Night Lights Classic Jazz

John Handy Talks With Night Lights: Part 2

Handy discusses a unique aspect of his sound, the night Mingus made a scene listening to him play, and the frustrations he faced recording his first album.

In Part 2 of our interview with alto saxophonist John Handy, he discusses a unique aspect of his sound, the origins of Charles Mingus’ Lester Young tribute “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” the night Mingus made a scene listening to him play, the Mingus gig that resulted in the live album Jazz Portraits, and the frustrations he faced recording his first album for Roulette. This week’s Night Lights show, Handy On The Horn, will feature the saxophonist’s recordings for Roulette and Columbia, made between 1959 and 1967.

JH: Charles McPherson’s maybe my favorite alto player, I think—I know he is. I’ve got to tell you a quick story about him, when I first heard him at Birdland. He was sitting in on one of those Monday-night things, I believe, when the name groups took off and the sidemen played. Well he was playing beautifully; I didn’t know who he was, had never heard of him, and he played very much like Charlie Parker. Much more than—he’s obviously been his own person for many years now. Anyhow, I was really excited about this young guy playing, and John Coltrane was standing near me at one point, and I said, “Trane, listen to this guy, isn’t he great?” And I was very disappointed to hear him say, “Well, he plays too much like Charlie Parker.” Well, it blew my mind, because Charles was only in his very early 20s, maybe 21, 23, somewhere in there… well, at one time Trane had played like everybody else, you know! Sonny Stitt, Charlie Parker… (laughs) before he became who he was. So I was a little disappointed to hear him say that…Charles McPherson is a great player, but then so was John! (Laughs)

DBJ: Talking about some of the things that have made up such a part of your individual sound, when and kind of how did you develop this unique form of tonguing you have? I know you said in one interview that it’s not “double-tonguing”…

JH: It’s really like a tremolo. Rahsaan (Roland Kirk) was another person who could do it. It’s something you can either do it right away, or you can never do it. It’s–physically you’re kind of able to take the tip of the tongue and you do it, kind of on the reed as you would a stringed instrument, with a bow and a violin. And that’s how you—normally I would never say this (laughs), but most people can’t do it. Somebody wrote this part of the beginning of my solo on “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” that I recorded with Charles Mingus, and I did that with him for part of a chorus…and Charles could do the tremolo on his bass with his fingers. And if you heard that, we use that technique on my solo at one point. And this guy, Sy Johnson, he wrote an arrangement on that, and he used part of my solo—well, the saxophone players can’t do it! (Laughs) It’s not a putdown… I can’t tongue regularly as fast as some people, but I can do that.

DBJ: I wanted to ask you about “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” How did that composition and recording come about?

JH: Oh, it’s very interesting. We were working at the Half Note, and we were on the bandstand when we got the news that Lester Young had died. Well, you know, it was very sad news, and Mingus started to play a very slow, mournful blues in C minor…very slow…and he had me play first, and he just kept goading me to play longer and longer, and so I played a long time on it before anybody else did, so… I believe we took a break and, you know, we were just saddened and walked off for quite awhile. And we were recording within a day or two, and he came up with that melody…and I think we actually had it on the bandstand, and it was in a totally different key. It was in E flat minor. And he had written these very complicated changes that were nothing like most blues (laughs) or any kind of tune that anybody had ever played. It was totally unique to that particular composition. And since he never gave us the chords to anything, it didn’t really matter, because you had to, kind of had to go for yourself no matter what. What he had written, if you didn’t hear it, you didn’t get it right, it was recorded that way, if it wasn’t right! (Laughs) So, luckily what he did on the recording is they played straight minor blues, you know, more traditional, something that we were all used to. That saved me, and it saved the tune.

DBJ: I want to ask you a little bit more about playing with Charles Mingus, but when you first came to New York City, one of your most significant gigs was playing with pianist Randy Weston.

JH: I played many more gigs with Randy than I did with Charles. And I liked playing with Randy much better than I did with Charles.

DBJ: I’m guessing that the tune you recorded on Roulette, “To Randy,” was written for Randy Weston.

