Al Haig, the Bopper Who (Probably) Killed His Wife

In 1963, when bebop pianist Bud Powell was in a hospital near Paris recovering from tuberculosis, he was interviewed by a French jazz writer who asked him which piano players he admired.

“Al Haig,” Powell replied. “He is my idea of a perfect pianist.”

When the writer pressed him to name some others, the somewhat cantankerous Powell snapped “I told you Al Haig,” then relented and mentioned Hank Jones and Billy Kyle.

In 1947 Haig was ranked as one of the top three bop pianists, but today he is little known while the other two–Thelonious Monk and Powell—have numerous albums still in print and wide recognition. The Smithsonian Jazz Piano Collection discreetly notes that Haig “fell into obscurity” for a long period of time due to “numerous serious personal problems,” and two leading jazz sources are even more circumspect, saying only that Haig “became inactive” until the 1970s, when he was “finally recognized as a bop giant.”

Al Haig with Miles Davis

The reason for the reticence? In 1968 Haig was charged with the murder of his third wife—but acquitted.

Alan Warren Haig was born in 1922 (although some sources say 1923, and Haig himself often gave 1924 as his birth year) in Newark, New Jersey, and raised in nearby Nutley. He began to play piano at the age of nine and attended Oberlin College in Ohio, which was known for its rigorous classical music curriculum; between his first two years there he played piano at the Monomoy Theater in Chatham, Massachusetts, where he met his first wife. Haig left Oberlin without graduating in June of 1942 as the threat of the military draft for World War II loomed; his father had been a marine engineer in New York and—possibly through his father’s connections—he joined the Coast Guard, thus avoiding an overseas assignment. He served instead at Ellis Island, New York, where he played clarinet and saxophone in that armed service’s band.

Fearing an overseas transfer to combat that would expose his hands to greater risk of injury, Haig and a friend began to feign mental illness, smoking large quantities of marijuana, writing incoherent letters and claiming to be victims of persecution. Haig succeeded in obtaining a “Section 8” discharge as mentally unfit to serve, and was mustered out in 1944. He began to freelance around Boston, eventually landing a spot with saxophonist Rudy Williams, a former Savoy Sultan, playing at The Top Hat in the Scollay Square entertainment district. After hearing a radio broadcast of Dizzy Gillespie’s band playing a live date at the Onyx Club in New York, Haig decided to move there to explore the new sounds he had heard. He left Boston in late 1944 to play with altoist Tab Smith at the Elks Rendezvous in Harlem.

Haig would eventually gravitate to 52nd Street, then the center of New York’s jazz life, where he joined the band of guitarist Tiny Grimes. It was while playing with Grimes at The Spotlite Club that he met alto sax Charlie Parker. Parker asked him to join his group, which included Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Max Roach on drums, and Tommy Potter on bass; Haig was the only member not of African-American descent. The group rehearsed, then opened at the Three Deuces Club in 1945. It was the beginning of Haig’s long association with bebop.

After that gig ended the group broke up and Haig played for a while with Charlie Barnet’s big band. They re-formed in California to play at Billy Berg’s nightclub in Hollywood with Bud Powell on piano; Haig replaced Bud Powell, then returned to New York where he first joined Gillespie’s small group, then was reunited with Parker in a quintet that included Miles Davis on trumpet. Parker liked playing with Haig because, unlike Duke Jordan, his first pianist, Haig “stayed right where he was supposed to be” instead of trying to follow Parker’s rhythm. “Al looks after me so well,” Parker would say.

Haig’s bebop credentials are thus impeccable; he was there at the beginning, albeit as a member of a minority group, one of a few white musicians (drummer Stan Levey and pianists George Wallington and Joe Albany were others) who were welcomed into the fraternity of rebels and innovators because of their technical skills, even if Haig’s style was less emotionally charged than the other boppers and didn’t swing quite as fluidly. Despite his acceptance by giants of the genre, Haig carried a chip on his shoulder. He complained of “crow jim”–his term for the “discriminatory activity in reverse”–that he felt white musicians were subjected to by Black musicians, critics, and fans who believed that their music couldn’t be authentic jazz given the color of their skin. While Haig said he was never personally discriminated against on the basis of race, he seems to have expended a great deal of energy dwelling on the subject for someone who claimed not to have been bothered by it.

