An unforgettable conversation with Charlie Haden

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Charlie Haden

Jazz musician Charlie Haden attends The Recording Academy Special Merit Awards Ceremony at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles, California. (David Livingston, Getty Images / February 9, 2013)

The voice on the phone was practically unrecognizable and difficult to understand, but the name was unmistakable.

Charlie Haden, one of the most revered bassists in jazz history and a musician I had covered for decades, was calling.

Of course I asked him how he was, though his distress was obvious.

"I wish I could say I was great," he said. "Post-polio syndrome."

I was vaguely familiar with the illness: People who had suffered polio during the epidemic of the 1940s and early 1950s were experiencing a recurrence of symptoms. And I remembered that Haden, who died Friday in Los Angeles at age 76, had been stricken by polio at age 15.

In his case, the disease had not hit his lungs, spinal cord or legs, as was common, but instead the bulbar area in the back of the neck. This impacted nerves running through his throat and facial muscles, his wife and co-producer Ruth Cameron later told me.

"I can't swallow food," Haden said on the phone that January afternoon last year. "I haven't eaten solid food in two years. One of the things polio does is it takes away your energy. They don't know very much about it. They should be a lot more aware of what polio is. There's no medicine that they can give me."

Before I could ask Haden much more, he said he needed to stop talking. So we picked up the conversation later in the week. He was having "a little more energy" that day, he said, and he spoke about what happened, about his life and his music.

"Two years ago I was at the Blue Note (in New York); I do a birthday concert there every year," he explained, referencing an engagement in 2011.

Suddenly, "a really bad headache" struck. "I never had a headache like that. When we got (back) to LA, I went to doctors. They told me to go to a neurologist. They told me that I had to have CAT scans and PET scans and lots of odd tests."

All the results came back negative, even as it was becoming increasingly painful for Haden to swallow, leading doctors to deduce he had post-polio syndrome. Haden had given his last public performance in September 2011 at the Catalina Bar & Grill in Hollywood, he said, and now he was living his life inside his home.

Music, however, had become more important to him than before, not less, he said.

Though he badly missed performing, "A lot of people call me to play. And a lot of people come over to play. Pat (Metheny) comes over when he's on tour. (Pianist) Alan Broadbent came over.

"Mostly I play with records. I play with my friend Bill Evans," added Haden, referring to the ultra-sensitive jazz pianist who died in 1980. "I play with Keith (Jarrett).

"It gives me a chance to exercise my imagination and my improvisation and my spontaneity and keep the ideas flowing. That's what it's all about. …

"I'm always searching. It's the reason I'm here. It's not really about music, it's about searching for meaning."

Haden's quest had begun early. Born in Shenendoah, Iowa, he had as a boy sung tunes by the Delmore Brothers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff with members of the Haden Family, farmers who doubled as musicians. They were broadcast across the Midwest, from Springfield, Mo., to Omaha, Neb., where Haden first was stricken by polio.

"We were on the golf course," remembered Haden of an outing with his father. "It was in the middle of the round. I started feeling sick, and I was very, very hot. And all of a sudden I fainted. I just fell.

"My dad and the caddy and everybody ran over to me, and he called the doctors. Temperature of 105. They rushed me to the hospital. I couldn't get in, because it was filled with polio kids.

"So they treated me at home. There wasn't anything really to heal you. There was no medicine for it. The doctor told me that the kind (of polio) I had, which was bulbar polio, which was around the throat, would eventually go away, and I'd never have it again. … Anyway, I couldn't sing on the show. I was really sick. And eventually I started getting better and could swallow more."

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