Most folks usually associate a protest song with a rock or folk piece of music that uses the song’s lyrics to focus on areas such as war, civil rights, inequality, greed and other social maladies. When you look at lists of top protest songs you find very little subject matters outside of US and western world issues, no Jazz and certainly no instrumentals. Seems like those who assemble these lists are not that familiar with Charlie Haden. Over a period of four decades Haden recorded several albums with the Liberation Music Orchestra, an ensemble he led with Carla Bley, all focusing on oppression and injustice in different areas of the world. Interestingly they were all released when Republicans held office in the USA.
Charlie Haden grew up in the Midwest and from an early age was aware of injustice that manifested itself in various forms towards blacks, poor and other minorities. Choosing the life of a jazz musician and being part of the free jazz movement of the 60s gave him a grownup exposure into racism. He was also well aware of oppression around the world, a subject matter that the 20th century provided no shortage of supply. As the Vietnam war escalated in the late 60s, he decided to form the Liberation Music Orchestra (LMO) which became one of Jazz’s most blatant political expressions. I find this activism endearing, not because of the political aspect of the message, but rather the deep humane compassion behind it. Charlie Haden once said: “I’ve always been an idealist, and I believe that inside of every human that’s born on this planet is the capacity for deep feelings. I think that these feelings are stifled or taken away by the environment, by the system that we live in. And I really believe that every human being has the universe inside of them from the beginning of time.”
Haden was not shy of voicing his views, even when faced with real danger. In 1971 he joined Ornette Coleman as part of the Newport Jazz Festival tour of Europe, a caravan of the who’s who of jazz at the time including Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and others. The tour took him to Lisbon. At the time Portugal had colonies in Guinea-Bissau, Angola and Mozambique and was fighting nationalist movements in these regions using heavy military against the insurgents and suppressing basic human rights. During the concert, when introducing his composition Song for Che, written in memory of Che Guevara, Haden dedicated the song to the Black peoples’ liberation movements in these colonies. Liberal Portuguese students attending the concerts gave him a standing ovation that lasted throughout the performance of the 12-minute song. As expected, this event did not bode well with the Portuguese authorities, who arrested Haden the next day at the airport. The American embassy intervened, but not before he had to spend a day in a prison cell.
in 1982 Charlie Haden recorded the second Liberation Music Orchestra studio album, Ballad of the Fallen. As in the first album he included songs from the Spanish Civil War but this time, reflecting on the Reagan Administration activities in South America, he added songs from El Salvador, Chile, and a Portuguese song associated with the early 70s resistance movement he met a decade earlier. At the back of the album he featured a painting by a Salvadorian refugee with the following inscription: “No to US intervention. Yankee invader out of El Salvador – Our only crime is that we are poor – we are tired of so many bullets sent by Ronald Reagan.”. Well said. More on this in an excellent interview Jazz Legend Charlie Haden on His Life, His Music and His Politics
Ballad of the Fallen is the album I like the most in LMO’s recorded output. There is something very melancholic yet hopeful in these Spanish and South American melodies, and Carla Bley’s arrangements do them a great service. Of course it helps that the ensemble is made of some of the greatest free jazz musicians of the time: Don Cherry, Michael Mantler, Jim Pepper, Dewey Redman, Gary Valente, Paul Motian and others. The rhythmic understanding between Motian and Haden is psychic. For decades they were one of the best rhythm units in Jazz, playing with Keith Jarrett’s American quartet and on various albums such as Etudes. Bill Frisell has a nice memory of playing with the two: “The first gig I did with Charlie Haden was at Seventh Ave. South with The Liberation Music Orchestra. The stage was tiny. There wasn’t enough room. Somehow I managed to squeeze in underneath the drums between Paul Motian and Charlie. The bass was 3 inches from one ear, the cymbals 3 inches from my other. I’ll never forget that. What a sound. It was paradise. Talk about STEREO.”
The outbursts of free improvisation throughout the album contrast the beautiful songs and add a confrontational side of protest to the music. After all the issues at hand do piss off these musicians. In a surprising move Downbeat Magazine selected Ballad of the Fallen as Jazz album of the year in 1984. ECM was a favorite label on the magazine in the early 80s. The Art Ensemble Of Chicago – Full Force won in 1981 and Old and New Dreams – Playing in 1982.
Here is the title track from Ballad of the Fallen, a folk song from El Salvador. Per the record sleeve notes, this is a poem that was found on a body of a student who was killed when the United States-backed National Guard of El Salvador massacred a sit-in at the university in San Salvador. A translation of the poem below.
Don’t ask me who I am
Or if you knew me
The dreams that I had
Will grow even though I’m no longer here.
I’m not alive, but my lif continues
In that which goes dreaming
Others who continue the fight
Will grow new roses
In the name of all these things
You”ll fin my name.
Don’t remember my face
For it was my face of war
While I was in my land
It was necessary to hide my real face
In the sky where I go
You’ll see what my true face was like
Few people heard my laugh
But when you are present in the woods
You’ll find before you my ignored smile.