Like many men whose job it is to make the sounds by which women are wooed, Haig had numerous girlfriends, and he may have developed a contempt for the opposite sex as a result. On their wedding day he told his first wife Donna Ragan “I hate you and I’m going to make you pay until the day you die.” The reason for this turnabout wasn’t immediately clear to his wife, but the marriage eventually broke up when Haig invited a young man named Paul to move in with them—and told his wife to go sleep on the couch while he and Paul shared the former marital bed. At the time, the couple had two young children and Ragan was pregnant with a third. Haig turned down offers from both Artie Shaw and Harry James while he and Paul spent much of their time in bed. Ragan hesitated to object—Haig had beaten her before when she questioned him about his private life—but she eventually moved out, taking the children with her and returning to her family.

In her book “Death of a Bebop Wife” Haig’s second wife, Grange Margaret Rutan, wrote that Haig raped her on their first date. She described him as a solicitous suitor who turned violent when she resisted his overtures after inviting her to his San Francisco apartment and wooing her with “the most beautiful piano music” she had ever heard. After they were wed he made sexual demands on her that she wasn’t willing to satisfy, and the marriage was annulled.

Haig met his third wife Bonnie playing at the Cloud Nine Lounge in East Brunswick, New Jersey, a night Haig said was “just one more gig of no meaning to me until I saw her.” She was, like his first two wives, much younger than him, around twenty years. Haig said that Bonnie pushed him for a relationship when they met, and that she drank more than she should have. Haig admitted that he would “slap her around,” and witnesses saw evidence of his abuse—black eyes and bruises—when she sought medical care.

When Bonnie was found dead in October of 1968 the conclusion of the doctor who performed the autopsy was homicide by strangulation. When Haig first called for help he said she was sick and needed to have her stomach pumped. In a letter to fellow musicians Haig’s attorney elaborated on this story, blaming Bonnie’s death on a “fatal combination of barbiturates and alcohol,” but Haig changed his story; he said Bonnie “fell down and fainted as she stood at the top of the stairs.” In a later version he claimed that she did it intentionally as an act of suicide: “She just decided to,” he claimed.

Haig put on a brave front, performing at a benefit to pay for his defense, and was acquitted, but his second wife claimed that bassist Hal Gaylor told her that Haig admitted to the murder in a conversation before a performance at the Edison Hotel in New York in the early 1970s. “They let me get away with it,” Haig is alleged to have said to Gaylor. “I was guilty. I knocked her down the stairs.”

Haig was known for his light touch on the keyboard and his style was cool by comparison to the heat of Bud Powell and the creative eccentricity of Monk. Beneath the surface of his lines one could detect an emotional undercurrent from time to time in his later work, however. Listen, for example, to his 1974 version of “Invitation,” a movie theme by Bronislaw Kaper (composer of “Green Dolphin Street”) that has become a jazz standard. One hesitates to psychoanalyze a piece of music, but what in other hands is a lush and haunting ballad is tinged with an air of menace as played by Haig.

“You and your smile hold a strange invitation,” the lyrics go, and one recalls that at his second wedding, the bride’s father was angered when he noticed Haig visibly laughing. “His shoulders were shuddering and I thought, . . . what’s going on?” Robert Rutan said. “I wanted to belt him right then and there. Was he crazy? . . . [F]rom the start, I knew something was radically wrong.”


3 thoughts on “Al Haig, the Bopper Who (Probably) Killed His Wife

    1. I am a lawyer/jazz writer, author of a biography of Johnny Hodges and a forthcoming book about Kansas City jazz. Interestingly, this article was commissioned by a jazz magazine but they ultimately “spiked it” and decided not to run it as too controversial, even in the Me Too era.

      1. Al just doesn’t get his due surely because of the murder of his third wife and, although though he did it, was found “not guilty” by a jury of his peers.
        I was impressed but I have become fearless.

        Thank you.

        Grange Lady Haig Rutan Author
        Death of A Bebop Wife
        Lady Haig Roars

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