CHAT WITH JOHN HANDY
When was the last time you read an interview with John Handy? If it has
been a while, rest your heart at ease, that is our mission here at the
Weekly roadshow, to get the cool personalities for you, our beloved readers.
I cannot say enough about John Handy. His artistry speaks volumes, so
I will step aside and allow you the opportunity to come to your own conclusions,
unedited and in his own words.
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
JOHN HANDY: It was the attraction of musical sound patterns that I heard
in jazz. I was not only attracted to jazz music as such, I was listening
to it before I knew that that is what it was called. I liked music in
general. I was attracted by many different kinds of sounds. I was attracted
to the saxophone at first, but I actually played recorders first. I had
two different one and as a matter of fact, Fred, I still have them. Then
I played the clarinet. I got one just a few days before my thirteenth
birthday and that is what I started playing in those military type marching
bands. I played that for about two years or so and then sports got in
the way for a while. I lived in Dallas. When I was fifteen, we moved to
Oakland, where I am living now and I enrolled in a school where I heard
a concert of fellow students playing in a big band and they were wonderful.
It really turned me on and one the way home, I told this kid that I wished
that I could play in that band, but I don't have an instrument and he
said that I could borrow one from school and so I did. I borrowed one
on Wednesday and Saturday, I played my first gig at a dance. It started
from there until I finally got my own instrument, which was at age seventeen.
I got out of high school that following year and I bought four instruments
within about four months. I bought a good saxophone, a clarinet, a baritone
saxophone, and later on, a flute. I did a lot of playing in Oakland. I
went to school with people like Sonny Simmons. I used to borrow his horn
because it was before I had one.
FJ: Let's touch on your collaborations with Randy Weston.
JOHN HANDY: Thank you, Fred. Nobody has ever asked me that. Randy was
my favorite boss playing this kind of music, as a personality, as a leader,
and as a composer. We played mostly his music. It was wonderful playing
with Randy. We had a six nights a week job at one of the hippest clubs
in New York that had more of the trailblazing music type stuff and the
younger players that were playing, at the Five Spot. That is the place
that Monk put on the map.
FJ: Eric Dolphy made a series of recordings there with Booker Little there
JOHN HANDY: Yeah, that is the same place. Monk didn't play there after
I got there. I never heard him there. It was wonderful, wonderful with
Randy. We were there the whole summer of 1959. It was sixteen weeks.
FJ: And your time with Charles Mingus. You played on Mingus Ah Um.
JOHN HANDY: I moved to New York in the late '50s, '58, and that is when
I started playing with Charles Mingus. Although, I played with Randy Weston
and Kenny Dorham before that. I played with Charles starting from the
last week of '58, where we opened at the old Five Spot opposite Sonny
Rollins' Trio. I was in the band with Booker Ervin on tenor, Horace Parlan
on piano, Dannie Richmond on drums, and, of course, Mingus on bass. I
played with Mingus for about two and a half months straight. All told
with Charles, I probably played five, four and a half, five months for
the first year and then it was very, very sporadic because I got on a
label, Roulette Records and I started making my own recordings. I got
great press with Charles Mingus and that is why, for some reason, they
think I was with him for a long time. I was only with Charles a very short
while, just about four or five months. History books seems to indicate,
because I had made about seven, eight albums while he was alive with him,
that I was with him much longer. I actually wasn't. I made three albums,
but I was pretty much with the band off and on. The rest were live recording
dates and so I wasn't really an intricate, mainstay in the band.
FJ: You are most closely associated with your quintet with Michael White
(violin), Jerry Hahn (guitar), Don Thompson (bass), and Terry Clarke (drums).
JOHN HANDY: That is where people remember me from. I moved back to San
Francisco in '62 and came back and went back to school at San Francisco
State University. I bought a house that I just sold. Stayed in it until
two weeks ago. I started to organize several different bands, playing
gigs here. The band included Michael White, a violin player, who went
to high school with me. When I was thirty-one, we started playing together.
It was a great musical collaboration. I had Michael White on violin and
Don Thompson and Terry Clarke, who were from Vancouver. Don Thompson was
playing bass and Terry Clarke on drums. Don and Terry made such an impression
on me that the idea of bringing them here to play with me was a dream
that came true. I had a steady gig because at the time, I suppose I was
the most prominent name jazz player in this area. The music happened beautifully
and people who were there enjoyed it, but I hadn't made a recording in
a while and it was a new club with no liquor license or anything and it
so happened that Ralph Gleason came in. Somebody got him into hear us.
