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."
His singing career clearly over, Haden focused on the bass after he recovered, the instrument attracting him because in "classical music and jazz, the basses sounded really full and deep," he said. "And if there was no bass there, it didn't have that sound."
In a way, the bass became a kind of substitute for his voice. Perhaps that explains the ardently melodic quality of all of his playing, even in the most innovative, avant-garde settings.
His musical life expanded dramatically when, as a teenager, he heard one of Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic shows, which brought legends to big cities and small towns across America. To Haden, always insatiably curious about music, jazz seemed like "nothing more than a fascinating extension of the sounds I already was familiar with," Haden told me over lunch in New York in 2002. "But when I played my Charlie Parker records for my school friends, most of whom were going to be the farmers of tomorrow, they looked at me like I was from Mars."
So after graduating high school, Haden headed to Los Angeles in search of Hampton Hawes, a jazz pianist whose work he had admired on recordings. Soon Haden was meeting other musical adventurers, most notably trumpeter Don Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins and saxophonist-conceptualist Ornette Coleman (these musicians soon would form the groundbreaking Ornette Coleman Quartet).
"It was a time that you would not believe," said Haden on the phone. "It was the greatest thing that could have happened to anybody who wanted to play jazz.
"But most jazz musicians didn't like us. They thought we were screwy, man. They didn't understand what we were doing. We were the only ones that understood it. It was so thrilling to be inside this music. Every time we played, it was different.
"It was like going to the best conservatory, and then some."
Indeed, Coleman was inventing a music that dispensed with the chordal structures that had defined jazz since its inception at the turn of the previous century. Instead, Coleman fashioned a new way of thinking about the music, driven more by melody than harmony, which he eventually called "harmolodics." Considering Haden's deep musical experiences with his family as both vocalist and bassist, perhaps he was uniquely equipped to hear the lyric beauty in Coleman's music that most of the rest of the world did not. At least not yet.
Coleman invited Haden to rehearse in the saxophonist's "one-room shack of an apartment," Haden told me in 2002, remembering a transformative experience.
"I never heard anything so brilliant in my life as I did that first time I heard Ornette," he said. "He played like some revolutionary angel. Soon we were rehearsing in his place, music scattered everywhere, and he was telling me to play 'outside the chord changes,' which was exactly what I had been wanting to do. Now I had permission."
The Coleman recordings that emerged, including "The Shape of Jazz to Come" (1959), "Free Jazz" (1960) and "Change of the Century" (1960), up-ended jazz. And Haden played a critical role in each.
Yet that was just the beginning of his musical explorations. He played poetically in Jarrett's trio and quartet in the late 1960s and early '70s; articulated pointed political beliefs with his Liberation Music Orchestra starting in 1969; ventured into world music with his "Folks Songs" album of the 1970s and via partnerships with Brazilian guitarist-pianist Egberto Gismonti, Cuban piano virtuoso Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Argentine bandoneon master Dino Saluzzi, among others; and revived the moody romanticism of Hollywood film noir with his Quartet West in recordings such as "Haunted Heart" in the 1990s.
His ethereal duets with Jarrett in "Jasmine" (2010) and his collection of spiritual music with pianist Hank Jones in "Come Sunday" (2011) attested to his seemingly bottomless well of creativity.
Toward the end of his life, Haden had resumed teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, an important return for him because he had founded its jazz program in 1982.
But he insisted that his teaching, like his performances and recordings, wasn't going to be strictly about music.
"They called me yesterday, and they said, 'We want you to come by. We don't care how you feel. We want you to come by,'" said Haden in our 2013 conversation, clearly cheered by the invitation.
"It's so important to me. If they (the students) can learn what I learned, that has really nothing to do with music.
"It's about life."
I believe Haden meant that he hoped the pervasive warmth and tonal glow and openness of his music had something to teach students, and the rest of us, about how to live.
Those lessons, reiterated in a performance he gave with CalArts musicians in December at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, will resonate forever in the music he left us.
Twitter @howardreichCopyright © 2015, CT Now