Night Lights Classic Jazz

John Handy Talks With Night Lights: Part 1

Handy talks about early encounters with Dexter Gordon and Art Tatum, why he came to favor the alto saxophone, and the legendary young bassist Albert Stinson.

Alto saxophonist John Handy has made monumental jazz records with bassist Charles Mingus, wowed crowds at the Monterey Jazz Festival, delved into world and classical music, had a chart hit with the 1976 single “Hard Work,” and helped pave the way for the rise of jazz education. On February 3 he turns 75, and this week on Night Lights we’ll be featuring his 1960s Roulette and Columbia recordings (including sidemen such as trumpeter Richard Williams, violinist Michael White, and pianist Don Friedman), in addition to a side that he recorded in 1959 with Mingus. Last week he spoke with me by phone from his home in California, and I’ll be posting portions of the interview throughout the week on this website. In today’s segment, he talks about early encounters with Dexter Gordon and Art Tatum, why he came to favor the alto over the tenor saxophone, and the legendary young bassist Albert Stinson, who was a member of Handy’s late-1960s band.

DBJ: You played clarinet as an adolesecent, but you were also quite a skilled boxer. What made you decide to pursue boxing instead of music for awhile?

JH: The thing that stopped me from playing music and getting into boxing was because I was in a small school. By the time I reached the ninth grade, the seniors and older students had all graduated. They had had a small jazz and concert band, but they were gone and there weren’t enough people to fill the band anymore. So they started a sports program, with softball, football, basketball and others. I was a good baseball player—physically, I was very well coordinated. Not a very big guy, but… anyway, I started boxing and I was much better than even I probably realized.

DBJ: You won some sort of state championship, right?

JH: Yes, I did. It was an amateur thing…in the tournament we were supposed to fight three times, and I knocked out a kid in 19 seconds. Nobody would box me after that, so I won…(laughs) I didn’t have to fight the last two fights in the tournament.

DBJ: Who were some of your early music heroes? I read one interview in which you say you saw Charlie Parker with Jay McShann, but you didn’t realize who it was until years later, because you were so young at the time.

JH: I didn’t see them, I heard them. Actually, they had just recorded in Dallas in 1941. I lived there, but I was only 8 years old… but we had the recordings, and it was many years later, when I was in my late 20s or early 30s, that I realized that was where they had done those recordings, in my hometown.

DBJ: You’ve spoken very respectfully of people like McShann and Benny Carter and Sonny Rollins…were there others as well that you really enjoyed listening to?

JH: Scores, yes. I came to know who these people were at a really young age—even some of the local guys, like Buddy Floyd, who later played with Roy Milton. I heard him on the radio in Dallas when I was a very young child. T-Bone Walker was around in those days—as a matter of fact, he played for my mother’s 12th birthday party. But yeah, you know, the obvious guys who were recording in the 1930s and 1940s… early Louis Armstrong, early Louis Jordan, Lil Green (a singer), Sister Rosetta Tharpe with the Lucky Millinder band, Buddy Johnson’s band…all this was radio. We used to listen to a program called “The Grand Prize Dance Parade” where they played lots of recordings of big bands and small bands. And there was a little bit of church music, too…we weren’t avid churchgoers, but I went enough to know what it was about, and a number of different denominations, too—Seventh Day Adventists, for one. By the time I was 11 we started going to St. Peter’s Academy, where we went to Catholic Church…I was playing by then, and the Gregorian chants and other songs in the Catholic Church were very beautiful to me. And I had that background in gospel music by then as well; that was in my head all the time, along with all the popular music, Nat King Cole, Big Maceo, blues singers, Lonnie Johnson.

DBJ: It sounds like you were exposed to a lot of different music early on.

JH: Yes, and by the time I was 14, I even had the experience of going and hearing the Dallas Symphony Orchestra—once, and very briefly, but it was a very beautiful experience.

DBJ: In the early 1950s you were playing at San Francisco’s Bop City quite a lot. I read one story about you and Chet Baker trying to sit in with Dexter Gordon. Is that true?

JH: Yes! (Laughs) I was beginning to play quite often, and Chet too, sitting in with more experienced players. We knew each other, but I didn’t know his name was Chet—I just called him Jim. He was in the Presidio Army Band right here in San Francisco, and I was still in high school here in Oakland. It was in Oakland, where Dexter was playing down on 7th Street, which was the location for most of the African-American clubs, jazz, blues, whatever else was presented. We went and sat in during a Sunday matinee…and we were young guys, we played too long, you know, we didn’t—(laughs)—we should’ve stopped, but we didn’t. So Dexter didn’t ask us to stop, he just played something we couldn’t play. (Laughs) I think it was “Dizzy Atmosphere.”