He came in and we hardly had anybody in there and two of us in the band
had the flu. It was a terrible night feeling wise. I recognized Ralph
as he came in and I just gave the word that there was a critic and we
perked up and played the hell out of the music, playing "Spanish Lady"
was one. Ralph went out singing our praises and we filled that club for
six nights a week. Every night that we played, we had people standing
in line with no record. Ralph went to Jimmy Lyons and Jimmy was the manager
of the Monterey Jazz Festival and he told him that we should be over there
and Jimmy put us on and that is what happened. Jerry Hahn came in on guitar
and I liked what Jerry did and how Jerry played and he made the "Spanish
Lady" much more the way I wanted it to sound. Every time I hear the record,
the band was fantastic. It is like a cult. It has become kind of a cult
FJ: That was quite a unique instrumentation.
JOHN HANDY: It had a very unique sound. I will go so far as to say that
I believe we were very instrumental in re-popularizing jazz violin because
it was the most unique instrumental setting that Michael was able to play
in, in my band. It made it very prominent because he got a lot of solo
FJ: With such abrupt success, why did you discontinue the band?
JOHN HANDY: Unfortunately, they didn't get to stay here that long, the
bassist and drummer, because the Vietnam War was going on and they were
subject to being drafted because of their age. We were together in tact
until November of '66, when Jerry Hahn left the band. We ended the band
playing in New York at the Half Note. Then Bobby Hutcherson joined the
band. We came back out here, back to California, and I got another guitar
player and that was Pat Martino. Both he and the bassist were only twenty-two
years old, but Pat always seemed like he was sixty. He has always seemed
to be the age he is now, but he was eighteen when I met him (laughing).
He always seemed like an old sage. They were wonderful players and just
played way beyond their years. Pat left and went with Ray Charles and
he was replaced by Mike Nock on piano. The two Mikes decided to steal
the band and they formed a group called the Fourth Way and as far as some
critics are concerned, they had some significance in developing the fusion
style of music.
FJ: When did you make the transition from performer to educator?
JOHN HANDY: I started teaching in '69, '70 through '80 at San Francisco
State. I also taught at Stanford and UC Berkeley. I stayed in San Francisco
all the time. I did that until I recorded Hard Work. Hard Work was a hit
record, but I continued to teach because I was enjoying it, but making
less than five hundred dollars a month teaching with a hit record.
FJ: What prompted you to join the Mingus Dynasty?
JOHN HANDY: I thought it would be a great tribute to him, to keep his
music going. It so happened that I was leaving Warner Bros. and I had
much more clout name wise because of having had a hit record and all that.
So I decided to go and play some and also to see what the hell I was playing
when I was with him because Charles never gave us any of the chords to
any of the music and so when he was gone, I got a chance to look at the
pieces and learn them more thoroughly than I had learned in the beginning.
Nobody could have done any better than Booker Ervin and I because some
of that music was very difficult and we had no chords to follow anything.
He wouldn't give them to us and that was part of my frustration and one
of the reasons why I didn't stay in the band as well. Eric Dolphy, none
of them really knew what the hell they were playing. They played what
they could hear.
FJ: Interesting approach.
JOHN HANDY: Yeah, it was very frustrating. I played off and on with the
Mingus Dynasty and my own bands and that is kind of where I've been.
FJ: For the past two years, San Francisco State University hosts a festival
bearing your name.
JOHN HANDY: I was approached at an art exhibit and the idea came into
being about the possibility of this happening. Last year, we had the students
playing on a Thursday. We had a beautiful movie on Charlie Parker that
nobody had seen in this country. Friday, we had T.S. Monk's group. The
next night, I played opposite Les McCann. Sunday was deemed John Handy
Day. The mayor and the Board of Supervisors gave me two plaques. It was
a wonderful time.
FJ: A tremendous honor for you. Congratulations.
JOHN HANDY: Thank you, Fred.
FJ: And the schedule for the second incarnation of the festival?