JH: It certainly was! By the way, that’s one of the first or second tunes recorded in 5/4 time. I remember dedicating this to him; he was standing in the club, and when I started to play, he walked out, so he never heard it! (Laughs)

DBJ: What are your recollections of performing with him? Did it influence you in any way?

JH: No, I don’t think it influenced me, but what it did was it gave me a chance to really stretch out in ways that I really wanted to play eventually. See, I had bands here in California, in San Francisco, and I tried to convey the idea of playing modes here, in ’57, ’58, before I went to New York, and I could not get these guys to be able to deal with the concept. They couldn’t do it. So, Randy wasn’t doing modes, but he played with more of an approach that—musically, he was a maverick. His music was different. And it made me, you know, it was a challenge. And I loved his songs, his pieces were great and he gave me lots of space…We were at the Five Spot for 16 weeks. And I actually played with Randy before I played with Mingus. I played some other gigs with him, up in Harlem at Small’s—the only time I ever played at Small’s—and then I went with Charles the last week of ’58. I played sporadically with Charles, but I did a lot of albums with him—but I played far more consistently with Randy than I did with Charles.

DBJ: You went with Mingus after he saw you playing at the Five Spot with Frank Foster, right?

JH: (Laughs) Well, Frank Foster and Thad Jones were with Basie. And that night they were—it was a Monday night, an off-night for the regular bands. They were late coming in… I was out looking for a gig, because my wife and I were broke…I’d never, ever been in that position before! So I dressed up, you know, put on my blazer jacket and horn-rimmed glasses, and…I went down there mainly because I knew Frank was going to be there. I knew him from Bop City here when I was an 18-year-old kid. Frank was late, and Thad Jones were late, and nobody was playing the horn, so I asked the rhythm section if I could sit in. Well, I knew (pianist) Phineas Newborn, and I knew (bassist) George Joyner…(drummer) Roy Haynes I didn’t. So we all said hello…there were a lot of musicians in there, but I was the only one who sat in. And I played three or four pieces, then Frank came in, and Idries Suliemann came in, the trumpet player, who’d actually introduced me to Randy Weston…he came on the stand, and we did a tune or so. Then Thad and Frank came… and after a tune or so we came down. And then Charles came in, and I was sitting at the bar facing the bandstand and at one point when they finished a tune Charles said, “Hey, why don’t you all let this guy play?” And they looked over at me and Frank said, “Well, he can play if he wants to.” Well, everybody there knew I had played several pieces, right? But, so, Mingus says “Go up there and play!” I was a little embarrassed to go back up because I’d been there, but I needed a gig and I just thought, “Well, hell, what the hell”…

So we played “There Will Never Be Another You” and I kind of played my ass off, I guess! And Charles went—oh, man, it was both embarrassing and very comical. He started saying, “Man, Bird’s back! Bird is back!” (Laughs) He was so excited that he ran out the door… we had those big double- saloon doors…so he hit the doors, it was like he was gonna tear the place down. I was just killin’ him so much he couldn’t take it, right? (Laughs) He came back in the same way… so I got down off the stage and started to walk to the back. Sonny Rollins was sitting in this phone booth right by the door, and Charles yells, “Sonny! Bird’s back!” and Sonny goes (deep, hoarse voice) “Yeah, yeah, Charlie.” It was both embarrassing and funny. I wasn’t prompting him… he said, “Hey, baby, are you working anywhere?” I said no. “Well, you’ll open here with me in two weeks!”

DBJ: I know Mingus was a really intense musician to work with. What would you say was the best and worst thing about playing with Charles Mingus?

JH: Well, the best thing was when the music was good, it was wonderful. When it was bad it was some of the worst music I ever played in my life. And with his grumpiness—sometimes he was, it was so bad that I didn’t want to be there, and that’s why I didn’t stay there. At the time Charles was very young, you know, he was only 35, 36 years old himself, he was not an old guy. But I just knew in my heart of hearts that something was wrong with him, that this guy was not just coming on like this. He was carrying some extra baggage, you know!

