contribution was, that’s got to be it. It’s not just an intellectual achievement; it’s a spiritual and emotional achievement of unfathomable depth.
When I was a kid, I had such an opportunity to get that education through my step-dad, who was a jazz bassist. I was 12 when my parents divorced, and all of a sudden I was living with a jazz musician who was having jam sessions at the house all the time. It changed my life. I would roll around on the floor laughing because I couldn’t believe the sound that was coming from guys blowing and hitting and plucking. My goal was to become a jazz trumpet player, but then I got into my early teens and I had to rebel against my parents. All I wanted to do was be a punk rocker and play the bass. I went completely in the other direction from jazz, and now I’m trying to catch up on which I missed out on. I’m studying theory and trying to play along over bebop changes with the Jamey Aebersold books and everything.
On trumpet and bass?
F: Mostly on trumpet, but on bass, too. I regret not learning that stuff when I was young, but my path is my path and it’s been really good for me.
H: Well, you still have that learning opportunity. I never discouraged my kids from what they were excited about, and they grew up hearing all kinds of music. They went in the direction they went in on their own; I just encouraged them. Josh used to say, “Dad, you have to listen to this.” It would be the Meat Puppets and Black Flag and all kinds of punk rock. And I’d say, [with a forced smile] “Oh, my goodness! That’s great, Josh. It’s beautiful.”
HISTORY AND INSPIRATION
H: Did you ever hear Jimmy Blanton play the bass?
F: On records, yes.
H: He was amazing. Duke Ellington’s band came through St. Louis and played a dance – back then it was dances and not concerts. Afterward Duke went back to the hotel to sleep, and all the musicians went to an after-hours session. This young bass player was playing, and these guys flipped out. They went back and woke up Duke Ellington, and brought him to the session. Duke hired Jimmy on the spot, and the band left St. Louis with two bass players. Jimmy Blanton made all those records in 1940 and ‘41, and then he got what they called “consumption” back then, tuberculosis. He got very sick in L.A. and that had to leave him in a sanitarium. He had no family there; he was by himself in a little isolated cabin. Milt Hinton told me he went there every day to see him. Milt was playing in Cab Calloway’s band at that time, and every night they’d dedicate a song to him. Milt said he was there when Jimmy took his last breath. He was 23 years old. But if you’ve ever heard him play… man!
F: It’s unbelievable how many guys die so young. Booker Little is a big one for me. He has one of my favourite trumpet sounds ever.
H: I played with him. He used to come into the Five Spot when I was there with Ornette and Don [Cherry].
“You’re not going to discover your own music if you’re trying to play like some other bass player.” – Charlie Haden
F: Did you ever play with [flutist/saxophonist/bass clarinettist Eric] Dolphy?
H: I recorded with Dolphy on this album called Free Jazz with Ornette and Don Cherry, Freddy Hubbard, Billy Higgins, Ed Blackwell, and my closest friend in life, Scott LaFaro, who used to share an apartment with me in L.A. before I moved to New York. Scott was killed in a car accident when he was 25. He played on a very famous album by the Bill Evans Trio called A Sunday at the Village Vanguard [Riverside/OJC, 1961]. That was one of the last records he made. He was a tenor sax player with his dad’s dance band when he was in high school, and one night the bass player didn’t show up, so his dad made him play. He started playing the bass and he loved it, but he had the concept of the horn in his head. You can hear it when you hear him play.
Both of you started your musical lives with something besides bass. Has that affected the way you think about or approach bass?
F: Since I played trumpet first, when I picture notes in my head, I go like that with my fingers [makes a valve pattern with his hand] and finger it on the trumpet. I never think about the bass like that; I never think of notes as fret patterns. I always think about it on trumpet, and I’m sure that has a big effect on my approach.
So you think of yourself as a trumpet player first?
F: [Pauses] I don’t know!
H: The real answer is that the instrument really doesn’t matter. It’s the music. At CalArts, I tell my students that, especially the bass players. They have to take themselves away from the concept of the bass. It’s really important to discover your own music, and you’re not going to discover your music if you’re trying to play like some other bass player.
