Jazz musicians are by nature itinerants, and so the ties of family that bind those of us with humdrum jobs tend to lie looser on their frames. Duke Ellington, for example, kept house with three successive women in New York over the course of nearly six decades, but he often used them less as sources of domestic bliss and more as foils to fend off the matrimonial hopes of women he’d meet in clubs and on the road. Johnny Hodges, Ellington’s long-time alto player, spent so much time away from home he missed his daughter’s high school graduation and her wedding, a source of bitterness on her part.
So when you hear of a jazz musician who made a career-changing move because of family, it places the man in high relief against a drab background of one-night stands and endless road trips that is more typical of the profession. Such as man was tenor saxophonist Harold Land, an interesting might-have-been whose music is hard to find but worth the search.
Land was born Harold De Vance Land in Houston in 1928, and was raised in San Diego from the age of five. He became interested in music in high school, and acquired his first saxophone in 1945. After graduating, Land joined the musician’s union with the aid of a bass player named Ralph Houston, with whom he played his first professional gigs. From that launching pad he worked at San Diego’s Creole Palace with a small combo led by trumpeter Froebel Brigham. As was typical of the time, the group played both floor shows and their native brand of jazz, a West Coast variation on the prevailing East Coast model.
Land then went on the road with the Liggins brothers, Jimmy, a guitarist, and Joe, a pianist and vocalist who had several big rhythm and blues hits, including “The Honey Dripper” and “Pink Champagne.” Land would later recall his time playing what is sometimes referred to as the “chicken shack circuit” as an essential course in his musical education.
Land scuffled for awhile in Los Angeles, and then got the break that brought him to national attention; at a party at Eric Dolphy’s house, Land was heard jamming by trumpeter Clifford Brown and drummer Max Roach, who hired him to be part of what The New York Times called “the definitive bop group.” The sides they recorded have never gone out of print, and several original compositions by Brown on which Land is heard (“Joy Spring” and “Daahoud”) have become part of the standard jazz repertoire.
On the verge of fame, or at least the small beer notoriety that is the best a jazz musician can hope for, Land quit the group and returned to Los Angeles to take care of a family member who had fallen ill. Had he “continued to tour with name groups, there is little doubt that his reputation would have been established sooner and much more firmly,” wrote jazz critic Leonard Feather, but Land took the reversal in the tide of his affairs in stride.
“We were making progress in Los Angeles, even if nobody was aware of it,” he would say later. “There wasn’t much money, but we were having a lot of beautiful musical moments.”
Among those with whom Land created those beautiful musical moments were the pianist Hampton Hawes; the two can be heard together on “For Real!” with bassist Scott La Faro, who would die in a car accident shortly after the album was finished. Another was Dexter Gordon, who wrote “Landslide,” a thirty-two bar melody, as a tribute to a tenor he considered underrated.
Land continued to play close to his home until his death in 2001 at seventy-two, an age that makes him a Methuselah by jazz standards. If long life is any measure of one’s success, what he gave up to go home was worth every second of life foregone on the road.