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Harold Land

Harold Land

Many of jazz’s best practitioners have had serious problems with blowing their own horns. Saxophonist Harold Land is no exception.

Land is an extremely private person and no matter how penetrating or elaborate a question you ask him, he will reflect, gaze at you-or right through you-and reply with the shortest, most honest, noncommittal answer possible. Put a horn in his mouth, and he is no longer the minimalist. When he plays, he erupts with information. The man is a Vesuvius of ideas; everything you wanted to know about sax, but were afraid to ask.

Minus the embouchure, Land’s an introvert, but what pours through his axe is everything you could hope to know about his personal gentility, his musical aggressiveness, his romantic nature and his deep spirituality-a dedication to Zen Buddhism that permeates his life and career. It’s also the one subject he loves to discuss.

“That was the major change in my life and the greatest thing that ever happened to me and my family. I can thank Buster Williams for getting me interested in it. Buster was staying with us when he was working with Herbie Hancock, who is also a practicing Buddhist. That’s 27 years ago, Lydia [my wife] just informed me because I can’t remember what happened 27 minutes ago. She’s been chanting with me for the past 20 years, and our son, Harold Land Jr., has been doing it ever since I began.

“It has affected me spiritually, physically and materially, but I didn’t realize that it influenced my music until different people began coming up to me and they’d say, ‘Wow, I really hear something different about your playing-it sounds so great-there seems to be another source of energy.’ Consequently I would tell them what they were hearing was the result of my chanting two times a day-from the Daimoku.”

As Land explains, “It’s the eternal law of life. You can chant it any number of times each day, or all through the day. You chant ‘Gongyo,’ which is the essence of the ‘Lotus Sutra.’ Buster chanted with me the first time, then he had to go on the road and while he was gone I tried it myself. By the time Buster returned, I was convinced this was the way. I can tell you we have received many benefits from this practice.”

Harold’s talk of Buddhism segued to his famous original “The Peace-maker,” the title track of the album he recorded for Cadet in 1967. “Those thoughts must have been deep in my subconscious for a long time. It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it, that I would write ‘The Peace-maker’ even before Buster officially introduced [Buddhism] to me. It’s like I had been searching for something, leaning towards it, then I found Buster.

“That was probably the most significant tune I’ve written because of its connection to my Buddhist practice. In addition to chanting for good health, good fortune and safety, there’s world peace. That’s one of our main goals.

“I have no way of knowing how ‘The Peace-maker’ affects people listening to the recording, but in clubs I notice the place quiets down, people seem to be moved-they get reflective and maybe they’re looking within themselves and at the world around them and thinking what peace is all about.”

Paradoxically, when Land introduces the tune, he never explains what the title means or the depth of his personal philosophy that led to its composition. That’s a tragic omission, considering the ineffable quality of his music making. “You know,” Land admits, “maybe I should explain it, but I don’t usually talk too much, as you might have noticed from these interviews.”

Oh how well I noticed. Except for stretching out on his involvement with Buddhism, our conversation was like trading four or eight bar solos-but it never achieved the intensity of those famous chase choruses between Land and Clifford Brown. The dialogue between them on a series of Emarcy sessions by the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet between 1954 and 1956 is still considered to be some of the most instinctive bop conversations ever recorded. Check out Study in Brown, More Study in Brown, Brown and Roach, Inc., Best of Max Roach and Clifford Brown or Brownie: The Complete Emarcy Recordings of Clifford Brown and you’ll hear what Harold described as “trading eight-bar choruses, then four bars apiece, even two bars at a time, and it just flowed from one to the other.”

Despite the excitement generated during those heady days with Brownie, Land’s low-key nature probably led to what so many colleagues consider undeserved neglect. Harold’s own diagnosis indicates that geography didn’t help either. “I know I would have received much wider acceptance if I had been based in New York.”

Fate intervened at a time when the Houston-born, Los Angeles-based Land was on the verge of making it in New York. In 1954, during a jam session at the L.A. home of his friend Eric Dolphy, Clifford Brown heard Land play and the two established an instant rapport. The next day, Brownie brought Max Roach by and that led to Harold’s joining the fabled Brown-Roach quintet. Touring up and down the East coast, recording much memorable music, the jazz community’s movers and shakers were just beginning to take notice of the promising new tenor when Harold got word that his grandmother was dying. As he told one writer, “After being away from Lydia and my son for two and a half years, I figured the best thing for me was to go back home and stay.” Naturally, Clifford and Max wanted Harold to return, but they had to settle for a consolation prize in the form of replacement Sonny Rollins.

Lydia Land claims fate stepped in more ominously at that time. “If Harold had not come back when he did, he probably would have been in that car with Brownie. He and Brownie always drove together.” The incident she is referring to happened June 26,1956. Brownie and pianist Richie Powell, Bud’s brother, were driving to Chicago when their car veered off the road killing both men. Brown was 26; Powell, 25.

Speculating on that tragedy, many critics feel Brown was on his way to surpassing Dizzy Gillespie in bop pyrotechnics and it reminded Land of a conversation he and Brownie had one night. “We were driving around-can’t even recall where-but I asked him who his favorite trumpeter was and you know who he said? Not Dizzy, not Miles. Fats Navarro. And I told him Fats is my favorite, too. As a matter of fact, there’s a solo that Fats takes on ‘Out of Nowhere’-it’s a Tadd Dameron arrangement-that whenever I listen to it, it brings tears to my eyes. There was a certain quality to his playing that always moved me.”