“You have to trust and love yourself, so that when you do what you do, it’ll be beautiful because you are who you are.” – Flea
F: I always say the same thing. Any instrument is just a vehicle to express who you are and your relationship to the world. No matter what level you’re doing it on, playing music is an opportunity to give something to the world.
H: When I was a kid and my older brother played the bass on our radio show, I noticed that when he didn’t play, the full-ness of the music stopped, and I was really attracted to that full sound. He wouldn’t allow me to touch the bass, but the minute he left the house, I’d pick it up, put on a record, and play along. Downbeat asked me a while back who my main influence was. They wanted me to name another bass player, but I told them Bach was my main influence, because the bass lines he wrote were so deep and moving. Bach was the best bass player ever.
INSTRUMENTS & SOUND
What’s important to you in terms of your sound?
F: As time goes by, I realize more and more how important it is to have a good sound. Recently, I’ve only been playing all-wood vintage basses, whereas before I didn’t really think it mattered what bass you played. I was so being into being raw about it and trying to get across what was in my heart. I always heard guys talking about using this or that amp, this or that setting, and certain strings, and I thought it was all bullshit. I thought what mattered was how you hit them and your emotional intent, and I still think that’s the bottom line. I mean, Charlie Parker could have played some old piece-of-shit sax and it would have sounded like Charlie Parker.
But now I treasure the instruments that I play more and more. So now I play a 1961 Fender bass, and I love the old wood sound. It sounds really nice; I think it’s further away from being a tree and is more used to being a bass now. I care about having a real warm sound, and I’m using the amp a lot more, too. In the past I would just get a sound and go with it. But now I’m getting into adjusting EQ for different sounds.
H: I always look at the sound of the bass as being like a rainforest: I try to get a deep wood sound. There are so many jazz bass players who spend thousands of dollars for these old instruments, like the classical guys do, and then they proceed to put a horrible pickup on it, plug into a horrible amplifier, turn up the treble or reverb or whatever, and it sounds like an electric bass. So they could have saved all that money and got an electric bass to begin with. There are some guys, like Jaco, Steve Swallow, and Flea, who get these deep sounds out of an instrument that’s going into an amp. And really, they’re playing the amp, but their touch on the fingerboard and the way they hear the music makes them have a deeper sound. But I want to get the sound of the wood, so I use an amplifier that’s made especially for the acoustic bass, and I also use gut strings on the G and D, which bring the wood sound out of the instrument. For the A and E, the lower-vibration strings, I use Thomastik SpiroCore because gut strings would be too loose.
F: The most incredible thing about the upright bass – the few times I’ve played one – is the way you can feel the whole thing vibrate when you have it up against your body. It’s like your body is resonating with the instrument. It’s a very fulfilling feeling.
H: It is! That’s why I stand so close to the instrument when I play. I put my head next to it. One night in 1959 I was playing at the Five Spot with Ornette, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins, and I always play with my eyes closed – but I opened my eyes, and there was some guy onstage with his ear next to my f-hole. And I was like, “That’s Leonard Bernstein!” And I was like, “Okay…”
One of my students at CalArts asked me why I close my eyes when I play. The obvious answer is for concentration, but I told him, “The first night we opened at the Five Spot, I looked across at the bar and there was Charlie Mingus, Wilbur Ware, Percy Heath, Paul Chambers, and just about every great bass player in New York, looking right at me. And from that moment on, I closed my eyes!”
F: Is that true?
H: Yeah! Not really, but… [Laughs all around]
GROWTH & GIVING
F: I grew up listening to anything I could get my hands on. The Beatles were first, but jazz was the real discovery. When I was 12 and wanted to be a trumpet player, it was all Kenny Dorham, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles.
H: Did you ever hear Fats Navarro?
F: Oh, yeah. And Lee Morgan is really my guy, too. The fact that those guys could play like that still boggles my mind. Outside of musicians or real jazz aficionados, people don’t even understand. They think jazz is wild and crazy, but they don’t realise the discipline, work ethic, and academics that are required. To be fluent in a language like that is one of the great human accomplishments. You hear guys who might know the language and can technically do everything, but they don’t touch me like the people I’ve mentioned.
