Though alto saxophonist John Handy was officially a member of Charles Mingus' group for only a few months, his recordings with the renowned tough bandleader have since become classics: Ah Um (Columbia), Blues and Roots (Atlantic), and Jazz Portrait: Mingus in Wonderland (United Artists) all were recorded in the beginning of the same year - 1959. "Periodically, within a four to five month period, I would quit from time to time then return to the band. Ultimately, I left because of his bullying of other musicians. I told him I could hit a lot faster with my saxophone than he could with his bass!" Handy recalled in our recent interview. "He said 'You're crazy', and then Mingus and I both laughed." Fortunately Handy's undefeated amateur featherweight championship background didn't come into play; he instead decided to take his axe and move on, periodically accepting invitations from Mingus on select live occasions, studio dates and occasionally after Mingus' death, as a guest of the Mingus Dynasty.
Later that very same year (1959) Handy was fortunate enough to land one of the most coveted gigs in New York with musical maverick Randy Weston, a gig that lasted the entire summer. "With Randy, I was able to play as freely and as long as I wanted. I learned as I played; Randy was my favorite boss." Handy acquired his first recording contract, lasting five years with Roulette Records, for which he did three albums then returned to the San Francisco Bay Area where he has since remained. He would soon thereafter sign with Columbia, resulting in four highly acclaimed albums, the first of which was Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival
(1965). This album still offers the opportunity to hear all of its original cast members, Michael White (violin), Jerry Hahn (guitar), Don Thompson (bass), and Terry Clarke (drums), recreating the magic from those early grooves at Iridium this month.
The group will reunite to celebrate the near-40th anniversary of their participation in one of jazz history's most memorable and documented moments. One of the last such special engagements was a decade ago in 1994 at Yoshi's in the Bay Area for their 30th anniversary (resulting in the Live at Yoshi's Nightspot
double-disc release). This time, more significantly, represents the first time ever that the quintet has been invited to play New York.
Handy goes back furthest with Michael White. They first met in 1948 at McClymonds High School in Oakland, as classmates in the Boys Glee Club. Not too long thereafter, Handy's first official gig was with a dance band jazz combo when he was 15 years old - only three days after he began playing the alto, counting then amongst his earlier role models sax players like Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. It wasn't until much later, though, when he was in his early 20s that Handy hooked up with White again after hearing the violinist at a jam session. In 1964 White joined Handy's group which had bassist Charlie Haden and local Bay Area drummer Jerry Granelli, who were respectively replaced by Canadians Don Thompson and Terry Clarke. Both were brought to the Bay Area by Handy from Vancouver, where "they were the most popular and sought after rhythm section," boasts Handy. "They were very versatile and could play many styles of music which is what turned me on to them." Guitarist Jerry Hahn rounded out the ensemble, having replaced pianist Freddie Redd in 1964. Handy's explanation behind subbing guitar for piano was, "It was easier to play with guitar. Firstly, we didn't have to worry about bad pianos. And in 'Spanish Lady' [one of the two side-long Handy tunes from Monterey which became his anthem], Jerry did something that we couldn't get from a piano; he was able to sustain the rhythmic support throughout lengthy performances of that piece. He had those great strong wrists, which became by far one of our strong points."
Three albums later, with White being the last remaining member of his great quintet on the saxophonist's final session for Columbia ( Projections
, 1968), Handy fell off the radar for almost a decade until resurfacing with the hit crossover single, "Hard Work". Soon thereafter he made two recordings for Warner Brothers, and dropped out of the recording scene until 1988 when he recorded Ecxursion in Blue. He has had a sporadic at best recording career since, faulting a dishonest recording industry - "You're never out of debt with these people. I refuse to record under the circumstances, and I refuse to work with this dilemma. Some musicians I know say, 'I'm on 300 recordings', and they're lucky to have a room to live in!" Handy's frustration continues with no immediate answers other than to self-release his own material. "This is the ugly side of the recording business, and is why you don't see John Handy on records."
Since the '70s, Handy has kept a low profile focusing his energies performing as a soloist, in duets, small and large ensembles including symphonic orchestras, recently composing a concerto for symphony orchestra and jazz soloist(s). He continued his career in higher education and has performed and recorded with Indian musicians such as sitarist Ravi Shankar, sarodist Ali Akbar Khan, tabla player Zakir Hussain and violinist Dr. L. Subramaniam.
Through the adversity, Handy has still earned his place in the upper echelon of players and contributors to this music and is without question one of the finest altoists of his generation. His seemingly simple request now as a 71-year old veteran of the music boils down to one thing: respect. "I enjoy showing and receiving respect, and playing in respectful places. I have worked hard, and I'm blessed and rewarded. Had the conditions been more attractive, I would have done many more things. I'm instilled with the gift, and all I need is an audience."
Charles Mingus - Jazz Portraits: Mingus in Wonderland (UA-Blue Note, 1959)
John Handy - Live at Monterey (Columbia-Koch, 1965)
John Handy - The 2nd John Handy Album (Columbia-Koch, 1966)
John Handy - New View (Columbia-Koch, 1967)
John Handy - Projections (Columbia-Koch, 1968)
John Handy - Live at Yoshi's Nightspot (Boulevard-Louisiana Red Hot Records,1994)