Ronald Muldrow knows the value of a mentoring relationship.
When he was an emerging jazz guitarist in the early '70s, he received hands-on life lessons from the late, innovative saxophonist Eddie Harris, for whom he ultimately worked for more than 20 years.
What he learned from Harris has allowed Muldrow to persevere in an art form in which making a living is anything but a sure thing.
"Eddie was my musical father," said Muldrow, who recorded with Harris on such classic albums as "That's Why You're Overweight" and "Listen Here." "He taught me how to make it in music. He was the ultimate businessman."
At the same time, the guitarist said, Harris gave him philosophical insights on which he's founded his own art.
"He told me that if you keep on trying, you can't lose out," said Muldrow, a musician who has been active on the Los Angeles jazz scene for two decades. His latest, first-rate recording, "Facing Wes," features such New York-based notables as pianist James Williams and bassist Peter Washington. "You first start to play music because you love it. If you don't lose sight of that, you can keep everything fresh. Deep inside you, this is the way you can be happy. I kept that viewpoint."
Muldrow plays tonight, and every Thursday this month, at Rocco Bel-Air.
At first influenced by pop music by the likes of the Temptations and the Spinners, Chicago native Muldrow later heard the guitarist Wes Montgomery and was enthralled. As he developed, Muldrow absorbed that great artist's approach to creating very melodic solos with a full, glowing sound and a driving rhythmic feel.
To make his work individual, he came up with his own attractive tone, a sure way of swinging and a repertoire based on distinctive originals and well-chosen standards.
That's just what you hear at Rocco when Muldrow performs with his regular crew of Derrick Davis on alto saxophone and flute, Pablo Motta on bass and Lorca Hart (vibist Miller Pertum is on temporary leave).
He might play the Latin-ish "Rafael," dedicated to vibist Rafael Murphy, who sold Muldrow his cherished Gibson instrument.
On tap might also be Harris' demanding but tuneful "Freedom Jazz Dance" or the guitarist's sweet-sounding "Facing Wes," a tribute to his idol.
Muldrow is also an educator--he runs a weekly workshop for players of all levels--and has written three guitar instruction books.
Although he once made his living with funk--his first big-time gig was with the Staple Singers--jazz is what's in his heart.
"I'm hooked into the passion. There's no way out," he said. "If I really wanted to make a buck, I'd have stayed in funk, but I wasn't totally into it. Jazz keeps you younger. There's always something to learn. It's bigger than you. And while there are fewer jazz fans than there are for rock and R&B, they're loyal, and that loyalty will keep you working the rest of your life."
* Ronald Muldrow's quartet plays Saturday, 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., at Rocco, 2930 Beverly Glen Circle, Bel-Air. No cover, no minimum. Call (310) 475-9807.
Quick Hits: The ardently swinging, wonderfully melodic guitarist Ron Eschete and his choice bassist, Todd Johnson, join fellow ace guitarist John Pisano for riveting performances on Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., at Papashon (15910 Ventura Blvd., Encino; no cover, no minimum;  783-6664.)
Dave Mackay, the pianist and vocalist who swings and sings most persuasively, appears Monday, 7 to 11 p.m., at Ca' del Sole (4100 N. Cahuenga Blvd., North Hollywood; no cover, no minimum;  985-4669). On Tuesday, same time, same place, Patrick Tuzzolino offers like-spirited fare . . .
Frank Gambale, the extroverted and decidedly musical jazz/fusion guitarist, wails tonight, 9:30 and 11:30 p.m., at La Ve Lee (12514 Ventura Boulevard, Studio City; cover charge, $5, two-drink minimum;  980-8158).