Land’s favorite tenor player is no contest: “Of course, Trane. But early influences included Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Lester Young and a guy who never got his just due, Lucky Thompson. I can’t name any tenor players who are saying much today because I don’t listen to radio or play new albums much. But John Coltrane, I always liked his constant dedication and constant searching.”

The searching and dedication are qualities easily identified with Harold throughout a 55-year career that began with small dance bands in San Diego at the Creole Palace and Club Romance. “I met Lydia at Club Romance. She was staring at me and staring at me one night and I ended up walking her home, carrying my horn-for 24 blocks!”

By ’54, married and with a son, they moved to L.A. where Harold soaked up the happenings on Central Ave. There was always more to West Coast jazz than the less frenetic, more intellectual, cool sounds of the Gerry Mulligan/Chet Baker/Shelly Manne/Shorty Rogers studio swingers.

Land’s debut recording as a leader, Harold in the Land of Jazz, came in 1958 while he was working with Curtis Counce. He quickly outdid himself the following year with The Fox, perhaps the best example of L.A. hard bop. It set a standard for Land that he maintained throughout his subsequent whirlwind adventures with Gerald Wilson’s big band; co-leading combos with Red Mitchell, Bobby Hutcherson, Blue Mitchell; leading his own combo with Harold Jr. (Junior, now 50, also works with his own combo); making some memorable recordings with Elmo Hope, Kenny Burrell, Thelonious Monk; touring annually for five years throughout Europe with an Italian rhythm section that included bassist Marco Marzola, a fellow Buddhist who chanted with him. The ’60s and ’70s were good to Harold as his hard-edged bop sounds graced a number of excellent albums for Mainstream, Cadet and Concord Jazz.

Today, at 72, Land is just as busy, just as dedicated, just as happy. One of his half-hearted complaints is that he is so much in demand that gigs keep getting in the way of his tennis game. He maintains a regimen of playing tennis every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The only things that can possibly interfere are weather (not likely in Southern California) or minor annoyances such as festivals, tours, club dates and recording sessions. The “net” effect is that Harold remains in top shape. (That can be verified by a Sears repairman who came to fix Land’s washing machine during one of our of interviews. He exclaimed, “I know you from somewhere. Oh yeah, you busted my butt on the tennis court, and I’m only 35!”)

Those interruptions to Land’s love affair with tennis have been going on steadily since the ’80s, when he toured with the Timeless All Stars: trombonist Curtis Fuller, vibist Bobby Hutcherson, bassist Buster Williams, pianist Cedar Walton and drummer Billy Higgins.

More lucrative intermissions in his tennis playing found Land playing all the major European festivals with the T.S. Monk Tentet. He joined the Tentet after Monk went the rock route and trumpeter Don Sickler took over the ensemble. Sickler invited Harold to join the combo as featured soloist. Last year, Harold was featured again with the Tentet, but it was followed immediately by a most significant concert and workshop at Stanford University with pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Billy Higgins.

Enter Dan Atkinson, an A&R VP with Audiophoric, a new jazz label. When Atkinson learned that the Land quartet was at Stanford, he convinced Audiophoric CEO David Philips that he had the ideal first release. They flew the foursome down to their state-of-a-new-art studio in La Jolla, just outside of San Diego, and put together Promised Land, featuring a new audiophile recording process. “There’s no compression at all, no noise reduction, no equalization and no over-dubbing,” Philips says. “There aren’t even any mikes, in the conventional sense. Just one sound-capturing device instead of individual mikes that the musicians play into.”

Land is tentative about the new technology, claiming, “the sound is modified somewhat, not as bright as it could be.” Drummond, on the other hand, is sold on it. “The process is absolutely amazing, coming from an apparatus that looks like part of a NASA space probe.” If the jury is still out for Land, acoustically, he’s heartened by Audiophoric’s business approach. Audiophoric will pay royalties as soon as the first CD sells, rather than wait until production and marketing costs are recouped.

As for other projects, Land’s dance card is full: He and Curtis Fuller enjoyed a reunion thanks to a week at Ruth Price’s Jazz Bakery, in Culver City, in May. In September, another reunion will find Land and Teddy Edwards with the Gerald Wilson band for the Chicago Festival. And Land teaches jazz improvisation in Kenny Burrell’s ethnomusicology department at UCLA. Sorry, Harold: Wimbledon seems to be out, at least this year.

Listening Pleasures

“I got so many favorites, I’d hate to hurt anyone’s feelings by leaving them out, but the first two that come to mind are Lester Young and Fats Navarro.”


“I got my first tenor, a Conn, when I was 16-played in the high school band. Later I traded it in on a Selmer and then I got a second Selmer. It’s over 25 years old, and that’s what I play today. I’ve had it overhauled twice and relacquered, so it doesn’t look like it’s over 25 years old. Originally I used a Berg Lawson [mouthpiece] and recently I switched to Otto Link.”

Originally Published