Getting human with Art Lande

Jazz pianist and composer Art Lande
Pianist, drummer, composer and jazz guru Art Lande returns to Berkeley on Tuesday for a concert at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall. Photo: Courtesy Art Lande

It’s not quite a secret society or an underground movement, but scattered across the country wherever jazz is played former students of Art Lande are in the thick of the creative action. A brilliant pianist, accomplished drummer and dauntless improviser, Lande has been based in Boulder, Colorado, for some three decades, but he’s got deep ties to the Bay Area.

With his general disregard for publicity and come-what-may attitude toward recording, Lande is a jazz giant who flies under the radar, while the musicians he’s nurtured keep his name circulating. A former Berkeley resident, he’s playing a series of late-night jam sessions this weekend as part of Piedmont Piano’s 40th birthday celebration in Oakland’s Uptown neighborhood joined by bassist Peter Barshay, drummer Alan Hall and various special guests.

A San Jose native who studied with Lande during his formative years, Hall is one of the top drummers in the Bay Area, and leader of the acclaimed jazz sextet Ratatet. He describes the pianist as “like my musical father. Playing with him there’s so much openness. Anything goes. I love playing in that environment.”

Lande also performs Tuesday at the California Jazz Conservatory’s Rendon Hall as part of the school’s Way Out West series that focuses on ensembles playing new compositions. It’s a rare concert in the weekly showcase not featuring an ongoing band, but Lande is in good company, joined by Oakland trombonist Rob Ewing and Kensington drummer Jason Levis, who both studied with Lande at the Naropa Institute in the late 1990s. Rounding out the ensemble are San Francisco bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, an essential force on the Bay Area’s creative music scene, and trumpeter Josh D Reed, a longtime Lande collaborator who recently relocated to the Bay Area to run the Santa Clara University jazz program.


For Levis, who leads the live dub-reggae ensemble Joseph’s Bones, Lande’s profound influence on numerous musicians can be explained by his holistic approach to creativity. “The thing he does when he’s teaching, it’s not just about music,” says Levis, who returns to the CJC on April 23 for a night of original music with his septet featuring Mezzacappa, Ewing, trumpeter Max Miller-Loran, and saxophonists Cory Wright and Beth Schenck. “Art has this way of making whatever you’re doing about being a human being. The music he makes is about his experience as a human being. That’s the underlying influence that he’s had on all these musicians. Improvisation is about being human together.”

The fact that Lande keeps such a low profile these days would surprise people who got to know him when he first landed in San Francisco in 1969 after studying at Williams College. Within a few weeks word spread about a hot new player in town, and he started gigging with emerging and established masters like Noel Jewkes, Eddie Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, and John Handy, “not all the time, but I was the new kid on the block, and I was getting calls,” says Lande, 72.

He first gained widespread attention in the early 1970s with a prodigious quintet featuring bassist Steve Swallow, saxophonist Mel Martin, trumpeter Tom Harrell, and drummer Eliot Zigmund. But it was his debut album for ECM, 1973’s duo project Red Lanta with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, that gave him a crucial foothold in Europe. He continued to record often for ECM while living in Berkeley, earning a cult following with his mid-1970s quartet Rubisa Patrol featuring bassist Bill Douglass and trumpeter Mark Isham (now an A-list Hollywood composer).

Often sought out by young musicians looking to study with him, he ended up creating a school while living on Russell Street and later Bonar Street. There were so many people clamoring for lessons, Lande wasn’t sure what to do at first “so I said anyone who wants to come over to Berkeley at 7 a.m. I’ll take as a student, and I created a school out of that,” Lande recalls. “I ended up with about 120 students just teaching in the house and garage and in the park. People paid five bucks a class. It gave me a lot of chops in terms of teaching.”

But his instruction often took place outside formal lessons. Like today, his ensembles tended to coalesce in teaching situations. Several generations of stellar jazz artists have come of age under his wing, and then took flight to lead their own bands. He doesn’t seem to fret at all that some of his former students have attained far more renown. For Lande, music is as much a vehicle to connect with people as a forum for self-expression.