Of all the reasons for dropping out of music school, Eric Harland’s has to be among the strangest. There he was at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music on a full scholarship, his career as a jazz drummer taking off like a rocket, and the notoriously hard-to-please great singer Betty Carter among those who hired him. But none of that mattered to Harland’s mother in Texas. She was thinking long term. Very long term. She had an invincible fear for the health of her eternal soul.
“I come from a very religious family,” Harland explains, “and it was really hard for me to enjoy being in college, because my mom was so worried that I was doing something wrong, or something against God… I was so far from home, and she used to have this control over the family, and knowing where everyone was and what everyone was doing.
His unorthodox solution was to return to Houston. “What I decided to do was go to theological school because in order to be able to have a legitimate conversation with my mother, if I didn’t have the Bible knowledge, there was no way to make him understand where I came from,” he explains. “And going to theology school really taught me compassion. It was the first time I realized that there was something bigger than just being an artist and allowing that part of me to be there.
Harland had played in church as a child, and now for about eight months he returned there while pursuing these new studies, and found that the beauty of certain theological concepts changed his approach to music: made it more collegial and less preoccupied with what he had to say.
He admits that he could well have arrived at the same place by studying philosophy rather than theology: “But without studying something that is exponentially bigger than oneself, I feel that it is difficult to surrender to something that’s going to be bigger at the bandstand. It helps you grow in so many ways.
After jumping the hurdle of his mother’s fear, he relaunched his meteoric career – until 9/11 wiped out the New York jazz scene in 2001. A planned tour with trumpeter Terence Blanchard was canceled , and Harland and his wife, who had just had a four-year-old baby. days before the calamity, decided to leave New York. The first gig he could get after the dust settled was to play weekend jam sessions at the Blue Note – meager pay for a trek from Pennsylvania.
The world is on wheels, however, and illustrious saxophonist Charles Lloyd heard one such jam session and invited Harland to join his quartet. Famous players associated with Lloyd’s long history filled Harland with fear and doubt, but how could he say no? “That’s another beautiful thing,” he said. “There is nothing wrong with being afraid. All you have to do is do your best… I just had to be humble, listen, receive guidance and just believe that everything was going to be okay.
It was because now Harland has been riding with Lloyd for 20 years – almost half of his life. When he performed at an undeadened City Recital Hall with Lloyd’s Greek Project in 2014, his ability to make music burn in a whisper shone through. It’s a skill he learned from his first teacher around the age of six – a skill he thinks too few drummers fully assimilate.