“To be great, you have to be able to love and care way more than your physical body is capable of.” – Flea
I went to see Wayne Shorter recently, and it was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. He played so little, and the rhythm section was going crazy, like John Patitucci and the rhythm section were leading the band. Wayne was laying back, adding little footprints here and there, but every note he played was so majestic, and the whole thing made me feel so much. Hearing someone play like that gives you the sense of their concept of being alive; how they express their life, their honesty, and their truth through what they do. What it really boils down to is this: To be great, you have to be able to love and care way more than your physical body is capable of.
How do you tap into that when you’re onstage or in the studio?
F: I just try to be who I am and do the best I can. I love music, and I love connecting as a human being.
H: I teach a class about the spirituality of improvisation, and I always tell my students, if you want to become a great jazz musician, first you have to strive to become a great human being, with qualities of humility, giving ness, and appreciative ness. Do that, and you might have a shot at becoming a great jazz musician. Flea was talking about being in the moment. There is no yesterday, there is no tomorrow, there is only right now. And in that moment, everything changes because you see a different perspective of life. You see your complete insignificance and unimportance in the world. Only then are you able to see your true significance and importance to the universe. And that’s what real humility is. I think the spiritual part is about 85 percent of the art form, with the other 15 percent being academic. Once you know that, it’s easier. Or maybe it’s harder.
“If you want to become a great jazz musician, first you have to become a great human being.” – Charlie Haden
F: If you’re an improvising musician, you have to trust yourself and love yourself, so that when you do what you do, it’s be beautiful because you are who you are. And if you’re not a humble, giving person, there’s no way you can love or trust yourself.
H: And that’s not easy. For me, as long as I’ve got my bass, I’m okay. But when I put it down, I’m in trouble. In other parts of my life I have to strive to reach the level I’m at when I’m playing. Like being able to sit down across the table from a friend and listen to their problems while forgetting about your own – really being a listener and a giver. That’s what happens when you play, but as I tell my class, it’s really about reaching that level in the other parts of your life.
F: I remember being on tour for a long time and being miserable. I had broken up with my long-time girlfriend, I was unhealthy. I was stressed out, and I couldn’t sleep. I was falling apart. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I know I shouldn’t be whining, being a big rock star and all that, but at the time I was very unhappy. Then one day I woke up and thought to myself, so what if I’m miserable? It’s not about me, it’s about going out and playing for people. So I tried to forget about all my problems and concentrate on what I could give. I was like, for each moment, whether I’m playing or not, what can I give to the situation? As soon as I started disciplining myself to think like that, everything changed. Everything lightened up and became okay. We all have our burden – that bottomless well of pain that we have to bear. You can try to fill it up with drugs or some other kind of addiction, but the bottom line is that the only thing you can do is give.
FLEA CAN BE HEARD ON
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stadium Arcadium [Warner Bros. 2006]
Basses ‘61 Fender Jazz and ‘62 Fender Jazz, both with old flat wounds
Rig Three Gallien-Krueger 2001RB heads, each powering 410RBH 4 x 10 and 115RBH 1 x 15 cabinets
Effects Electro-Harmonix Q-Tron, MXR M-133 Micro Amp, Boss ODB-3 Bass Overdrive
CHARLIE CAN BE HEARD ON
Charlie Haden & the Liberation Music Orchestra, Not in Our Name [Verve, 2005]; Charlie Haden, Land of the Sun [Verve, 2004]
Basses 1840s Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume upright and Jean Auray upright with Schertler STAT-B bridge transducers
Strings Thomastik Spirocore steel E and A strings, Kaplan Golden Spiral by D’Addario gut G and D strings
Rig Gallien-Krueger MBE150-112 1 x 12 combo
Flea August ‘02, February ‘96, Jan/Feb ‘92
September ‘05, August ‘96, April ‘94
You can find portions of these articles, plus more from this interview at www.bassplayer.com.