JOHN HANDY: I've gotten three incredible pianists to play, with whom I
have had some musical associations. The first night will be Kenny Drew,
Jr. with a trio and Sir Roland Hanna with a trio and Randy Weston.
FJ: Why have you not recorded anything in recent years?
JOHN HANDY: Recording doesn't sound like something I want to do under
the circumstances as I see it and have experienced. I still see it in
the past experience, the way record companies take your music and take
our music. I know they make investments. They put money out there, but
they cheat the way they do, the accounting and stuff. It is very difficult
for me to record under those conditions. For instance, when I was with
Roulette Records, you are usually expected to do two albums a year. I
had a five year contract and I only did three with them because I just
couldn't let them take anymore than that. It made me sick. I had no control
and they never pay you. They take everything out of your little percentage.
They are pigs. And at Columbia, I only did four for them and I could have
done ten. I could have done a lot more recordings.
FJ: Why not just grin and bear it and get the music out?
JOHN HANDY: I have heard interviews where people say that they have done
two or three hundred recordings and I am not putting them down, but my
comment to that is that everyone was making money from them but you. Everybody
was involved in it other than yourself. It is a bad experience for everybody.
They just don't admit it. They don't talk about it. You realize that the
record companies that are successful are so totally successful. There
is no comparison to what they take from the artist. These people live
in estates with guarded gates and electrified gates. Some of these artists
have had the stuff stolen from them. I am grateful for some of the things
that I got. I'm not ungrateful for it with them taking a chance on me,
but in the meantime, I know what they did later. They took advantage and
they continued to and I never received a God damned penny.
FJ: Would you be opposed to starting a label of your own and releasing
JOHN HANDY: I'm thinking about it, but then again, being a record producer
and a saxophone player and a part time, on occasion, composer, I can do
that, but again, you have to be the chef, the cook, the bottle washer,
all that and just to keep my material within my estate is very difficult.
I am way under-recorded. I do have tapes and things. I have a lot more
than people would think. People would hear it when I am probably gone.
I have done a lot of stuff that has never been released for wide public
conception. Some of it is no well done, but the thing that is important
is you can hear the music. I'm not sure what I'm going to do about that.
It has been years since I have recorded. I don't have much interest in
it under the circumstances. I have been very blessed that I have made
a living and very quietly, I have gone many months without playing, without
performing, but I am in good health and I am opening to performing, but
I have also seen that some of the club owners have the same parents and
they didn't teach their kids very well. Very few of them remember when
you helped them. They seldom ever reciprocate.
FJ: You seem at peace.
JOHN HANDY: I have to be, Fred. I get very lonesome for playing. So many
of my years have past where I wasn't out there in the public, but thank
God, I can still play.
FJ: Do you regret your hiatus?
JOHN HANDY: Yeah, I regret not having the opportunity to be out in the
public more. However, I think a lot of us, like I have seen people like
John Coltrane, who is a very bad example, of overworking, really overworking
when they were popular. At times, I did too. I knew that during the Sixties,
when I was playing "Spanish Lady" and if I continued on that level of
physically involving myself, I would probably not be here. I always had
a gut level feeling that wind players don't tend to play as long as the
other people. Your body takes a lot more punishment. Things like circular
breathing, I like to let people know that I have always felt that it wasn't
healthy. They are telling us. Medical journals are now stating that we
die sooner. Some of that is over-practice and overwork. There is a way
to practice, and I have been doing this for years, where I don't put out
a lot of energy. I put my energy into my performance. Everyone has to
practice, but you don't have to honk into that horn and put everything
you have out there everyday because if you do, chances are, you won't
be around as long. I have noticed that few of the guys who have lived
longer, they paced themselves. Like one of my heroes is Benny Carter.
I knew there was something about his approach, his gentility, his calm,
or what appears to be calm. John Lewis is another one of my heroes and
they have been around for a while.
FJ: Sonny Rollins as well.
JOHN HANDY: Sonny Rollins grew out of his silliness. I love Sonny. Sonny
is one of my heroes and he knows it. He was smart enough to correct his
mistakes young and thank God he is still here.
FJ: You are still here as well.
JOHN HANDY: Thank you, Fred.
Fred Jung is Jazz Weekly's Editor-In-Chief and owns the DVD version of
Girls Gone Wild. Comments? Email