DBJ: Yeah, he really was a pretty complex character. You really did turn in some great performances with him, especially on the album that came out as Jazz Portraits. That was a live show in New York City, at the Nonagon Art Gallery…Whitney Balliett really raved about your playing at that show. Do you remember that gig at all?

JH: Oh yeah, as matter of a fact that was the first recording we did, and we were at the Five Spot on that first gig I played with him. It was the first week—Dannie Richmond only played the first week, because he got busted during our off-day, a Monday, and he didn’t play the rest of that gig. So it was the first week, and we’d finally gotten off the bandstand…Charles would get on the bandstand, and he wouldn’t get off, he’d play so long, and I thought it was very rude to Sonny Rollins (playing opposite the Mingus group). Anyhow, we were coming off the stand and he said, “Get on your coats and get your horns together, we’re going around the corner and play a gig.” And I thought this was crazy…it was December or January, bad weather in New York, sleet, snow, but okay, we did it. We walked about three or four blocks in the slush, and then we started up these dark stairs… we really couldn’t see, and Charles is carrying a big bass in front of us. We opened the door, and the place was packed. I didn’t know it was an art gallery, I didn’t know where I was. They were waiting for us, and it really blew my and everybody else’s mind. We went up and just played the way we’d play on the bandstand—we went on, and that was—the magic was there, and we finished the set, put our coats on, put our horns back in the case and went back to the other gig. So while Sonny was on the bandstand, we went and played a concert, did a recording, and came back and finished the gig! (Laughs) I remember seeing Whitney Balliett, looking kind of Ivy League, wearing combat boots with a suit. (Laughs)

DBJ: Around that time, or sort of around that time, you did your first recordings as a leader. In the Vernacular you did in ’59, and No Coast I think you did a year or two later…and they evidently got a good critical reaction. Musically speaking, were you happy with how they turned out?

JH: No, not at all. As a matter of fact, what happened is—you know, it was my first recording, and luckily… I’d been playing with Charles at the Five Spot, and because of the two strong names (Mingus and Rollins) we had an audience every night. We got great write-ups, and I knew that I was on the spot, at the Five Spot especially, because, you know, I went to New York to have my own band, I never really went there to play with anybody. And I went there with my own music, my own book, as I’d done a lot of stuff out here, with some very fine musicians. So, what happened is, I really work hard when I’m on the spot and when I have to, I will deliver. And I was there to do that. And when Charles got written up, I did almost as much as he did and sometimes as much—as, like, the newcomer on the scene. And that’s how I got a recording so early. My wife was my manager, and she was able to get that recording for Roulette Records. The reason that album—it could’ve been a lot better. You know, I had never recorded before on my own, and we kept having to go over so many of those tunes because the drummer in my band was a kid from out here, and he just freaked…and I just got totally exhausted from going over those tunes. Richard Williams, the trumpet player, was much cooler, but I was worrying about the whole band, and the drummer just kept making mistakes, and some of that stuff was so hard (laughs)…and again, I’m switching between the alto and tenor, I’m playing one horn almost as much as the other, it got a little bit confusing…oh, this is kind of interesting…on the last day of the rehearsals for my first album, a piano player I knew came in with Kind of Blue. (laughs) And he insisted on putting it on—he said “This is Miles’ latest, you’ve gotta hear this, you won’t believe it!” He put it on and I immediately heard a mode, a modal piece, and I said “That’s what I was trying to tell these guys to do!” I stopped it right there, and I went over to the piano, Roland Hanna was the pianist, and I showed him, you know, a minor 7th, how to voice the chords…well, I didn’t have to show him a lot, he grasped it very readily… so did George Tucker, the bass player…and I thought about it while we were in the studio, and Roy Haynes had to come and bail us out (on drums). So we did “Suggestive Line,” (a piece Handy had written previously) and it was really the second jazz mode or modal piece, by virtue of the fact that I couldn’t get anybody to understand it out here in San Francisco.

(To be continued. You can also read the first part of the Night Lights John Handy interview.)

Photo of John Handy: KQED

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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