Craig Handy: The Busiest Man In Jazz
This was after Handy had been in one of the early incarnations of The Mingus Dynasty alongside one of America's most acknowledged flute masters, James Newton, in addition to such veteran Mingus luminaries as Roland Hanna, Dannie Richmond, and Jimmy Knepper. Handy hadn't known Newton back in California, their home State. "The minute I met him I just felt a kindred spirit in him. He was like the big brother I never had; such an amazing flautist. He definitely inspired me."
The group's recording with Handy on tenor and Newton on flute, Mingus' Sound of Love (Soul Note, 1987) was made in Milan for the Soul Note label. One highpoint is "Celia," where Handy, preceded by Hanna and followed by Newton, takes a fine tenor chorus full of unexpected trills and deep lyricism. "Yeah, that record came about when Giovanni Bonandrini of Soul Note was running Umbria. I remember being in Italy for a good amount of time then. We played Umbria, Ferrara, and other festivals. Then we went to play the North Sea Festival on an infamous wind-whipped tour in which we all caught pneumonia, basically, because it was some promoter's desire to save a buck and put us on a train from Italy to the North Sea. Myself, James Newton, and Sue Mingus were in a car with this guy who would not stop smoking cigars. All night long the window was cracked and it was like 20 degrees outside. So we all got sick and it kind of snowballed and the whole band got sick from us. It wasn't funny then, but we used to laugh about it later."
Handy was back, on tenor and flute, for the Mingus Dynasty recording Next Generation Performs Charles Mingus Brand New Compositions by Mingus Dynasty (Columbia, 1991), this time with tenor legend George Adams on board. Though three tenor saxophonists participate on the date, (Alex Foster is the third), Handy is the only soloist for the opening "Sketch Four," which he takes on tenor. On the fine ballad "Portrait," he is the flute soloist. And on "Opus Four," it's the two tenors of Handy and George Adams, while "Opus Three" gives space to all three tenor saxophonists.
George Adams comes in for special mention when the subject of the early Mingus Dynasty comes up.
"George Adams was in the cleanup position in that band. The front line was myself, George, and Jack Walrath for at least two or two and a half years. And George was the original tenor player in The Mingus Big Band when that started in 1991."
In the first incarnation of The Mingus Big Band, Adams held the reed section's "blues chair," while Handy played in the lead chair, "where it was probably more important to have the eyes," he says. "I was the guy who could read all the notes. But George got lots of solo space, and George is always going to play George."
Handy claims that he must have absorbed the equivalent of 15 gigabytes of information from George Adams. "He was an amazing, amazing, amazing performer."
Listening closely enough, Handy can be heard playing a George Adams line from time to time.
Handy makes an important point about how this music is sometimes handed down. "That's the beautiful thing about it. While you live, while you're here on this planet, there are certain people around you who, once they're gone, you carry bits and pieces of them into the next generation. It's like the oral tradition, and George Adams would be the equivalent of the modern day Griot in the tradition that was passed on from all the way back to Coleman Hawkins. It isn't done because you listen to a record and transcribe something. It's done because there was a guy sitting next to you who was playing some shit and you got burned from the heat and the heat left a mark on you. That's the stuff that doesn't wash off."
The first group Handy worked with steady when he came east to New York was The Roy Haynes Quartet. "I think I kind of started out pretty much at the top," Handy comments.
It wasn't until '92 that Handy recorded When It's Haynes It Roars (Dreyfus, 1992) with the Roy Haynes Quartet. That date was followed up by Haynes' Homecoming (Dreyfus, 1994). Handy played mostly tenor and soprano with Haynes' band.
Handy learned a crucial lesson from Haynes, one which he seems to have kept in mind over the years: always remember who you're playing for. No matter how great you are, you can't get so self-absorbed that you forget you're playing for an audience. "Roy used to tell me that when he went out with Coltrane, sometimes at the end of the night, the help would be packing up and 'Trane would still be playing. 'Trane would close his eyes and be playing solos for 15 or 20 minutes, and the song would go on for a half an hour. Roy remembered playing somewhere in Chicago and the audience had already left. They were putting the chairs on the tables and cleaning up the place, and 'Trane was still playing. His eyes were closed and he was sweating and Roy was hittin' and they were all hittin,' and everybody else had already gone home."
Haynes taught Handy that you have to learn how to keep the listener's attention. This is surely one reason Haynes has been a successful leader for so long, and, as an octogenarian, is still leading his own groups, playing contemporary music with players less than half his age. Handy has said elsewhere in All About Jazz that Haynes is "like a cat in the jungle. He judges very carefully that moment when he can capture an audience, then, at just the right time, he pounces."