Harold Land has been a member and leader of several important jazz groups. But the one that probably influenced his career more than any other isn’t a musical group at all. It’s his family.
“Yes, I’ve always been a family man,” the 68-year-old saxophonist said in a phone conversation from his home in L.A. “They’ve always been very important to me.”
Just how important became clear some 40 years ago when Land, who plays Sunday in Seal Beach, was a member of the groundbreaking Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. Living in Philadelphia in the same house as pianist Bud Powell, Land was one of the fastest-rising figures in jazz until called on to make a decision that was to influence the rest of his career.
“My grandmother was very sick and in the hospital back in San Diego, and I felt like I had to come back and be with her,” he explained. “When she passed, I looked at my wife and my son, and that’s when I decided to give up what I was doing and stay [on the West Coast].”
Land may have given up his position on the highly visible East Coast jazz scene and promising work with such notables as Brown, Roach, pianist Thelonious Monk and guitarist Wes Montgomery, but he didn’t give up jazz.
Associations with West Coast players including drummer Curtis Counce, trumpeter Blue Mitchell, vibist Bobby Hutcherson and pianist Hampton Hawes, as well as albums made under his own name with the likes of pianists Elmo Hope and Carl Perkins, drummer Frank Butler and others, kept him in the jazz public’s eye.
Land, born in Houston and reared in San Diego, began playing the saxophone at 16. He made his first album, “Harold Land All Stars,” in 1949 and got his big break five years later. That’s when a South Central jam session he was participating in at saxophonist Eric Dolphy’s home led to him joining the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet.
“Brownie came by one day and heard me play, and so he came back the next day with Max,” the soft-spoken saxophonist explained. “They listened and must have liked what they heard and signed me to be a member of the group. They picked up [bassist] George Morrow, who lived in Pasadena, at the same time.” (Morrow stayed with the quintet until Brown’s death in 1956.)
Soon, Land was touring with the quintet and living in Philadelphia with the group’s pianist, Richie Powell, and his brother, piano giant Bud Powell.
“I guess I was star-struck,” Land said about his relationship with the eccentric Bud Powell. “He was a character to say the least, but a genuine genius. We’d be here until midnight if I told you all the stories I have on him.”
Land left the Roach-Brown ensemble in 1955 to return to his family, where he reestablished his West Coast contacts. He traveled to New York in 1960 to record his landmark “Eastward Ho!” album with the great trumpeter Kenny Dorham. It was Dorham who replaced Clifford Brown in the Roach-Brown ensemble after the trumpeter’s death.
Land’s dry, gentlemanly sound on the horn gained a newly expressive edge and toughness in the ‘60s under the influence of John Coltrane. The course of his development can be charted through a number of albums he recorded with vibist Hutcherson, including “Total Eclipse” from 1967 and continuing through the Land-Hutcherson collaboration from 1981, “Xocia’s Dance.”
More recently, Land co-led a quintet with trumpeter Blue Mitchell for the 1990 album “Mapenzi,” made another with vibraphonist Charlie Shoemake, “Stand Up Guys,” and, under his own name, released “A Lazy Afternoon” in 1995.
He’s now part of Kenny Burrell’s jazz faculty at UCLA, teaching a course on improvisation one day a week. He’ll appear at Veteran Wadsworth Theater on Valentine’s Day along with Burrell, pianist Herbie Hancock, drummer Billy Higgins and others to raise money for the school’s jazz studies department. Land also does classes and clinics for younger students, as he will March 13 at Hamilton High School in L.A. under the auspices of the Thelonious Monk Foundation.
Land travels infrequently to Japan and Europe (he goes to Italy in April for a number of appearances), where, he says, audiences are more appreciative and more knowledgeable than those in the States.
He added that he’s still surprised whenever he plays local gigs--he’s a regular at the Club Brasserie in West Hollywood’s Bel Age Hotel--and someone brings one of his old recordings for him to autograph. “Sometimes, it’s something I forgot I’d even done,” he said with a laugh.
His appearance at Spaghettini will, fittingly enough, be a family affair. His group includes respected pianist Harold Land Jr., for whom he decided to stay in California all those years ago. Another bonus: Drummer Billy Higgins, who’s performing again after liver transplant surgery in 1996, will accompany his old friend.
“I’ve known Billy for ages,” Land said. Then, in a statement that could as easily apply to himself, he added: “He’s one of the underappreciated innovators, a very intelligent and unique individual, both musically and personally.”
* The Harold Land Quartet, with Harold Land Jr. and Billy Higgins, plays Sunday at Spaghettini, 3005 Old Ranch Parkway, Seal Beach. 6:30 p.m. No cover. (562) 596-2199.