DBJ: (Laughs) And I’ll bet the atmosphere started to feel dizzy!

JH: (Laughs) Years later, in the 1980s, I was talking to Dexter, and he kind of remembered meeting me when I was 18, and I told him what he’d done to me and Chet, said “I guess you just got kind of tired of us” and he said (imitates Dexter’s hoarse, stately voice), ‘Oh no, John, I didn’t do that, did I?” and I said, “Oh, yes, you did!” (Laughs) We just didn’t—it was his gig, you know?

DBJ: Didn’t you have an encounter with Art Tatum around that time too?

JH: Yeah. Within the next year and a half I was working at this place…I’d moved to San Francisco and I was a student at San Francisco State College. Anyway, Art sat in… while I was playing, he sat in and I didn’t see him sit at the piano. All of a sudden…I was playing a song I didn’t know very well, “You Go To My Head.” Mind you, I was 19…I turned around and I recognized him. I knew he was in town—he made this big grin and I almost fainted, I was so scared. I didn’t know the song, that’s what bothered me. I was in the bridge, and I played the last 8 bars and I got down, like anybody else would’ve. (Laughs) And it turns out I had breakfast with him the next day. I had a class at 7:40 a.m., so when the place closed at 6 a.m., I went into the little restaurant with my books, and the only person sitting in there was Art Tatum. So we sat at the counter together and started talking. And of course I wanted to ask him a lot of questions and I did. Two things I remember him saying: “If you play fast enough nobody’ll know what you’re playing anyhow.” (Laughs) He asked me if I was taking music—I was actually in the band, but I was taking all academic courses. He told me he had a son who was studying engineering. As I got ready to leave he said, “Young man, if I have any advice to give you–if you’re gonna be a musician, be the best.” And I knew that was left up to guys like him, not me.

DBJ: That’s really interesting, because I know you said in one interview that you didn’t go to New York City till 1958 because it took you seven years to prepare. It seems like you had a pretty good sense of yourself as a musician and how you were developing, and that you didn’t go to New York until you were really–

JH: No, I’ll tell you, to be honest…and I’m not being cocky, but I’ve always believed I could do damned near anything, musically. I was kind of a wiz kid, and thought I could do anything—basically because most people didn’t think I could. The sports thing, you have to prove your manhood and all this when you’re at a certain age… The main reason I didn’t want to go to New York earlier, was because first of all I wanted to go through college, have a university education. And I also saw a lot of the social problems that existed amongst the people with whom I wanted to play, and I decided—I knew how things went out here. I’d met many of the people who lived in New York and all over the country. I just knew a little age would help, they’d kind of leave you alone, because there is a hierarchy, at least I adhere to it even now, and there were social problems within the echelons of the jazz hierarchy. And something told me to be better prepared, to have more background and experience, and mainly just be my own man, and people would respect that—and they did.

DBJ: Around the time you went out to New York City, you’d gone back to playing the alto sax as your primary instrument. What prompted that?

JH: Well, let’s go back to the tenor. I was an alto player first, and the thing that prompted that was—I borrowed Sonny Simmons’ tenor a couple times, we went to high school together–

DBJ: You went to high school with Sonny Simmons?!

JH: No, he went to high school with me! (Laughs)

DBJ: Okay. (Laughs)

JH: Six months older, okay? (Laughs) No, he had an instrument—I didn’t actually own one, but I was borrowing a horn from school, and I found out that he had a tenor, and I borrowed his a couple of times. And musicians encouraged me, some of them liked me better on tenor than alto. So I was drafted in the meantime, and when I came back from Korea my horn (alto) was in such bad shape because of the weather there…and so I didn’t have an alto for about three years. Then in the spring of 1958 I bought an alto from a guy with whom I was playing, Buddy Howells, who was leading a big band here. He was from Detroit…he had an almost-brand-new alto. So when I went to New York I’d been playing alto again for about three months. I was still playing more as a tenor player, but I was bringing the alto back. And I always preferred it. But some of the older guys, Milt Jackson, and Miles I’m told, liked me better as a tenor player. But here’s a quick story about that—when Trane came out here with Miles in ’56—I’d met him before, with Johnny Hodges—so I knew him, we’d hung out a bit and he came over to my house and met my parents. And we practiced a few times, and I played tenor, right? But we went to a jam session…I’d jammed with him before, but this time we went to a couple places…and I played my tenor and I saw another friend of mine from high school, Sonny King, who had an alto, and I asked him to let me play his horn, and he did, because I used to borrow his horn in high school… (Laughs) So I played the alto while Trane held my tenor in his lap, and when I came back he said, “That’s your horn.” And I wanted to play the alto anyhow, so it encouraged me to go back to it.

