Charlie Haden / CalArts Artists in Residence: Carla Bley and Steve Swallow

Not even a global pandemic could stop the Charlie Haden/CalArts Artist in Residence series this year. In fact, because it was offered remotely, it presented a unique opportunity to engage an even wider audience with a rich and rewarding program. 

The seventh annual residency featured Carla Bley and Steve Swallow, two remarkable musicians and composers who worked closely with the late Charlie Haden, the renowned and influential bassist, composer, and bandleader who founded the CalArts Jazz Program and taught at the Institute for more than three decades. This year’s residency took place during Wintersession between Jan. 19-22. 

“Charlie’s inspiration is at the heart of the CalArts Jazz Program, and when he passed away we knew that it was imperative to keep his music and his inimitable spirit alive,” said David Roitstein, the director of the Jazz Program.

Each year, guest artists are invited to introduce music to the student and faculty participants in the residency, which is made possible through philanthropic support. The guest artists focus on their own work as well as compositions from Haden and others. The students and faculty study and practice the music, get to know the guest artists, and learn from their experiences over the course of the week-long program. Previous participants have included Thana Alexa, Geri Allen, Bobby Bradford, Scott Colley, Tony Malaby, Antonio Sanchez, and Matt Wilson. 

The results, according to Roitstein, are palpable. “The Artist-in-Residence program has made a tremendous impact,” Roitstein said. “Our students consistently say that it’s one of the most important and memorable weeks of the year.”

The artists involved in this year’s residency have had an intimate knowledge of Haden’s work. Carla Bley arranged and composed music for the Liberation Music Orchestra (LMO), the highly venerated band that she helped found with Haden in 1969. LMO’s revolutionary and politically charged music has had a compelling global influence, and Bley has had a prolific career as a composer, pianist, and bandleader. She is the recipient of both a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA Jazz Masters Award. 

Electric bassist and composer—and Bley’s life partner—Steve Swallow, also participated in this year’s residency. Swallow is one of the most leading figures in the contemporary jazz community. He has collaborated with a range of artists in improvisational music since the early 1960s, providing innovation as well as work as a composer and performer. Swallow has regularly topped the Electric Bass category in the DownBeat Critics Poll.

On Jan. 20—Inauguration Day—participants in the residency had an in-depth conversation with Bley about the origins of LMO’s unique and consequential collaboration, addressing both its musical and political impact.

On the final day of the program, Ruth Cameron Haden, Charlie Haden’s wife, and a decades-long supporter of the Jazz Program, the School of Music, and CalArts, led a discussion that focused on music’s power and ability to influence politics. She drew from Haden’s own experiences across the world—in South Africa, in Portugal, as well as in the United States and beyond—where music has made an indelible impact on political situations.

“Charlie and I often discussed whether music, specifically jazz improvisation, made a difference in people’s lives, and we came to the conclusion that indeed it has, and still does, Ruth Cameron Haden said. “Charlie always said, ‘Playing jazz, playing beautiful music, bringing beauty to the world, is in and of itself a political act.’ Musicians the world over, and especially in countries who lived under tyrannical regimes, were inspired by the freedom expressed in jazz music. Charlie loved American music and also the music of people who were inspired to fight for their freedom. Music both reflects and inspires people to act, and the actions of people inspire the music.”

She added, “I’m impressed that the Calarts Jazz Studies Department, under the auspices of David Roitstein, is keeping this music, that reflects a vital and important movement within the history of American music, in focus to continue to inspire musicians everywhere.”

Watch the full playlist of the residency on YouTube.

If you would like to learn more or support the Charlie Haden Artist in Residence program, please click here.

— by Greg Houle

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