Wordless Protest Songs: Charlie Haden's Liberation Orchestra

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Charlie Haden, a legend of American jazz music, has been detained in Portugal, followed by the FBI in Manhattan, and embraced as a hero by a South African parliamentarian who had been jailed during apartheid. All of this for his legacy of protest songs without words.

The bassist will bring his decades-old and ever-changing Liberation Music Orchestra to New York City’s Blue Note jazz club in early November, the same week Americans vote for George W. Bush’s successor. At a show in Minneapolis last week, the longtime radical told audience members he’s sure the results will warrant celebration.

“He feels strongly that we’re at a critical moment here,” says Philip Bither, performing arts curator at the Walker Art Center and the person responsible for bringing Haden to Minneapolis. “He’s completely convinced that the McCain camp represents a continuation of the Bush policies that have been an utter catastrophe for the United States and the world at large.”

Haden, whose contribution to jazz can be traced back to his bass playing on three seminal records by saxophonist Ornette Coleman, convenes his Liberation Music Orchestra only during Republican administrations as a soundtrack of resistance. The group’s self-titled 1969 debut was a reaction to Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War his administration inherited. Ballad of the Fallen, released in 1982, was a statement against Reagan’s policies in Latin America. George H.W. Bush was president when Dream Catchers was pressed in 1990; a comment on the tragedies and struggles of Latin America (again) and South Africa.

The militarism of George W. Bush inspired the Liberation Orchestra’s 2005 release, Not in Our Name. Haden chose the title while touring through Europe in the early stages of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. “We were walking down streets in different cities, and we would see unfurled from balconies of the apartment houses: ‘Not In Our Name’ … the people in Europe really cared … that stuck with me,” he recalled in a 2006 interview.

“Touring jazz musicians,” Bither says, “have a unique vantage point on how America is viewed in the world.”

In Minneapolis last week, Haden and his 11-member orchestra responded to what America has become by reclaiming it. A rambling medley anchored in “America the Beautiful” was equal parts somber, sentimental, joyful, and subversively discordant–a formula the group has held to since its inception.

Traditionally, the Liberation Music Orchestra–aided by brilliant pianist and composer Carla Bley, Haden’s collaborator since 1968–has appropriated songs of liberation and protest mostly from other nations. On Not in Our Name, Haden decided to play music only by American composers–his own form of patriotism. “I wanted to do ‘America the Beautiful,'” he said in an interview shortly after the album’s release, “to show that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done in this country.”

Here’s a video of Haden and Bley and the Liberation Music Orchestra performing in 2003–convened in response to the prospect of a second term for George W. Bush.

Image by Thomas Dorn, courtesy of Walker Art Center.

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