DBJ: Years later you recorded a very nice version of his tune “Naima,” right around the summer that he passed away. (On the album New View)

JH: You know, that was a coincidence, that I had recorded that—I recorded that in the latter part of June, when we had a whole month at the Village Gate, when I had Bobby Hutcherson, Pat Martino, Albert Stinson—a very fantastic, legendary, very young bass player—and Doug Sides as the drummer. We had finished the gig and we had recorded that live at the Village Gate. And then John died, and John Hammond, the impresario, dedicated it to John. And I would’ve, but I actually didn’t, because he was not actually dead when I recorded it.

DBJ: That’s what I thought, because I was looking at the CD and it said, “June 28,” and Trane died in the middle of July.

JH: That’s right, I’m glad you caught that, because most people have never said anything about that. And I was a little miffed because John took the liberties to do things like that, but you know, it wasn’t bad, and since it happened I certainly wouldn’t have said, “Don’t do it, you shouldn’t have done that.”

DBJ: Well, I know you said John Hammond did other things too, like retitling “The Spanish Lady” to “Spanish Lady.”

JH: Yes, he took the article off. (Laughs)

DBJ: Well, if I use it on the show, I’ll playlist it as “THE Spanish Lady.”

JH: Okay! (Laughs) Man, I liked John, I wasn’t—I didn’t have—he was a lot older, and he had done a lot of things for jazz, and that’s why I went with that recording company. Because actually I was deciding between that company (Columbia) or Atlantic after I did the (1965) Monterey Jazz Festival. Nesuhi Ertegün came to my apartment after the Festival and tried to convince me to go with them. And I didn’t—I liked Columbia better.

DBJ: I wanted to ask you quickly, just as an aside—could you tell me a little bit about working with Albert Stinson, because he’s a musician I really like, and he died far too young.

JH: Much too young. He was in my band for about as long as Bobby Hutcherson…about seven months of 1967. He was very young, 22 when he was in the band. I was very impressed with both he and Bobby, because we had a rehearsal at Bobby’s house—Albert lived about four doors away. And they were both so young, but they were each married and had a boy and had their own homes… Albert was one of these kids who just had a glorious talent, and he was a person that almost anybody would love. A very easy, sweet young guy, and his playing was just incredible. He seemed to have a bunch of natural ability, which I understood because I came that way myself, without that much experience, but just kind of knew how to do it. However, I was afraid– even with those guys in my band, there were drugs. And I didn’t—they kept it away from me. They were younger, they kind of—you know, when you’re the bandleader the little cliques kind of take place, and they weren’t vicious, they just—I could see the half-generation difference in age and all. But something else, to tell you how great this guy could play… Bobby had left the band, and I got Mike Nock to play piano, so we had a quartet. We played Europe, and we came back here, and Gunther Schuller’s Visitation opera was being played out here. I’d done something with him in New York, so he asked me to get a jazz group to augment the orchestra that he had out here in San Francisco. So I brought in my band, Mike Nock and Albert and Doug Sides on drums…and these guys had been classically trained, except for Albert. Albert had never—he told me he had never played with a conductor, he didn’t… (laughs) Well, man, he learned those parts by just—with one or two rehearsals, and they were very difficult, as you can imagine if you know anything about Gunther Schuller’s music. And at one point Gunther Schuller stopped the rehearsal and said to the bass players, “Do you hear this bass player? He sounds as big as almost all of those guys put together back there!” And poor Albert was so sick, I didn’t realize it, from doing crazy things, you know, and vomiting during the breaks because he was taking drugs…I didn’t know that. He kept it away from me. All I know is he played his butt off. He and the drummer went back to L.A. after we finished the opera; for two weeks we were supposed to have gotten together, but we never did, and of course they never came back. And two years later he went with Gabor Szabo and that’s where he died of an overdose, in a hotel in Boston…and I’m really sad to say it, but I think also to tell some of the younger guys, to not be as—to be aware.

DBJ: Yeah, you know, you seemed to avoid that, and you came up in an era when that was really, you know–

JH: “Seemed to?” No, I totally—I—I didn’t do it. I didn’t get into that. It was crazy, it’s stupid, and I think some of our problems with youth now had a lot to do with some of the older guys who started doing drugs, and people on the peripheries were inspired by us… you know, some of us were heroes. And they just wanted to be on the scene and they became part of the scene…and while many of us were never doing this, others were, and unfortunately… we’ve lost a lot of wonderful people, and we’ve helped tarnish generations to come with that—with drugs. It’s bad, and I know I’m sticking my neck out to say it, but in my heart of hearts, you know, I’ve been around long enough and I’ve kept my eyes open and I can see where a lot of this stuff came from.

(To be continued. In part 2 John Handy talks about his unusual method of tonguing, how he came to play with Charles Mingus, and the origins of “Goodbye Porkpie Hat”)

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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