Harold Land Jr. has one of the most distinguished names in jazz: his father’s.
Land Jr.--a pianist who has worked with the likes of Gerald Wilson, Pharoah Sanders and Marvin Gaye--is the son of Harold Land, a saxophonist who was at the forefront of the be-bop movement in the mid-'50s as a member of the Max Roach-Clifford Brown quintet.
Actually, seeing the name on a billboard can mean one of three things: You’ll hear Land Sr. blowing mature, assured tenor. Or, you’ll get the 44-year-old pianist who can swing and play funk. Or, you’ll get both (they often perform together).
“There have been some mix-ups,” the younger Land admitted in a phone conversation from--wouldn’t you know it?--his father’s home in Los Angeles. Land Jr. will play tonight at Spaghettini in Seal Beach with singer LaTonya Reed, bassist Richard Reid and one of the best-known drummers in jazz, Billy Higgins.
Technically, the Lands have different middle names. But that isn’t enough for most people to discern between them. So the “Jr.” was added to help keep things straight--but it wasn’t added by the father or the son.
Land Sr. had been scheduled to play a club in the Valley and when it turned out that he couldn’t make it, younger Harold agreed to take the spotlight. “The (club) owner went out and added ‘Jr.’ to the name on the marquee,” young Harold recalls. “Since then, I’ve used it.”
Growing up with Harold Land as a father had obvious advantages. Land Jr., who began taking piano lessons at age 7, says his parents encouraged his musical pursuits but weren’t overly pushy about it. His mother was not a trained musician, although she took a few guitar lessons and enjoyed listening and dancing to jazz. “We always had a lot of records around the house,” the son remembers.
When asked to cite his earliest influences, he named musicians with whom his father played: drummer Frank Butler, bassist Curtis Counce, pianist Elmo Hope, trumpeters Carmell Jones and Jack Sheldon. “A lot of different people played in his groups and those guys were instrumental to me, providing the right kind of example. I would get home from school and see them at the end of a rehearsal. Occasionally, I would get to go to one of the gigs. Seeing all of them work like that really made an impression on me.”
But what really turned him onto jazz piano was a pair of albums by Sonny Clark, “Cool Struttin”’ and “Leapin’ and Lopin’.” "(Clark) really touched me. I liked his warm sound, yet rhythmically he was still real smooth.”
If young Harold had any doubts about a future playing jazz, they were erased when he heard the John Coltrane Quartet at Shelly Manne’s Manne Hole in Hollywood in the early ‘60s and, later, when he caught the Miles Davis band that included pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and drummer Tony Williams. Those performances “made me realize that jazz was something that could be kept fresh, that it didn’t need to be kept on a shelf and dusted off whenever it was needed.”
As a young pianist, he made such an impression on his elders that his parents helped arrange a club date for him at the Tropicana Club in L.A. before his 16th birthday. His first professional gig as a sideman came just before his high school graduation, with Crusaders trombonist Wayne Henderson.
“I met him through a friend of my father’s, (Crusader’s pianist) Joe Sample. At that time the Crusaders were burned out on travel so Henderson was hoping to put a band together that could do some weekend gigs.” He cut two albums with Henderson, including the cult favorite “People Get Ready.”
He credits bandleader Wilson with giving him his first “pure” jazz gig, which came shortly after Land Jr. finished high school. He has maintained a relationship with Wilson and appears on his “Orchestra of the ‘80s” release.
Land Jr. accumulated a number of important credits during the ‘70s, touring with guitarist Kenny Burrell and saxophonist Sanders. His most visible gig was with Marvin Gaye in 1976. “We toured all over the South and then did a couple of shows at Radio City Music Hall. He would often come out and play basketball with members of the band. I always thought of him as a quiet, reflective type of person who loved sports and music.”
Land Jr. also has worked with the late guitarist Eric Gale, saxophonist Joe Henderson, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and funk vibist Roy Ayers.
Another side of him is surfacing through his work on a musical history of jazz that he hopes to present to schools and cultural groups. “I thought it would be good to look at jazz all the way back to the black church music and past to Africa, to show how it developed,” he said. The project--which includes his father, drummer Higgins and bassist Henry Franklin--offers examples of many of jazz’s various periods.
“It’s important to remember where things come from,” Land Jr. said. And given that he is the son of one of the true jazz giants, you know he means it.
* Harold Land Jr. plays with drummer Billy Higgins, bassist Richard Reid and singer LaTonya Reed tonight at 7:30 at Spaghettini, 3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach ((310) 596-2199) and with singer Reed every Sunday at 6 p.m. at DeMario’s, 17 Monarch Bay Plaza, Laguna Niguel ((714) 240-9436).